Randall Sullivan's battle with bias

miraclecoverYou might think more journalists would like to interview Randall Sullivan about his latest book, The Miracle Detective, or to review it. The irony in his life is rich: a writer for Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, author of a book investigating the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., and the son of atheists looks into possible apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje and winds up a believer.

But apart from a starred review and interview in Publishers Weekly (subscription required), a 1,200-word interview with the Eugene Register-Guard and a review in The Washington Post Book World, Sullivan and his book haven’t yet found much attention.

The Register-Guard‘s third question oddly suggests that Sullivan’s conversion somehow compromises his ability to function as a reporter:

Question: You report that you now consider yourself a Christian, with Catholic leanings. You’ve had your children baptized as Catholics. Do these developments tarnish your credibility as an unbiased reporter?

Answer: The idea of objectivity in general I question, and you certainly can’t engage a spiritual or religious experience from an objective view. There’s only one objective view, and that’s God’s.

William James, America’s greatest intellectual, wrote a long time ago that objectivity was a great farce, and that what’s most real and true and verifiable is our subjective experiences.

In assigning a reviewer for Sullivan’s book, the Post chose Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Online. (If the Post revels in contrarian assignments, perhaps it should ask Sullivan to review Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil. But as I’ve previously acknowledged on this weblog, Cavanaugh brings a wry humor to his writing about religion.)

Cavanaugh gives The Miracle Detective a grudging admiration, writing of its “quirky charm” and calling it the best book he has read on Medjugorje. My favorite touch in Cavanaugh’s review is when he calls Father Benedict Groeschel “a star of the EWTN channel, an author of a celebrated study of mysticism and a dead ringer for R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural.”

Cavanaugh takes Sullivan to task for a few errors, but he at least grasped the effect that researching the book had on Sullivan.

The same cannot be said of Judith Neuman Beck, who reviewed The Miracle Detective for The Mercury News:

So the book evolved into Sullivan’s own memoirs of his trips to Medjugorje and other vision sites, his meetings with the people involved, and those who believed and disbelieved them. This is interesting, in the way memoirs often are, but answers no questions, especially because Sullivan waffles between being moved by what he’s seen and heard and deciding it’s got really nothing much to do with his own life.

Let’s hope the next reviewer who blasts Sullivan’s work as too parochial will do a better job of grasping its narrative.

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  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    This argument doesn’t hold water. Certainly not at the Washington Post, where I occasionally review books about religion. My editor there, Chris Lehmann, is more religiously literate than most religion reporters. I usually review books by believers, orthodox and unconventional.

    I fall in the latter category myself, and in that capacity recently published a book of religious reportage, co-authored with Peter Manseau, who is a Catholic writer (that is, a writer who writes about Catholic subjects from a Catholic perspective, not just a writer who happens to be Catholic).

    While I would have liked a lot more reviews than we got, I can’t complain. And the strongest interest — and support — came from the New York media often said to be hostile to religion, including New York Newsday, which assigned Lauren Winner, an evangelical, to review the book.

    Along the way, I talked with a lot of book review editors. By and large, they’re some of the most knowledgable people on staff about religion.

    Did you read Sullivan’s book? How do you know that the disinterest isn’t due to it being a poor quality book? I’m not saying it is — I’ve been looking forward to it.

  • Marinda R

    Interesting that one of the errors for which Cavanaugh takes Sullivan to task is failing to discern that “Public high school teachers are among the most risk-averse people in America, and the idea that one would risk a definitive statement on God’s nonexistence is laughable,” and therefore must be a fib. I have no idea how old Mr. Cavanaugh is, (or “the Boardman seer” to whom he refers), but in the 1970′s more than one public high school teacher felt perfectly safe making exactly such statements to my classmates and I.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Jeff,

    My post noted the lack of interest (so far) in Sullivan’s book, the oddity of the Post’s choice of a reviewer and the hostility so readily apparent in the Mercury News’ review. I did not speculate about any reasons for the lack of interest, and I do not rule out that the book will find its niche.

  • http://www.timdrake.blogspot.com Tim Drake

    I just interviewed Sullivan for an article in the National Catholic Register. His book is a good read, and his story is a compelling one, but don’t get me started on media indifference/bias regarding books.

    My first two books “There We Stood, Here We Stand” and “Saints of the Jubilee” were completely ignored by both the mainstream, and Catholic press. Someone from the Catholic News Service even admitted that they had tossed the book into the garbage along with several others. It doesn’t give me a great deal of hope for my next book – “Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church” which is due out from Sophia Institute Press in October.

    If there’s some secret to obtaining reviews and press coverage, I’d like to know what that secret is. By all external appearances, those with a known name or the money to hire a publicist get the most coverage.

  • http://www.isi.org Tom Harmon

    Argh! Tim, you took my idea. I’ve already gotten several young Catholic bright lights to write and agree to write chapters for a book that sounds similar to what yours will be. Oh, well.