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Was a critical book review "payback time"?

By Andy Alexander

Was it retaliation?

In a review for The New York Times four years ago, best-selling author Buzz Bissinger criticized a new book by noted writer Allen Barra as lacking “any sustained vitality.”

In a review for The Washington Post several weeks ago, Barra described “Shooting Stars,” Bissinger’s new as-told-to memoir with basketball superstar LeBron James, as “an air ball.”

Now Bissinger wonders if Barra’s critical review for The Post amounts to “payback time” for his “clearly negative” earlier Times review of Barra’s book.

Both men are well-established authors who have written extensively about sports. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” a 1990 book about high school football, topped The New York Times bestseller list and has sold several million copies. Barra, who writes frequently about sports for The Wall Street Journal, has authored a number of sports books. Among them is “The Last Coach,” the book Bissinger reviewed in the Times, about legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant.

After Barra’s review of “Shooting Stars” appeared in The Post on Nov. 1, Bissinger raised the “issue of journalistic ethics” in an e-mail to the newspaper.

I am wondering if Allen Barra, when he was assigned the review of Shooting Stars, disclosed that I had written a critical review of his book on football coach Bear Bryant in the New York Times Book Review several years ago. If he did, then he conducted himself ethically and the editors obviously felt there would be no conflict. That is fine. I have no argument with that.

But, he continued,

If he did not disclose it, then he did not conduct himself ethically. In my experience negative reviews are impossible to ever put aside for an author. It is why I will never review a book by a writer that has written a critical review of one of my books. As much as you try to put your feelings aside, it does present an irresistible opportunity for payback time.

Book reviewers for The Post sign a contract that obligates them to notify editors “If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author” of the book they are being asked to write about.

Post Book World Editor Rachel Hartigan Shea said that when Barra was asked to review “Shooting Stars,” he did not reveal that Bissinger had earlier reviewed his book about Bear Bryant. “We assumed, and perhaps we shouldn’t have, that he (Barra) would tell us, because we have a strong working relationship” she said, noting that Barra frequently has reviewed books for The Post.

Last Wednesday, The Post ran a correction that said the review of the book by James and Bissinger "should have disclosed that a book by the reviewer, Allen Barra, had been reviewed by Bissinger in another publication.”

Barra dismisses any suggestion of payback as “much ado about nothing.”

“I’m kind of amazed at all of this,” he e-mailed me. “It just never occurred to me that there was any kind of potential flap here.”

Barra said neither he nor his publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, “regarded Bissinger’s piece as a bad review.” Indeed, he said they quoted from it on the cover of the paperback edition of “The Last Coach.” The blurb said the book is “Admirably ambitious” and that Barra is “one of the country’s most thoughtful writers” on sports.

But a full reading of Bissinger’s 2005 New York Times review shows it was also critical. “What is missing from the book, and it’s a regrettable omission, is any sustained vitality,” it said. The review said a complete description of Bear Bryant’s character “emerges only in little glimpses here and there.” And it said, “Barra has also been done a true disservice in the editing. With the painless paring of a hundred pages, ‘The Last Coach’ would have blossomed with better pace and rhythm.”

Barra told me he recalled seeing Bissinger in mid-2008 at a taping of an HBO show with sportscaster and commentator Bob Costas. Barra said he told Bissinger: “Thanks for the review.” He said Bissinger responded: “Just doing my job.”

Insisting he has no ax to grind, Barra said he had publicly defended Bissinger several years ago when Bissinger, appearing on an earlier show with Costas, had stirred controversy by offering a profanity-laced criticism of the anything-goes sports blogosphere.

“I admire most of Bissinger’s book,” Barra e-mailed, “but let’s face it, he’s been fightin’ and feudin’ with nearly everyone in sports journalism.”

Bissinger insists Barra should have disclosed to Post editors that Bissinger had earlier reviewed "The Last Coach." “I don’t think it was The Post’s responsibility,” Bissinger told me. “I think it’s Mr. Barra’s responsibility.”

He said he would feel the same way even if he had written a positive review of Barra’s book. “It works both ways,” he said, adding that reviewers need to be neutral.

By Andy Alexander  | November 16, 2009; 5:59 PM ET
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By the WaPo's own rules, Barra "should have disclosed that a book by the reviewer, Allen Barra, had been reviewed by Bissinger in another publication.” That Barra failed to do so is quite possibly an oversight, because he didn't think his contacts with Bissinger were all that important, but his failure to notify the WaPo was indeed a violation of the rules.

I googled and quickly found Bissinger's review, and think it a mixed bag. Bissinger speaks very highly of Barra's writing talent, and praises much of the book. He does, however, state "What is missing from the book, and it's a regrettable omission, is any sustained vitality." and goes on for a longish paragraph to list what he views as areas where Barra did not do well.

Whether Barra considered the review negative or positive is something only Barra can say. I wonder if Bissinger may be over-reacting, but I truly don't know and don't want to speculate.

I hope that the WaPo will make it clear to Barra and to other reviewers just what the rules mean. Barra can say what he wants to about Bissinger's review of Barra's book and how Barra reacted to it, but, to repeat the obvious, Barra broke the rules, and now he has to try to explain his way out of it - if he can.

I don't fault the WaPo on this matter. I don't think the editors should have to do a search to find out if a potential reviewer had contacts with the author of the book to be reviewed. The WaPo rightly relied on Barra to (once again) follow the rules.

Posted by: vklip1 | November 16, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Who the he11 cares? What whiny-baby prima donnas!

And Andy... with everything that's going on in this country - this area - this President - this Congress - this is all you can find to write about? Pul-eeze.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | November 16, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

"Book reviewers for The Post sign a contract that obligates them to notify editors “If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author” of the book they are being asked to write about."

So we are to assume a policy violation is OK at the Washington Post. Amazing.

Posted by: Midwester | November 17, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander is the most disappointing writer on the Post, which is saying a lot on a paper that welcomes Richard Cohen and Charles Krautheimer and the war-cheerleading efforts of Mr Hiatt and the writers Hiatt hires.

Of course Barra should have evealed this and of course any editor who has any moral sense would be angry with Barra for making him/her look like a fool.

Nobody forgets a bad review. If I had any power, I would tell the world how disappointing Mr. Alexander is and Ms. Howell was, and I would turn down a chance to review their books unless I mentioned how little respect I had for them and the new Washington Post which I see courting the right at the expense of its actual readers.

Why can't Mr. Alexander say anything? I would rather have him bow to the right wing like he tries to do than issue these wishy-washy Broder-esque non-opinions.

Young readers will never know unless they search Archives, but the Post was once a great newspaper. (Yes, The WASHINGTON Post.....

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | November 17, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Writing a book review is "contact" with an author? Are my comments here "contact" with Andy Alexander?

This seems to be stretching the meaning of "contact" beyond the usual. "Contact" with someone means some kind of exchange, in person or via mail or phone, not simply reviewing a work product.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | November 17, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Howie Kurtz writes about, and gets paid by, CNN. In violation of Post policy.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | November 17, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Here's a question-let's see if it can be answered. A while back, then Senator Barack Obama wrote a letter to President Bush about Tibet and pushing Hu Jintao on Tibet. Why hasn't that letter been mentioned in the Post's coverage?

For those who want to read the letter, it's here at this link:

Perhaps, just perhaps, the news coverage should point this letter out.

Posted by: sobrien2 | November 18, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Conflict policies at the Post are completely and utterly broken. Example after example proves this, and Andy just writes each of them up as isolated incidents.

Something should be done.

But it won't be.

Posted by: TeddySanFran | November 21, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

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