Reckless writing dents credibility

March 01, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Once again, the credibility of practitioners of the printed word has been damaged by the acknowledgment of one of the most esteemed American historians that the precise words written by someone else had been appropriated without proper attribution of their original source.

This time it is Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Ordinary Time, her excellent account of the wartime years of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and other highly regarded works. She has admitted that some passages were taken, unwittingly as far as she knew, from others' writings by her researchers for her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and possibly other passages from other sources for other of her books.

The disclosures have led the University of Delaware to withdraw its invitation to Ms. Goodwin to be its commencement speaker this spring. Also, the popular PBS show The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer has suspended her appearances for a time on a frequent panel of historians discussing events of the day. The news comes on the heels of acknowledgments by prominent American historians of similar or other ethical lapses. Stephen Ambrose, the prolific teller of historical events of military and wartime exploits and an established political biographer, was recently obliged to acknowledge inadequate attribution of others' written words. He also attributed the problem to work turned in by his researchers.

Much more egregious was the admission last year of historian Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, that he had misrepresented himself as having served in the Vietnam War and then taught a college course on the war that implied that service.

And then there was the case of still a third award-winning author, Edmund Morris, inserting himself as a fictional character in Dutch, which purported to be a true account of the life of Ronald Reagan in what Mr. Morris called a "memoir." Mr. Morris acknowledged what he had done, saying it was an acceptable writing device to get at and convey the real Mr. Reagan.

Ms. Goodwin's comments have been straightforward. She has explained that she was unaware that notes made by three full-time researchers and one part-time researcher were taken as written from other writers' material and passed on to her for her use in writing her books. This is certainly understandable, but it reflects at least an insufficient attention to detail by the author in her instructions to her researchers, and she admits that, too.

Nothing disclosed in Ms. Goodwin's revelations or in those of the others has raised any question about the factual reliability of the substance of what they have written. What is raised, however, is what damage may have been done to the credibility of history writing in the eyes of the readers.

In the contemporary penchant for the writing of "instant history" -- nonfictional accounts of recent events based on the author's own observations and interviews with actual participants in those events -- due deference is almost always paid to the scholarly historians who will come later to cover the same ground.

It is correctly observed that the passage of time can unearth more material and provide other, often clearer, perspectives on the events so as to present more valid accounts of those events. Newspaper stories have been called "rough drafts of history," and the same can be said of book-length exercises in "instant history," at which I also have taken a stab regarding politicians and presidential campaigns.

But it is the exhaustive delving into people and accounts of the past by professional historians over long periods that serious readers look to for greater accuracy, insight and dependability in chronicling the lives and times of society.

For this reason, it is incumbent upon all those who write history, either in a hurry or especially with the perspective afforded by the passage of time, to do their utmost to preserve the credibility their endeavors deserve. It seems to me that what has been involved in these recent embarrassments is not intentional plagiarism, but only regrettable carelessness.

(Speaking of carelessness, in a recent column on bioterrorism, I wrote that Dr. Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had referred to anthrax as a contagious disease. It is not: His reference was to smallpox, which is contagious. I regret the error).

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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