Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa shamed the New York Times Book Review on Sunday with a letter to the editor responding to a review published Aug. 16 about his latest work. He did not hold back, writing that the Times had printed information “that is both slanderous and perfidious.”
“I am flabbergasted to learn that this kind of gossip can work its way into a respectable publication such as the Book Review,” Vargas Llosa wrote of the review, penned by author Joshua Cohen.
The gossip to which he referred was a passage -- since removed from the online version -- from a review of his new book, “Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society.” The passage said Vargas Llosa had recently disclosed his relationship with celebrity socialite Isabel Preysler on his “official Twitter account” and sold both the story and exclusive photos to a Spanish magazine for hundreds of thousands of euros.
Never, Never, Never
“I have never had a Twitter account, and I have never posted and never will post anything on any Twitter account,” Vargas Llosa wrote in his letter. “I have never sold a photo or story to Hola! magazine or any other outlet in connection with any relationship or personal matter.”
The Times slapped an editor's note on the online version of the article after Vargas Llosa reached out, six days after the review was published.
The assertions in question came from an article published online in July in the British tabloid the Daily Mail, a paper known for sensationalist and often unsubstantiated reporting on celebrities, politics and gossip of all kinds. "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling successfully sued the Mail last year over a story about her time as a single mother, and British Labour Party politician Ed Miliband in 2013 said he was “appalled” by its widely panned “exposé” about his dead father. The paper also published a story in 2011, later deleted from its website, that incorrectly reported that American Amanda Knox had been found guilty of murder in a highly publicized case in Italy.
When contacted by International Business Times for comment, Cohen did not respond.
Red Ink, Red Flags
Many of the New York Times’ book reviews are written by freelancers, often high-profile authors, but not necessarily journalists who might have seen, say, an article in the Daily Mail as a red flag. IBTimes asked the Times whether its process or standards of fact-checking are different when handling contributors who are may not be trained or experienced in journalism, to avoid errors like the one that appeared Cohen's review.
"All editing and fact checking are approached with the same rigor," said Abbe Serphos, executive director of corporate communications.
A representative of the paper also referred IBTimes to the editor's note. “After the review was published, Vargas Llosa contacted The Times to say that none of these assertions were true,” the note said.
“In reviewing this complaint, editors determined that the reviewer had based his account of these matters mostly on information from an article about Vargas Llosa in The Daily Mail, but neither the reviewer nor editors independently verified those statements,” the Times added. “Using such information is at odds with The Times’s journalistic standards, and it should not have been included in the review.”
The Times’ stylebook explains the paper’s policy and approach toward editor's notes.
“[E]ditor's notes acknowledge (and rectify, when possible) lapses of fairness, balance or perspective -- faults more subtle or less concrete than factual errors, though often as grave and sometimes graver.”
It continues: “A note is published only after consultation with senior masthead editors to ensure that it is as fair to the staff as to readers and to the people mentioned. The purpose is to restore perspective while assuring readers that The Times’s slip did not typify its standards or policy.”