Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"This is So Incredibly Bitter"

I have to agree with Kevin Levin's critique of Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg's smackdown of Fareed Zakaria's recent admission to plagiarism. 

What Zakaria did was wrong.  Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were also guilty of historical malpractice.  But Burstein and Isenberg's argument that journalists should not write history sounds a bit like sour grapes to me.

Here is a taste of Levin's piece:

...they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:
Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?
What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.
Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.
This is so incredibly bitter.  I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.”  Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:
Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.
So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.
I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology.  And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project?  The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.

I think Levin has hit the nail on the head here, but I would say that any journalist who wants to practice history must still abide by historical rules of evidence and interpretation.

1 comment:

Atlantic History Student said...

I also think that it's rather elitist of Burstein and Isenburg to suggest that only journalists are capable of being "America's Worst Historians." Michael Bellesiles anyone?