TOPICS > Politics

Writing History

January 28, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: In the last several years, authors Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have garnered much attention, including here on the NewsHour, for their best- selling histories. But in the last two weeks they have attracted a different kind of notice: Charges of plagiarism and improper citations for passages of their books apparently taken from other writers. Ambrose has authored thirty books, eight in the last five years, on everything from world wars to American Presidents.

TOM HANKS: I’ll see you on the beach.

MARGARET WARNER: And he’s consulted on a number of movies, including “Saving Private Ryan.”

STEPHEN AMBROSE: There was only one engine working, he was losing gas, it was a desperate situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Last August, Ambrose talked on the NewsHour about his latest book, The Wild Blue. Then, three weeks ago, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard reported that “whole passages in The Wild Blue were barely distinguishable from those in Wings of Morning by Thomas Childers.”

For example, Childers’ 1995 work included this passage: “Up, up, up, groping through the clouds, no amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered: B-24s, glittering like mica.” In The Wild Blue, published six years later, Ambrose wrote: “Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered: B-24s, glittering like mica.” Ambrose did not put quotations marks around the passage, but did mention Childers in footnotes. Beyond Childers’ book, Ambrose has recently acknowledged that he borrowed words and phrases from two other sources for The Wild Blue.

In recent days, four additional Ambrose books have been called into question for the same reason. Ambrose has apologized and promised to credit original sources in future editions. For his part, Childers, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has dropped an Ambrose book from his syllabus, and he says he wants a personal apology. On campuses elsewhere, professors and students have debated whether Ambrose committed plagiarism.

In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “to plagiarize” is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” Ambrose pleads not guilty. “If I am writing up a passage,” he told the New York Times, “and part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put in a footnote. I wish I had put the quotation marks in.” Still, he said, “I tell stories; I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation.” Two weeks after the Ambrose article, the Weekly Standard published a similar piece on Doris Kearns Goodwin.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: My favorite story has to do with tip O’Neill at JFK’s inauguration.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodwin, who has chronicled Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and FDR, appears regularly on the NewsHour’s panel of historians. Her 1987 book “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys” spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list, but the Weekly Standard found “dozens” of passages strikingly similar to those in three other books, including Lynne McTaggert’s “Kathleen Kennedy.”

In 1983, McTaggert wrote, “Mrs. Gibson gave a tea in her honor to introduce her to some of the other girls, hardly a routine practice for new recruits.” Goodwin’s book contained a nearly identical passage, except that she used the full name, “Mrs. Harvey Gibson.”

Goodwin reached a private monetary settlement with McTaggert in the late 1980s and added new footnotes to a subsequent edition. McTaggert told the Weekly Standard that she settled after threatening to sue for copyright infringement, and she said of Goodwin, “It’s a shame that she allowed this to happen.” We asked Goodwin today how it did happen.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I absolutely believe professional standards for historians need never be sacrificed in popular history. I love footnotes. I think they are actually a pointer to historians of the future, and it’s critical to credit the people who have plowed the fields before.

What happened in my case was, 15 years ago, in my first big work of history-which covered 900 pages, 3,500 footnotes, everything longhand– my technique of citation proved not to be foolproof in the end. I used to take notes on the books in longhand, mark passages for quotes, and also write my running commentary on the story line along with them, use those notes to write the draft, and at the very end would recheck every one of those 300 books to make sure the quotes were accurate and make sure the citation was right.

Somehow, in that process, a few of those 300 books did not fully get rechecked. There are citations all along the way, but some of the phrases should have been in quotes rather than simply cited.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodwin explained why she paid one author, and insisted on confidentiality.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: When I was told by one of the authors, McTaggert, that some of the phrases of hers had appeared in my work, I just felt so bad about it. I was more than willing to authorize the publishers to settle with her on a monetary basis and keep it confidential so it wouldn’t have to be before the world that I had made this mistake, and somehow 15 years later it has now come back.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodwin insists she was not guilty of plagiarism.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: There is absolutely no intent to appropriate anyone else’s words as my own, which is what plagiarism is. In fact, since there are citations everywhere along the way from these authors, it would be pretty stupid to try and be appropriating someone’s words along the way and point the way to those authors.

It was simply a mistake in technique. I’d like to believe that I will never, ever make it again. I’ve learned how to remedy what was wrong with that technique. This was 15 years ago, and I’d like to believe it made me a better historian in that first work of mine of history.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodwin said she now does her research on a computer, keeping quotes from sources and her own comments in separate files, and, when drafting her book uses a special footnote key to credit sources directly into the text as she writes.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now to discuss this are Jerah Johnson, a history Professor at the University of New Orleans, where he’s worked with Stephen Ambrose. He’s written widely on European History and the history of the American south. Eric Foner is a history professor at Columbia University. He’s written seven books on various periods in American history, and is past President of the American Historical Association. And Timothy Noah is a writer with the online magazine, Slate. He wrote a piece last week criticizing Goodwin. We invited Stephen Ambrose to participate in this segment, but he declined.

Tim Noah, starting with you. Do you think what Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have done amounts to plagiarism?

TIMOTHY NOAH, Slate Magazine: I do think it’s plagiarism. I think you have a case here where two academic historians or at least former academic historians are distorting the definition of plagiarism.

Plagiarism does not have to be deliberate. It can be inadvertent. I’m particularly surprised to see Doris Kearns Goodwin make that claim because she sits on the board of directors, the board of overseers at Harvard University where this is stated quite clearly in a handbook given to freshmen.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain what you mean by that.

TIMOTHY NOAH: Everybody who is a freshman at Harvard University takes freshman composition course. It’s required. Called Expos. There’s a handbook that is given to all of these freshmen, and it says quite clearly if you borrow, it doesn’t have to be an entire sentence.

If you borrow a lengthy phrase and you do not put quotation marks around it, that’s plagiarism whether you did it on purpose or not and whether you included a footnote or not. The quotation marks are the key thing that defines plagiarism.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Johnson, how do you see it? Plagiarism?

JERAH JOHNSON, University of New Orleans: No. No. No. No. Absolutely not. Simply errors. Simply errors.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean errors?

JERAH JOHNSON: Well, I mean, Ms. Goodwin’s case is just a prime example of how easy it is for any of us to make these kinds of errors. I agree with her definition of plagiarism, that it’s a conscious act, a deliberate act, a calculating act to simply steal someone else’s work. And that is not what has happened here.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Foner, how do you see this in terms of whether what happened here was plagiarism?

ERIC FONER: Well I think it was by any scholarly definition because plagiarism doesn’t really depend on the motivation. It depends on the evidence that we have before us.

I actually found Professor Ambrose’s response rather more damaging in a way. At least Ms. Goodwin has admitted that a serious problem took place. Professor Ambrose’s explanation that when he finds a good story he just plugs it into his own writing, that’s not what most of us consider writing to be. Even if you put quotations around it or put a footnote, writing is putting these things into your own words, creating your own argument, not just sort of scavenging other people’s books and taking their good writing and putting it out as your own words.

I think that at least in the Ambrose case, it’s writing too much too fast too sloppily, and it does go over into this realm of plagiarism, which is presenting someone else’s writing as your own.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Johnson, what do you say to the point Tim Noah raised about what students are told and I think disciplined for in this area?

JERAH JOHNSON: Certainly. A student should be. They have to be taught and they should be taught. It takes a long time. It’s not just freshmen. Our beginning graduate students have a terrible time understanding when to footnote and where to footnote and how to use quotations. It takes a very long time to get people trained.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean do you think there should be a double standard or a different standard for college students than Professors — or historians?

JERAH JOHNSON: No, it’s all the same standard but again I go back to what I said originally. We all make errors, students and professional historians alike.


TIMOTHY NOAH: Again, I think the rules, I’m only familiar with the rules at Harvard. But if you make such an error as an undergraduate, an 18-year-old at Harvard, they have very stern sanctions against it.

You are typically asked to leave the university for two semesters. You’re not even allowed within the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. You’ll lose all of the credit hours that you’ve accumulated until then, which means a lot of lost money.

And you have something put permanently on your record that states that you did something dishonest when you were an undergraduate.

JERAH JOHNSON: Is Mr. Noah saying that Harvard students are not allowed to make errors?

TIMOTHY NOAH: They’re not allowed to make this error apparently.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Foner, what’s your view of this question about the standards to which students are held?

ERIC FONER: Well, obviously if a student turned up, if a freshman turned up with a paper with these errors I would probably give him a stern warning, send him back and have him rewrite it.

If it were someone a little further advanced, the penalty would be more severe. But, you know, I think that there’s, the problem here goes beyond these two individuals. You have the publishers who refuse to acknowledge these infractions and refuse to withdraw the books from publication.

No one has taken Professor Ambrose’s books off circulation. They’re making too much money for the publisher. He’s under pressure every year to produce a new bestseller.

As I say, there’s just, it’s become a kind of cottage industry here, producing these books. When you produce so much so fast, you can’t do it. I don’t care how prolific you are, writing is time consuming. It’s difficult. Putting it in your own words is a difficult thing to do. But that’s really what we expect from a writer. I think that the way that this has happened with Professor Ambrose certainly recently makes you wonder about his whole method of producing his books.

MARGARET WARNER: So I take then, Professor Foner, that you don’t think there should be a different standard for so-called popular history?

ERIC FONER: No, you know, this is not a question of popular history. There are many popular historians on the bestseller list. James McPherson of Princeton, David Kennedy, my own colleague Simon Shama. They’ve written popular accessible works.

Nobody has accused them of this sort of infraction. It’s not a question of the audience you’re writing for or even the style in which you’re writing. It’s adhering to what Mr. Noah said are very commonly accepted standards of attribution and of making sure that it’s your own writing and not just passing off the work of someone else as your own.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Johnson, do you think that there is a, that the danger can come when you have what’s called these blockbuster historians. I’ll just use Stephen Ambrose as an example – but who has written eight books in five years. I mean is it really possible to do serious research and original thinking and write a book of history in a year?

JERAH JOHNSON: Well, I certainly don’t think the problem is the rapidness of the writing in Ambrose’s case. Ambrose is simply a phenomenally hardworking historian. If I had worked as hard as Ambrose did for the past 40-something years I could have as many books as he has, but I have not worked that hard. That’s all Steve knows how to do is work.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Noah, in your column, you also took issue with what you called… With the payment to Ms. McTaggert in the Doris Kearns Goodwin case. Address that issue.

TIMOTHY NOAH: I think that’s very problematic. I think when you have a situation where a case of plagiarism comes to light, it shouldn’t be hushed up. That happened in this case. We don’t know how many other cases this happens with other authors. I think that one thing that may come out of this– I hope– is that publishers will learn that you can’t do that. If it turns out that one of your authors has plagiarized, you have to go public with it because the consumer, the reader, has to know. It’s a kind of consumer fraud.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Foner, what do you think of that idea?

ERIC FONER: I hope that happens but I’m rather skeptical. I think… I think publishers are not going to be willing to withdraw or make public information about best-selling books, which are an important part of their bottom line.

As to Professor Johnson, I’m sure Professor Ambrose is a very hardworking person, but there are many other historians who are also equally hard working. They don’t produce a book a year. It’s humanly impossible to produce as many books so fast as Professor Ambrose has and give each one the care and the originality that is required by professional standards.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Foner, earlier you said something, a couple of times actually that made me think you’re putting a little blame on… Even on publishers who are pushing some of these prolific writers to be more prolific if they’re really big sellers?

ERIC FONER: Well, you know, the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago had an article about Professor Ambrose and his relation with his publisher. This is quite unusual for a historian to be viewed that way.

The publisher was pressuring him to write more. He at that point was saying he might retire but he’s such an important part of the bottom line of Simon and Schuster that they were figuring out incentives to keep him writing.

So I think the publishers are in cases far worse than these where books come to light which are totally plagiarized publishers keep them in print, they keep them in circulation, if they’re selling. I think the publishers are part of the problem here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Tim Noah, what would you like to see publishers do?

TIMOTHY NOAH: Well, I think when we say publishers actually, there is a common publisher in this case. It was Simon and Schuster in both the Goodwin case and Ambrose case.

I think Simon and Schuster is really under an obligation to lead the way in terms of reform here. Indeed the same editor was involved with both authors, Alice Mayhew. I’d like to see her lead an industry-wide reform.

One thought I had was to get all authors in book contracts to sign away their right to sue someone else for plagiarism. That would remove the financial incentive to come up with a quiet deal when something like this happens. Instead you go public with it. Maybe some sort of clearinghouse could be set up by the publishers to adjudicate these things.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Johnson, what do you think of that idea?

JERAH JOHNSON: Basically, I agree with what both gentlemen have said. Sad to say it is money driven largely and publishers have gotten a little sloppy. There’s no question about that. I would like to see all this happen, but again I agree with Professor Foner, I don’t think it really is going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Foner?

ERIC FONER: Well, you know, there are other ways. The American Historical Association has a professional division, which hears complaints of plagiarism. There aren’t that many. I don’t want people watch to go get the impression that large numbers of historians are stealing the work of others and publishing them under their own name.


ERIC FONER: These are isolated instances. They’re unfortunate. Most works of history can be trusted at least in terms of their originality. But the American Historical Association does hear these complaints. They issue rulings. The largest sanction against a scholar is really what has happened here: Publicity and simply some diminution of their reputation. I think that’s worth, you know, more of a problem for a scholar than perhaps the amount of money involved.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professors both and Tim Noah, thank you all three.