Saturday, May 24, 2014

Reviewing Reviews - A Dangerous Game

Talking about book reviews is a tricky business. I very rarely respond to reviews of my books (I’ve done it twice), realizing that there is no way to please everyone when writing about a controversial topic. Sometimes an off-the-wall comment offends someone and a nasty review follows. Sometimes it is the conclusion with which they disagree, which is, of course, one of the purposes of the review. It is the opinion of the reviewer and he or she has the right to say whatever he or she wants. All I can do is hope that it is a fair review, even if negative.

This, however, is not about me. This is about a review written by Robert Sheaffer that appeared in Skeptical Inquirer about Tom Carey’s and Don Schmitt’s Inside the Real Area 51. No, I’m not going to quarrel with his analysis of the book because that is opinion and he is entitled to his. That he didn’t find the evidence in the book to be persuasive is a matter of how high you wish to set the bar, and how important some of the testimony is to understanding the UFO phenomenon. Robert sets the bar quite high and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

No, what bothers me is his use of events that are about two decades old and might have little relevance in discussing this book. He publishes excerpts from a letter that I wrote in the mid-1990s about a situation that developed as Don talked about what he did for a living. Is this important in understanding this book? I don’t know. People change and people grow and sometimes events from that long ago are not that important (but sometimes they do provide a yardstick for understanding what is being said today). In other words, Robert’s use of these events does go to the credibility of the book and it is for each reader to decide the importance of that information. Had Robert contacted me about this, I might have provided him with a different perspective (but, of course, a reviewer is not obligated to contact someone who didn’t write the book and whose letter is an unfortunate artifact from another set of circumstances and another time).

The real problem I have here is the use of a private communication that wasn’t sent to Robert, and one that should not have seen the light of day without my permission. The law, I believe, says that I’m the copyright holder on that letter, which was sent, in confidence to a third party who had agreed to the confidentiality. (And before we slide off into another arena, let me say that Robert’s quote from the letter probably falls under “fair use,” another legal term that I might be misapplying here.)

Is it relevant to the review?… well, sort of, but that overlooks the role that Tom played in the creation of the book, and I know that Tom did most of the writing. That fact is relevant as well but one that wasn’t available to Robert.

But my real objection is the use of that private communication, which is not used in context. I know in trials evidence that has not been properly or legally gathered is excluded, even when that evidence is relevant. In that artificial world of legal theory, such evidence does not exist. But we’re not in a court and all evidence applies. I just object to the use of a private communication written in confidence.

To me it seems unfair to use that in a review of a book. Shouldn’t the review be about the information in the book rather than opinions about events outside the scope of that book? Shouldn’t the book be judged by its contents? Should a letter written about other circumstances be included in the review?

This is a difficult call, made more so by the violation of a confidence. Robert Sheaffer should not have known about the letter… but since the information was out in a more or less public arena, should he have ignored it?

Here’s my take on it. I would have preferred not to be mentioned in a review of a book that I had no hand in creating. I was not involved and some of the events mentioned in the review should not have been mentioned. But, I fear, I think like this only because I don’t wish to be dragged into this.

But then, thinking about it, the credibility of the book lies in the hands of the writers of that book and if there is information that speaks directly to that credibility, should it be ignored given these specific circumstances? That is the call to be made by the reviewer and it is up to him or her to decide what is relevant and what is not.

What it boils down to here is that I object to the confidential information being used. There was other information, other evidence, that could make the same point without the continued violation of a confidence and please don’t think that Robert violated my confidence… he used information that was now publicly available… I simply wish he had avoided it. He could have made his case as strongly without it. But, as I say, that was his call and this is my opinion. I just wish he had gone in a different direction.


cda said...

You wrote to Don Schmitt. Which of you passed the letter to a third party? When you, or Don, did so, did either of you ask that it be kept confidential or not? If you did not, maybe it is you, or Don, who is partly to blame. If you did ask for confidentiality, then it is the third person (whoever he may be) that is to blame. That is how I see it.

Alas, Prince Charles spoke 'in private' about Putin to a woman in Canada. Now the whole world knows about it... Poor fellow!

cda said...

On a second reading I see that you do not say you sent the letter to Don Schmitt. Neither do you say whether it was the recipient who sent it to a third party or whether it was you.

In either case it looks very much as if this third person is the guilty one, given that he/she had promised confidentiality and then violated it.

If this third person did break the promise of confidentiality, perhaps you could ask Robert Sheaffer from whom he got it. But this takes us into other areas which can lead to disputes and you probably would rather not tread there.

Klass got into trouble over such things more than once, I believe.

KRandle said...


The third party published it to a couple of sites on the Internet, taking it into the public arena where Robert found it. It had moved from a correspondence between two people into a whole different category. I believe it has since been taken down, but the damage is done...

Or, in other words I know where Robert got it and don't believe that he did anything wrong, once he found it. I just wondered if he couldn't have made his point without the use of this private email. But as I say, that was his call.

But the fallout from this is simple. I will not believe in confidential emails (or other communications) and will be much more careful with these sorts of things. Or, to put it another way, some lines of communication have been severed.

Understand one thing here. I do not believe that Robert did anything wrong. He was writing a review of a book. I just wish he hadn't brought this one point up.

albert said...

IANAL, but the concept of "fair use" doesn't apply to private correspondence (which has copyright status when written).

Writings older than the copyright limit automatically become public domain, but the author may, at any time, allow a work to enter public domain. (Lincolns private letters are, but not Obamas).

'Fair Use' allows someone to quote certain passages, with attribution, for such things as reviews, news articles, research papers, etc.

'Fair Use' also allows the use of copyright materials for the purpose of satire, a fact not generally known to certain authors, and even some lawyers who should know better.

It doesn't matter who published Kevins letter, anyone who uses it without permission is guilty of copyright infringement.

I gotta go...

KRandle said...

albertguitar -

Thanks for the information on copyright and fair use. I threw that in so that no one would think that I blamed Robert for using the information nor that I believed he was in the wrong for using it. In this, as I say, I just wish he hadn't used it, but it was out there to be found.

KRandle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Al12 said...


What was done an said has already happened so nothing can be done about it, whether its a third party robert got it from or not.

Agree with you though he probably shouldnt of brought it up, why? This is just another case of cant attack the policies or substance then attack the character.

cda said...

This is late and a bit off-topic, but I did notice that your book "Government UFO Files" was given a thumbs down by a guy calling himself 'honest reviewer' on the Amazon website.

You did reply to him and it became quite heated, with another reader chipping in as well.

When I searched the Amazon reviews I discovered this 'honest' (or 'dishonest' according to viewpoint) reviewer had given a lowly '1-star' review to each and every UFO book he had read!

Some guy, eh?