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What Jon Wiener Says in His New Book

Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower
(New Press, 2005)


The Argument

Jon Wiener, looking at a dozen cases, argues that some historians who get into trouble are barely punished while others are savaged. Some receive little media attention, others lavish attention. Why? "The answer briefly is power--especially power wielded by groups outside the history profession. Historians targeted by powerful outside groups can face intense media scrutiny and severe sanctions for transgressions, while historians connected to powerful outside groups can be shielded from the media spotlight as well as from the consequences of malfeasance; in some cases, they have even been rewarded."


Those Who Got into Trouble but Flourished with the Help of Powerful Connections

  • Allen Weinstein Although he repeatedly broke his promise to let scholars who disagreed with his findings have access to the notes and documents he used in writing his expose of Alger Hiss, he failed to do so. When sources he cited claimed he had his represented their views, he failed to let Victor Navasky hear the tapes of their interviews, though he had promised to do so. In April 2004 he was nominated by President Bush to become the next Archivist of the United States.
  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese When Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies, was accused by the associate director of sexual harassment and discrimination in the mid 1990s, the college settled a million dollar lawsuit rather than defend her--but the school never investigated the charges, allowing her to claim that she had "stood up to feminist political correctness at Emory." In 2003 President Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal.
  • John Lott When John Lott began citing a survey he apparently never conducted, a survey he claimed proved that "98 per cent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack," the gun lobby protected him from criticism. The University of Chicago Press continued to feature his pro-gun book.
  • Stephen Thernstrom Accused by a few black students at Harvard of racial insensitivity, Stephen Thernstrom offered a "defiant response" that turned him into an instant conservative hero. Although he claimed to be a victim of leftwing McCarthyism and said he "felt like a rape victim," his career flourished. In 2002 President Bush appointed him to the National Council on he Humanities.

Those Who Got into Trouble and Received the Proper Punishment

  • Edward Pearson Confronted with evidence that Edward Pearson, the historian who so badly transcribed trial records related to the Denmark Vesey case--the slave accused of conspiracy--that his book had to be withdrawn by the publisher, Franklin and Marshall investigated the matter in a thorough and responsible way. Pearson was allowed to remain as chairman of the history department.
  • Joseph Ellis After learning that Joseph Ellis had fabricated stories about his service in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, Mount Holyoke suspended him and took away his endowed chair, but allowed him to return to the classroom (though he was not allowed to teach his course on Vietnam).
  • Dino Cinel After discovering that Dino Cinel, recently hired as a tenured professor focusing on Italian immigration, had failed to reveal that he had been defrocked for having sex with male teenagers, CUNY fired him (though it took five years).
Those Who Were Burned
  • Michael Bellesiles After winning accolades and an award for his book, Arming America, scholars discovered errors in a table and the gun lobby proceeded to destroy Bellesiles's career even though "the critics came up with no evidence of intentional deception, no evidence of invented documents."
  • Mike Davis After Mike Davis wrote a book critical of the Los Angeles establishment, developers effectively ran him out of the state. He succeeded in resurrecting his career only by travelling east, winning an appointment at SUNY--Stony Brook.
  • David Abraham After errors were discovered in his book, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, which departed from the traditional interpretation offered by one of the doyens of the profession, David Abraham 's career as a historian came to an abrupt end. Hounded by a powerful critic, he couldn't find a job and left the profession to become a lawyer.

And then There Are ... Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose: The Celebrity Historians

What about Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose? While Goodwin was forced off the Pulitzer Prize Board after she was caught plagiarizing--and then caught paying off the person whose words she took--the media largely gave her a pass. She remains an NBC talking head and her publisher stands by her. Stephen Ambrose was condemned by historians and ostracized by the profession, but he too remained a media favorite (though in his case the rightwing press held him up to ridicule, in an attempt to stand up for traditional values of honest scholarship).