It’s been an embarrassing couple of months for Doris Kearns Goodwin, the seemingly incomparable voice of American history now up to her elbows in controversy stemming from the revelation that she’s plagiarized material for her books. The news of Goodwin’s struggles with originality came on the heels of an admission from famed war historian Stephen Ambrose that he too lifted phrases.

Paul Wong
Geoffrey Gagnon (G-ology)

In fact, if your only access to “historians” is through the newsprint of recent newspaper reports, you might be convinced that the history business is awash in scandal and deceit. But the propensity to plagiarize, at least recently, calls into question not the type of purposeful work of serious academics, but rather it damns the popular historical books that Ambrose and the like churn out as fast as Borders can stock them. If we’re going to be asked by publishers, TV hosts, and even the authors themselves to treat these writers as historians then we should demand that they act like scholars.

The embarrassment began for Goodwin when she admitted to using several lines from another book on the Kennedy family – an incident that Goodwin reportedly apologized for in the form of a financial settlement. Yet just last week The New York Times reported that Goodwin’s researchers had uncovered more than 50 places where she copied phrases – a far cry from the several accidental lines the author had originally owned up to.

The fact is, people like Goodwin have become celebrities first and historians second. The folks at PBS who frequently tout Goodwin as a regular commentator on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” have asked the author to take a break from her appearances “until all outstanding questions are resolved.”

This news probably didn’t go over well at Jeri Charles Associates, the Washington-based firm that arranges appointments for some of the nation’s most engaging public speakers, and the firm that has Goodwin listed in “$20,000 and above” range for an appearance – right there with cultural luminaries like NBC’s Greg Gumble.

Goodwin has become a lecture-circuit and television celebrity who is an author with an interest in history – this alone hardly makes her a historian.

The lifted phrases, Goodwin maintained in last week’s Times story, were unintentional results of poor note taking. The author said that she and her researchers had become confused as to what they had copied for notes and what they had written themselves. The mix up, Goodwin alleges, led to the accidental inclusion of dozens of stolen phrases.

This should be more of an indictment against the environment that creates socialites and celebrities out of academics than it is a charge against historians in general. To consider that the allegations against Goodwin and others have surfaced despite the enormous benefits they seem to enjoy – like vast research staffs to name just one – makes clear the fact that these popular historians are a far cry from those genuine scholars toiling in Tisch Hall with chalk on their hands. To think that people like Goodwin could so blatantly disregard the ethical standards that would seem obvious to even students doesn’t mean she’s not a decent writer – it just means she’s a poor historian.

In an age where historians even have research teams, much less television gigs to go along with big dollar book contracts, you have to wonder if the scholastic standards prized in academic settings are applied. The type of Hollywood historians that Ambrose or Goodwin have apparently become on their speaking tours probably bares little resemblance to those who work the Angell Hall lecture circuit on a daily basis – but that doesn’t mean that the ethical expectations should be any different.

It doesn’t even take imagination to wonder what would occur if this sort of “confusion” took place in the classroom. Any student who’s read the plagiarism paragraph in any syllabus handed out on this campus could explain that theft, intentional or not, is theft. The fact is however, that this little spat with controversy will not destroy Goodwin’s career the way it would threaten my enrollment or my professor’s job. Goodwin will return to writing and to television and will likely reclaim her crown as America’s historian – and probably quicker than it’ll take for her staff to “research” her next bestseller.

The failure comes in treating celebrities like historians without demanding they act like academics – a failure not lost on those taking note at the University of Delaware where Goodwin’s offenses are being taken seriously. The school politely withdrew an offer it had made asking Goodwin to speak at its commencement. Citing fears that a campus setting could become an embarrassing place for a “historian” embattled in a plagiarism debate, the university’s president said he decided to rescind the school’s offer – no doubt to the chagrin of her speech agents at Jeri Charles Associates.

Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached at ggagnon@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *