This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

March 3, 2002 — Is somebody out to get Doris Kearns Goodwin?

Over the last several days, MobyLives has been getting a steady stream of e–mail "tips" to articles about the historian's ongoing troubles — a satirical "review" from The Weekly Standard of a supposed Goodwin title, "Plagiarism for Dummies"; an Associated Press story from the Washington Post about Goodwin taking a leave from PBS's "News Hour"; another posting from Newsday of the very same A.P. story. None of these e–mails included a message, or a signature, just the text of an article and a link to the original.

Like all e–mail, however, each did come with one clue as to the sender — the return e–mail address. And in this case, while no two e–mails had the same name in the return address, most of them had a "" domain name, or something similar such as "" It was enough to make it seem there was a growing group of people at Harvard University — where Goodwin was a long–time professor and is now on the board of directors — who wanted to make sure I got the word out about her woes. In other words, at a place famously full of world–class intellectuals and historians well–suited to judge, a place where Goodwin is also well–known personally, people were losing respect for her.

Or so it would have seemed if I hadn't tried to write back to the very first tipster — "" — to tell them that the link they'd sent me didn't work. The message came back in short order as undeliverable. Harvard's e–mail system has no such sender. Nor did it have a "" Nor did any of the other "" addresses work out, nor any of the few non–harvard addresses, such as "" I'd even tried to run down "roscoe@arbuckle" as if there was a chance that Fatty Arbuckle was keen on this story; no luck.

All of the tips were from fake mailing addresses.

Then I finally got a tip to a story — the A.P. story about Goodwin and PBS parting ways once again — that contained a message, and a signature. And as if the series of negative news reports hadn't already tipped me off to the prejudice of the tipster, this message made it clear.

"" wanted to know why the American Booksellers Association has engaged Goodwin to host its reception at the upcoming industry trade show, BookExpo America. Or, as "Eroni" put it, "Why is the ABA choosing to honor someone who has brought disgrace to the profession of nonficiton authorship?"

"Perhaps you, a journalist," could "get a straight answer out of the ABA ," "Eroni" went on to suggest, in case there was any question as to what was expected of me. The message closed with some helpful contact info for the ABA.

But of course, the contact info for "Eroni" him or herself turned out to be erroneous.

Let's recap, shall we? Some anonymous person using false addresses wants me to go after Doris Goodwin for falsely claiming someone else's work as her own -- that is to say, somebody using fake attributions wants me to go after somebody for using fake attributions.

You know, there's a reason why most people don't think much of anonymous sources. Anonymous sources are supposed to be used only when those sources are blowing the whistle on someone more powerful than they are. But more often, "anonymous sources" has come to mean "cowardly swine trying to smear someone or prosecute a private vendetta."

I suppose this particular anonymous source targeted me because I've written a harsh column or two about other lying pop historians. I haven't hesitated to run stories on my website about Goodwin's situation, either. Nor am I hesitant to criticize her more directly — while her excuse about mixing up handwritten notes sounds plausible enough at first, I find it hard to believe that over any length of text she can't recognize whether something is her own prose or not.

But the fact is that beyond her initial crime she's different from the other historians in the news lately in two significant ways: she hasn't shown a pattern of such behavior beyond one book, and she's done precisely the right thing when it all came to light. It deserves recognition — she's confessed, apologized, and gone to great extremes to correct the situation, including convincing her publisher to destroy all copies of the improperly attributed book, and replace it with a version that gives due credit.

Stephen Ambrose hasn't done anything remotely like that, and he screwed up in many more books than she did. Nor has he been so publicly punished. David McCullough didn't get fired from PBS when he got caught telling a whopper. Michael Bellisiles hasn't had his Bancroft Prize rescinded. And how in the world does Joseph Ellis still get money from his publisher for a book tour? I didn't get a barage of anonymous e–mails disparaging any of these clowns, either.

It's hard not to believe there isn't something sexist about the relentless lambasting Goodwin's getting. And I can't help but think that the person sending me all these anonymous e–mails is a man.

Whether they are or not, it's enough to show how Goodwin is getting an unfair break, and give you some idea of what she might be up against. If someone's going through the trouble of trying to manipulate me, I can only imagine the e–assault being conducted on the major news media.

Stephen Ambrose committed plagiarism in numerous books, and lots of veterans are accusing him of dishonoring them by getting their stories wrong or stealing them outright. David McCullough put a false statement in the mouth of one of the nation's founding fathers. Michael Bellesiles apparently made up statistics to support a political point. Joseph Ellis lied about being a veteran of a war in which tens of thousands of men and women perished.

The worst thing Doris Kearns Goodwin has possibly done has been to lie to make herself look good. Her anonymous detractor, however, has lied to try and destroy somebody.

You tell me which is worse.

Last Week’s Column: WHEN WAR HISTORIANS GO TO WAR Caleb Carr, scholar of military history, does the sensible thing when two women critize him: he turns into Rambo.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.