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Circus act

The New York Times says editors and biographers alike are loath to condemn the new Petraeus biography even though the writer and subject were having an affiar, because "the rules in this area are so hazy." This highly irritates Walter Russell Mead, who observes:

Memo to the New York Times, New York publishers, and other morally clueless individuals scratching their heads over the Petraeus scandal: If you are writing a biography and either you or your subject are married to a third person, and you have sex, you have done something wrong. No mystery, no dilemma, no agonizing introspection needed.

A saying that's been around awhile and was drummed into us as young journalists put it in a more colorful way: If you cover the circus, you don't get to sleep with the elephants. I never looked it up back then (Jeepers, Mr. Morris, you mean there was no Google then?) but I just did and see that Wikipedia credits it to 70s-era New York Times Managing Editor Abe Rosenthal. It was even called "the Rosenthal rule," apparently, and he said it in a positive way I wasn't aware of: You can sleep with an elepahant if you want to, but if you do, you can't cover the circus.

And when you violate that rule, what can result if a three-ring circus, eh, Ms. Broadwell?


Harl Delos
Thu, 11/15/2012 - 1:46pm

"If you are writing a biography and either you or your subject are married to a third person, and you have sex, you have done something wrong"  Uh, if you or your sex partner is married to someone else, you probably have done something wrong whether or not you write anything, including a shopping list.

We don't ask that people who write autobiographies refrain from masturbating.  I didn't hear any outcries when Michael Reagan wrote a biography about his dad.  Over the course of 80,000 or more words, it's usually pretty apparent what biases an author may have towards his subject, and no harm is done.

I'd suggest that a reviewer of a book disclose any biases he has towards author or subject if he doesn't want people to point fingers and giggle, but books should be able to stand on their own.