With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Historians in Trouble: Why Some Get Nailed

Historians have been in the news a lot recently, and the news has not been good—accusations of plagiarism, investigations of research fraud, and punishments for classroom misconduct have made headlines and in some cases even ended up in court. Media spectacles around scholarly scandals have become, as Ron Robin writes, “a veritable cottage industry”; investigations of misconduct that in the past were confined to the profession, to academic senate committees and academic journals, now are reported on page one and on TV news. What’s new, he argues, is not the uncovering of wrongdoing, but rather the visibility of the charges, and their dissemination as media events—“performances, staged and choreographed for mass-mediated consumption.”

But not all cases of wrongdoing by historians follow this scenario. While some charges of misconduct end up on page one and bring careers to an end, other equally serious charges stay out of the media spotlight and bring little or no public sanction or punishment. Why do some cases become media events while others remain within the confines of scholarly settings?

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.

In my new book I investigate the relationships between power and media spectacles by examining a dozen key cases involving historians. The cases range across the political spectrum and represent a variety of charges of misconduct. They do not, I must emphasize, fall into a single pattern or point to single conclusion. Some divide along left-right lines, while others do not. The cases illustrate the many different ways that power has been deployed in media spectacles to highlight the pitfalls of certain ways of writing history. They also illustrate the ways other cases have been neglected or ignored by the media. They show the different ways organized pressure groups have taken action against authors they regard as enemies. All of the cases shed light on the question of what happens to scholars charged with violating standards or rules, and in each case I try to explain its particular outcome.

The point here is not to condone misconduct or make excuses for errors. As E.H. Carr wrote in his classic book What Is History?, “accuracy is a duty, not a virtue.” The point is rather to explore why some instances are punished severely and others not at all.

George W. Bush’s recent nominations and appointments of historians to the National Council on the Humanities and the National Archives provide illuminating cases of the uses of power in the face of charges of misconduct. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who teaches history at Emory University, is a prominent critic of the contemporary feminist movement and the author of the book Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. In 1995, she was sued for violating the civil rights of a female subordinate. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff, a middle-aged woman who had been a graduate student of, and assistant to, Fox-Genovese, declared that she had been verbally abused and asked to perform duties that would not have been asked of a male subordinate—like picking up Fox-Genovese’s laundry and walking her dog. The court proceedings received considerable press coverage, and in 1996, before the case went to the jury, Emory settled it for an undisclosed sum—reported to be $1 million. Despite Fox-Genovese’s heavily documented record of misconduct, Emory did not conduct its own disciplinary proceedings, and in 2003 the Bush White House awarded Fox-Genovese the National Humanities Medal.

Allen Weinstein, in his book Perjury, did more to document the case against Alger Hiss than any other historian. But his documentation was challenged; many key interviewees insisted they had been misquoted. He steadfastly refused to make the documentation available to other historians, as required by the American Historical Association (AHA) guidelines—and as Michael Bellesiles and others accused of misconduct did. Nevertheless, Weinstein faced no investigations or penalties; the AHA refused to take up the case against him. The mainstream media ignored the charges—perhaps because Weinstein is on the popular side of an old debate; he defended the conventional wisdom about Alger Hiss. The people who have questioned the book’s documentation did not have the power to get their case into the mainstream media—partly because the mainstream does not want to have to deal with the possibility that something is seriously wrong with the leading work documenting Hiss’s guilt. Allen Weinstein stonewalled his critics for twenty-five years; then, in 2004, George W. Bush nominated him to be Archivist of the United States.

A third case: Stephan Thernstrom teaches history at Harvard and has been a prominent critic of affirmative action, writing that blacks are to blame for many of their educational problems and suggesting that there is little racism in America today. A decade ago, some black students complained that he had been “racially insensitive” in his lectures. Thernstrom’s outraged counterattack made him a hero in right-wing circles. His defense was featured in New York magazine and in Dinesh D’Souza’s 1991 book, Illiberal Education, which spent nine weeks on the bestseller list. C. Vann Woodward, writing in the New York Review of Books, explained the Thernstrom case as an example of “the attack on freedom . . . led by minorities.”

In fact, there had been no “attack on freedom” at Harvard. Three black students had complained about a single lecture—a story reported in the campus newspaper. Thernstrom responded in the national media with the false claim that the Harvard administration had colluded with black students to make him a victim of “McCarthyism of the left.” In 2002, the Bush White House nominated Thernstrom to the National Council on the Humanities.

The controversies around Fox-Genovese, Weinstein, and Thernstrom became media events, but their supporters succeeded for the most part in portraying the central figures not as miscreants guilty of misconduct but rather as innocent victims of “political correctness.” All were honored for “standing up to the left” and rewarded with White House nominations to distinguished positions. In each of these cases, the crucial issue was who had the power to frame the media spectacle.

While these historians’ careers advanced despite charges of misconduct, others faced very different outcomes. The most obvious contrast is found in the media spectacle around Michael Bellesiles, the Emory historian who wrote about the origins of gun culture in America. He faced a vociferous campaign by gun rights groups, which prompted debate in scholarly journals and then an investigation by distinguished historians. In the end, he resigned a tenured position—even though the Emory review panel found evidence of fraud only on one table that was referred to only a few times in a 400-page book. Bellesiles made a strong case that he was guilty of error but not fraud. The episode demonstrated the power of an organized political group on the right to target a historian they identified as an enemy and raises the question of the appropriate sanction for error.

Mike Davis provides a second example of a media spectacle around a historian targeted by the right for his politics. Davis, a leading Marxist historian, won a MacArthur “genius” grant and an appointment as a Getty Institute scholar for his book on Los Angeles, City of Quartz, after which a Malibu realtor launched a campaign in 1999 charging that his footnotes in a new book, Ecology of Fear, were fraudulent. The charges mushroomed and were featured in the New York Times, the Economist, and on page one of the Los Angeles Times; neither UCLA nor USC would hire him; he ended up leaving Los Angeles, for a job at SUNY-Stony Brook. Evidently, the search committee and administration at Stony Brook concluded that the errors in his footnotes were minor and that he met the requirements for appointment to a tenured position.

The recent stories of Bellesiles and Mike Davis were reminiscent in some ways of the David Abraham case of the mid-eighties, when an assistant professor coming up for tenure at Princeton faced attack by a politically conservative senior Yale historian whose work he had challenged. The issue, as presented by the media: errors in Abraham’s account of German business backing for Hitler. Abraham had the support of many leading historians, but the “Abraham case” was featured on page one of the New York Times, and within a year, he was forced out of the profession. These cases suggest the right has had much more power than the left to define the meaning and significance of charges of misconduct for the public.

But not all recent charges of scholarly misconduct became media spectacles and ended up on page one of the Times. The third section of this book examines cases where the charges of misconduct were significant and where the evidence was strong, but nevertheless these cases were greeted with indifference by the media.

John Lott’s research on guns has played a key role in leading states and cities to pass laws permitting people to carry concealed firearms. Lott argued that “brandishing” guns without firing them was sufficient to deter criminals in almost all cases. But his claim to have done survey research on this issue was shown to be fraudulent. Nevertheless, Lott received virtually no media attention for this fraud and paid no penalties; his publisher, the University of Chicago Press, has kept the fraudulent claims in the new edition of the book, Lott continues to publish op-eds in leading venues, and the “brandishing” laws he helped pass remain in force.

Edward A. Pearson’s 1999 book on the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion was shown to contain massive errors of transcription and, more seriously, a deeply erroneous description of the document he transcribed: it was not, as Pearson said, a verbatim “trial transcript,” but rather a retrospective summary of testimony for the prosecution, revised by persons unknown to us. This misunderstanding, in the view of many, undermined the author’s entire thesis and suggested that Denmark Vesey was an innocent man framed by the white power structure rather than the leader of a slave rebellion. The book’s publisher withdrew it from publication. But no other disciplinary action was taken against Pearson. At Franklin and Marshall College, where he teaches, the administration reviewed his case and decided no punishment by the school was appropriate. He remains chair of the history department at Franklin and Marshall.

These cases raise the question, why do some charges of misconduct become media spectacles, with dramatic consequences for the central figures, while others do not? The explanation seems to lie in the power, or lack of power, of interested constituencies. In the case of Pearson, there is simply no constituency in or outside the profession arguing that a key slave rebellion should be removed from the historical record. And the Lott case illustrates the way the gun lobby has immensely more power than the gun-control lobby.

Finally, I want to consider media spectacles that were not framed around a left-right confrontation:

The Dino Cinel case was one of the first in which sexual abuse by a Catholic priest became known (in 1993) and is still one of the best documented. After Cinel was appointed distinguished professor of Italian-American immigration history at the City University of New York, the media discovered he had been defrocked as a priest several years earlier for having had sex with a number of teenage boys. Nevertheless, the American Federation of Teachers, which represented Cinel, argued he should not be fired—because he had tenure. As a result, it took years to dismiss him from the university.

Joseph Ellis, the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, made page one in 2001 for lying to his class at Mount Holyoke, telling students he had fought in Vietnam. Mount Holyoke’s punishment was strong and appropriate. But the argument made in the media was that lying to students in class is not as serious as lying to readers in print, and thus he was promptly rehabilitated by the New York Times and the New Yorker.

Plagiarism provides the simplest case of scholarly misconduct and the easiest to explain to the public. Thus the well-known cases of plagiarism by the late Stephen Ambrose and by Doris Kearns Goodwin became major media spectacles. Plagiarism provides the easiest case to adjudicate because the evidence is clear-cut; but, as Thomas Mallon showed in his 1989 book on the topic, some of the most blatant cases received the least attention and the lightest punishment. Here the size of the spectacle seems to depend on the celebrity of the accused rather than the seriousness of the offense.

My concluding chapter addresses some obvious questions: is some kind of stricter oversight of the history profession necessary; and if so, who should exercise it? Charges of misconduct that become media spectacles have ended careers only when powerful groups outside the profession organize campaigns that demand punishment. Typically, the right rather than the left has organized, and succeeded with, such campaigns. Could the history profession itself counter the power of these organized interest groups? The American Historical Association recently abandoned its procedures for addressing charges of plagiarism and professional misconduct. That gives the media, and the forces that shape them, even more power to define the issues and adjudicate scholarly controversies, to honor scholars who advance their partisan political agendas and punish those who challenge those agendas.

This article is adapted from Mr. Wiener's Historians in Trouble and is reprinted with permission of the pubisher, New Press.

Copyright Jon Wiener