Books flawed by errors call for accuracy checks

The Argument

Reviewers should have an obligation to go to outside sources to confirm or rebut important factual content.

January 02, 2000|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Many nonfiction books contain factual errors, flawed conclusions or both. Many book reviews fail to point out those shortcomings. In combination, a faulty book and a naive review mean readers are ill-served.

I am among the guilty. During 1999, I gave glowing reviews to two nonfiction books that I have since learned are flawed, perhaps significantly, in ways I had not realized. In previous years, I have been guilty, too. But I had not learned well from my mistakes. Nor had most other reviewers and book review editors. It is time for change. The traditional excuses are sounding increasingly lame.

Granted, the ultimate responsibility for a book's accuracy is the author's. The publisher ought to, but often does not, take responsibility for accuracy as well. I have written about how authors and publishers ought to change their ways. As an author, I have done my best to practice what I preach. As a reviewer, though, I have granted myself an exemption. Until now.

What happened during 1999 to finally awaken me? It began with my review for the Chicago Tribune and other newspaper book sections of "Mean Justice: A Town's Terror, A Prosecutor's Power, A Betrayal of Innocence" published by Simon & Schuster (491 pages, $26).

The author is Edward Humes, who won print journalism's most coveted prize, the Pulitzer, in 1989 while doing investigative reporting at the Orange County Register. Before "Mean Justice," Humes wrote four other books about crime. His 1996 examination of the juvenile justice system, "No Matter How Loud I Shout," received a published rave review from me.

When I received "Mean Justice," I felt a surge of excitement. Like Humes, I am an investigative newspaper reporter turned magazine freelancer and book author; I enjoy keeping up with the work of professional colleagues. Second, I was curious to see whether Humes could top "No Matter How Loud I Shout." Third, I had begun writing about wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct, the topics of "Mean Justice."

In addition to heaping unqualified praise on Humes, my review of "Mean Justice" accepted at face value that the prosecutor in Kern County, Calif., the focus of "Mean Justice," frequently abuses his authority, resulting in the convictions of dozens of innocent men and women. Did I call prosecutor Edward Jagels for comment? No. Did I question anybody at all with independent knowledge of Humes' charges? No.

Why not? Because I assumed Humes is a thoroughly professional researcher; nothing in the text or the copious source notes set off alarms in my mind. Because I assumed Simon & Schuster, one of the nation's two largest trade book publishers, would assign all the editors and lawyers necessary to vet such a controversial book. Because book reviews are often written under pressing deadlines for relatively little pay. Because lots of book review editors (though by no means all) have told me to judge what I am reading based solely on the text. The average reader has neither the time nor the inclination to check for accuracy, book review editors have said: The reviewer should be a surrogate for potential readers of the book, evaluating it in the same ways they would.

I have written two lengthy articles for a craft magazine -- Columbia Journalism Review -- about the breadth and depth of inaccuracy in nonfiction books. As an author of seven books, I know publishers rarely perform a thorough accuracy check. Yet as a reviewer, I neglected to subject myself to the discipline I knew to be necessary.

My comeuppance arrived in the mail approximately five months after I wrote the review. Jagels and deputy district attorney Deborah Spagnoli, far away in Bakersfield, sent me, other reviewers and book review editors a 154-page rebuttal to "Mean Justice." Self-serving? Sure, at some level. Vicious in its attacks on Humes? Yes, perhaps -- from Jagels' perspective, about as vicious as Humes' statements concerning him.

Despite my admiration of Humes, parts of Spagnoli's cover letter stung. "Unfortunately you, along with many other reviewers, accepted Humes' claims without attempting to verify his cited 'evidence' by contacting someone in Kern County regarding the book's accuracy." She ended the letter with the hope "that the next time you review a nonfiction book that is more advocacy than objective journalism, you will be a bit more critical and less likely to simply accept the author's agenda."

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