On Monday, New York Times book critic Janet Maslin issued an inexplicably hostile takedown of Gabriel Sherman’s new biography of Fox News boss Roger Ailes, declaring the book “tepid” and “disingenuous” while suggesting its author is a liar. The paper’s coverage, which had until that point been quite positive, immediately earned fresh attention from conservative figures like Lou Dobbs and Matt Drudge. Omitted from Maslin’s review, however, was an important disclosure: The critic has maintained a 30-year friendship with Fox News’s editor-at-large, Peter J. Boyer, who plays a prominent role in one of the book’s chapters, and who was personally recruited to the channel in 2012 by Ailes.
“Janet Maslin has been friends with Peter Boyer since the 1980’s when they worked together at The Times,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told Gawker on Tuesday. “Her review of Gabe Sherman’s book was written independent of that fact.”
This is a very odd detail to leave out of Maslin’s review, since the book discusses at some length how her friend Boyer, apparently smitten by Ailes’ genius, defanged his long January 2011 New Yorker report about the Fox News chief’s purchase of the Putnam County News & Recorder, a weekly newspaper in upstate New York that Ailes transformed into a Republican mouthpiece.
In Boyer’s New Yorker portrait, the PCN&R’s 25-year-old editor-in-chief Joe Lindsley was a loyal acolyte, a “younger version of Ailes,” who had practically been adopted by Roger and his wife. That was true for a while, but what’s fascinating is that while Boyer was reporting his story, that relationship had curdled into paranoia and resentment. Indeed, before Boyer’s account was even published, Lindsley had abruptly left the paper. Gawker reported in April 2011 that Ailes, suspicious of disloyalty, had directed News Corp security agents to spy on Lindsley and two other staffers, all of whom eventually fled town.
Boyer missed that episode entirely. “Ailes was pleased” with Boyer’s finished piece, Sherman notes in the book. But “townsfolk had a dimmer view. They felt Boyer got spun.” Ailes liked the article so much that he persuaded Boyer to join Fox News, which Sherman drily presents as a parable about how Ailes consolidates power—collect people who can be managed.
Boyer and Sherman had a testy relationship prior to the book’s publication, too. According to the book’s end notes, Boyer sent Sherman a nasty email when the author invited him to address local criticism of his New Yorker report. Boyer told him: “It’s beginning to sound like you’ve decided on what you want to write, whatever the facts [...] C’mon, Gabe. Be a journalist. It’s an honorable calling.”
Maslin’s decades-long friendship with Boyer, and Boyer’s hostility to Sherman, certainly make her bizarrely antagonistic review more comprehensible, if less forgivable. One of the most puzzling aspects of Maslin’s take is her assertion, without any evidence or logic, that Sherman’s on-the-record account of Ailes offering a subordinate money in exchange for sex is “negligently” false, simply because it differs in tone from another account in which Ailes was nice to an actress in a show he produced:
Mr. Sherman also has a story from a woman named Randi Harrison, also on the record, who claims Mr. Ailes offered her a $400-a-week job at NBC, saying: ‘If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want, I will add an extra hundred dollars a week.’ These don’t sound like the voices of the same man. More negligently, they don’t cast any light on the man whose television network makes such profitable use of the beautiful blond fembots who set it apart from all other news and political channels ...
In her haste to carry water for her friend, Maslin also committed a few unforced errors. For example, when discussing Sherman’s account of a prickly encounter between himself and Ailes, she accuses Sherman of “[leaving] out part of this story”—that “he had recently written quite a nasty May 2011 article about Mr. Ailes and Fox News in New York Magazine.”
But Sherman didn’t leave out that part of the story. He specifically refers to the article in the middle of recounting his Ailes encounter. (If you have a copy, it’s on the bottom of page 403.) Maslin’s editors have already corrected a different, but related, error—her assertion that Sherman had effectively been warned by Fox News personalities on Twitter to stay away from Ailes. (The Twitter backlash came after Sherman approached Ailes.)
It’s worth noting here that Maslin has a reputation for printing embarrassing errors in her most negative book reviews—like mistaking an author’s satirical novel for an auto-biography, or mixing up a novel’s key characters, or confusing a space shuttle that exploded in 1986 with one that exploded in 2003—in a review of a book about the latter.
“The fact that Janet is a friend of someone who works at Fox News was of no consequence and completely irrelevant to her review of Gabe Sherman’s book about Roger Ailes,” Eileen Murphy, the spokeswoman, told Gawker. “She discussed the situation with her editor prior to publication. It was decided there was no potential conflict so no need to make a reference.”
She added: “You do realize that this was hardly the only negative review of the book? Is it your contention that anyone that reviewed the book less than favorably must be carrying water for Fox News? Ridiculous.”
Peter J. Boyer declined repeated requests for comment.
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