The Los Angeles Time's Secret List on Doris Kearns Goodwin


Mr. Nobile is the author of Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books and editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian.

The Doris Kearns Goodwin story has many lingering mysteries:
  • How much did Goodwin pay in 1988 to silence Lynne McTaggart, author of Kathleen Kennedy?
  • Where is the report by Goodwin’s assistants on the total number of passages copied without proper attribution in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which the author commissioned in February?
  • When will Simon & Schuster publish the corrected version of The Fitzgerald and the Kennedys, likewised promised in February after the flawed paperback editions were recalled?
  • What did the Pulitzer Board find in its probe of her literary bona fides and did the Board force her resignation?
  • And, most puzzling of all: Why won’t the the Los Angeles Times print or post on its website its secret list of some 29 passages that Goodwin supposedly stole from other authors her 1995 Pulitzer-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
While the no comments of Goodwin and her publisher are understandable, the closed lips of the Pulitzer Board and the Los Angeles Times, specifically national editor Dean Baquet and national correspondent Peter King, are far less so.

John Carroll, chairman of the Pulitzer Board as well as editor of the Los Angeles Times, launched the Board’s investigation and accepted Goodwin’s resignation in a diplomatic exchange of letters in May. When I asked for further facts about the unprecedented shunning of a fellow board member and
Prize recipient, neither Carroll nor former Board Administrator Seymour Topping responded.

The LAT’s Baquet and King, the editor and reporter on the 6000-word story headlined “As History Repeats Itself, the Scholar Becomes the Story (Aug.
4),” were comparatively garrulous on the telephone and via email. But both journalists refused to disclose the complete list of allegedly plagiarized passages in No Ordinary Time that was trumpeted in their story.

King wrote that the paper hired “an outside reader to select a half-dozen or so of the books listed by Goodwin as source materials” in No Ordinary Time and that the anonymous reader discovered “nearly three dozen instances where phrases and sentences in Goodwin's book resembled the words of other authors.”

This was blockbuster material. Previously, Goodwin had dropped an iron curtain, backed by legal threats, between her admittedly tainted Kennedy book and her professedly pure Pulitzer bio of the Roosevelts. If the LAT story stood up, her reputation might be shattered beyond the repair of her powerful media friends. Although Jim Lehrer has kept Goodwin off the News Hour, Tim Russert continues to feature her on Meet the Press.

Yet the LAT oddly failed to show most of its evidence. How could the reader judge Goodwin’s guilt, especially in face of her denial, without seeing all the cards? Baffled by the paper’s apparent self-censorhip, I telephoned King. He told me that his story was not about plagiarism and that printing a fraction of the quotes was sufficient to make the point that Goodwin was a copyist in No Ordinary Time. As for giving me the list, he cited the sanctity of his notes. Although I shared every bit of my Goodwin notes with him, excluding the confidential and off-the-record, he would not reciprocate.

So I kicked the matter upstairs to his editor, Dean Baquet. In a pleasant phone conversation, Baquet restated King’s nonnegotiable position. Hoping to get around the institutional roadblock, I suggested that Baquet merely post the complete list on the paper’s website. He seemed open to this compromise when our phoner was cut off by a power outage in his office.

I followed up with an email to both men, arguing that the LAT’s alleged-but-secret list of plagiarized passages was a disservice to history and journalism. Thereupon, Baquet defended the paper’s suppression of evidence in a series of exchanges reproduced below.

Is it fair for a newspaper to accuse an author of “nearly three-dozen” thefts in a book, while printing a measly seven and burying the rest?

Baquet told me that he won't be influenced by the opinion of his peers, but you might want to give him a holler anyway at dean.baquet@latimes.com.


Editor's Note: The emails below have been edited for punctuation and grammar. Obscure references have been dropped. Material considered possibly libelous has been excluded.

Philip Nobile to Peter King (8-8-02)


Congratulations. Your story was well-written and nicely nuanced. You had some smoking guns, too. ...

But some things bothered me ....

Basically, I wished that you had been tougher. Your big news was the copying in "No Ordinary Time." You proved that a Pulitzer Prize biography was tainted work and that Goodwin had lied about reforming her thieving ways. The last journalist who tried to do that was threatened by a lawsuit. But this newsworthy angle is missing from your headline, subhead, lead, and conclusion.

In effect, Goodwin got her wish, a story fuzzy enough for people to forget, and maybe for other newspaper editors to ignore. Nonetheless, I've sent Globe editor Martin Baron a copy of your story and asked him why he hasn't told his readers about it.

Sorry to sound so harsh. I just hate to see obvious culprits wriggle out of trouble because the journalist doesn't tie the knots tight enough. You had the goods but you didn't press hard enough.

P.S. Could you send me a copy of the three-dozen parallel passages? Thanks.

Philip Nobile to Peter King (8-19-02)


Still waiting for reply to last email. Hoping to get those parallel passages you discovered. Heard from Rick Shenkman at HNN that you won't let anybody see the material. Have you changed your mind? Can you accuse Doris of this massive theft without disclosing the evidence? Doesn't seem right to me. Shouldn't readers be able to judge for themselves? Why not print parallels in the first place? Let's talk.


Philip Nobile to Peter King and Dean Baquet (8-30-02)

Eventually, Nobile made contact by telephone. He was told that the parallels the LAT researcher found are considered work product.

Dear Peter and Dean:

After yesterday's conversations, I now understand your reluctance to publish all the parallels claimed in your Doris Kearns Goodwin story. While
you may have good institutional reasons for not sharing "work product," the Goodwin case is surely an exception.

What you call "work product," historians consider prime evidence. Your paper made the astonishing claim of finding 30-plus copyings in a random
search of Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize biography, "No Ordinary Time." Yet you published only a handful of examples and won't reveal the rest. The rules of journalism are different, of course, from those of scholarship. No historian could get away with publishing a claim like yours without making the data available to other scholars. (Nor could a prosecutor in court.) Keeping research secret violates the spirit of free and open inquiry characteristic of the university.

The Goodwin case is important and may define the standards of narrative history. Consequently, historians need all the evidence they can get their hands on. Goodwin scorned your examples, both the few published and the many not. Plagiarism is a matter of degrees and accumulation. Who is right? You or Goodwin? Historians would like to know.

May I suggest an escape from your institutional dilemma: post the complete list of parallels in your archive as an addendum to Peter's original story or let your researcher do the disclosure of his/her findings. There's got to be a way. In the future, Goodwin and her defenders are bound to say that the LAT didn't have the goods--otherwise they would have published.

Looking forward,

Dean Baquet to Philip Nobile (8-30-02)


First off, I want to say that I enjoyed our conversation yesterday. You care about this issue, and you helped me understand your side of the argument. But that's the historian's side, not the journalist's. After thinking it through, I'm going to decline putting the examples on the web site. The story ran weeks ago, and if we put additional material on the site it would be clear that we were just trying to display our case against Goodwin. In fact, that's not our job. As I said yesterday, a newspaper edits itself everyday, leaving things out, putting some back in, all for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we leave stuff out to keep the story from being too long. In this case we used the examples we thought were appropriate in a story that was designed as a rich portrait of Goodwin and the questions that were being raised. In the end, we stand by what we publish, not what we accumulate in the process. I think we published one hell of a story. So I'm going to leave it at that.

Thanks much,
Dean Baquet

Philip Nobile to Dean Baquet (9-1-02)

Dear Dean,

Assuming that you remain open to discussion on the disclosure of the Goodwin parallels, here are some comments on your reply. I believe that the stakes are high in the LAT's refusal to disclose the parallels. Withholding important information relevant to a major news story seems odd .... Peter King reported (Aug. 4) that the LAT "contracted with an outside reader to select a half-dozen or so of the books listed by Goodwin as source materials and simply follow the footnotes, randomly reading passages of 'No Ordinary Time' against the other works. The process, which consumed roughly one full workweek, produced nearly three dozen instances where phrases and sentences in Goodwin's book resembled the words of other authors." Yet Peter's story included only seven examples of the alleged copyings.

Some thirty were missing, inexplicably. Since the damaging charge of plagiarism depends on accumulation, it makes sense to print all the examples you have. What are seven slip-ups in a text of 635 pages with 633 citations based on approximately 300 books and countless documents? Whatever editorial reason prevented listing all the parallels in Peter's 6000-word portrait, you might have published them conveniently via a click on your web version.

"No Ordinary Time" is no ordinary biography by any ordinary author. The book is a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, still selling widely in trade paperback. Goodwin was the first lady of American history and a media icon before her massive plagiarism and cover-up a ` propos "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" was exposed earlier this year. She is fighting to salvage her reputation. Her main refuge is the alleged integrity of "No Ordinary Time." The LAT claims to have found 30-plus copyings. This amount, from "a half-dozen or so" books, indicates that Goodwin may have repeated her [offense]. And yet, the reader cannot judge the degree of her appropriations because you are keeping the list secret. What possible journalistic justification can there be for burying the facts behind your claim, especially when your subject denied your interpretation? Why is the reader the only one left in the dark?

Thanks for your consideration.

P.S. If your answer is still a thousand times no, please pass my request to your editor-in-chief.

Dean Baquet to Philip Nobile (9-2-02)


Alas, I am going to continue to say no. The reasons you offer are reasons for historians to contemplate, not journalists. Our job is to present the story we edit, not to amass evidence for historians to use in making their judgments. We presented ample evidence to support the story. That's what we do, day in and day out, in dozens of stories every day in the paper. We have to maintain a neutral role, so that we are not participants in the news we report -- which we would become if we disseminated information beyond what we print.

When we do 100 interviews for a story, we publish those that belong in the story, in our judgment. Today's paper, for example, includes numerous stories that are the result of much digging --- a major takeout on the Sept. 11 plot, for example. We cut many interviews from that story, for reasons of space, clarity, etc. I'd never offer those notes to anyone. I need to control how it is used.

Unfortunately, I am the last word on this subject. I assigned the story and determined the length and play. There is only one editor who outranks me at the Times --- John Carroll, the editor of the paper. And he recused himself from every stage of the story because he is chairman of the Pulitzer Board. So the debate ends with me. I'm sorry. I hope we get to meet at some point, over lunch, or a drink. I admire your work. I just have to stick to my guns on this one, as I have on many, many occasions in the past when politicians, readers, judges, and even other journalists have asked to see our work product. Yours is not an unusual request, and my answer is the one we -- and editors at every major newspaper -- always give.

I must say that it would not be difficult to match what we did. I'm sure some historian would be happy to do what Pete did. It was a simple task. So I don't believe the fate of history rests on my decision. For the price of the book and some hard work, you can certainly get someone to duplicate our reporting.

Thank you,
Dean Baquet

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More Comments:

ben barr - 10/1/2002

It is hardly surprising to see these so called Historians work the way they do. When serious reseach when out with the Fifties, and the new ways came in. The easy way became the way to go. Too bad colleges had to dumb down the courses to graduate the masses. Hence this kind of research is being done. Consider the source.

Richard Dyke - 9/30/2002

I think John Fought and Don Kates have hit the nail directly on the head. Our "witch hunt" since the Bellisiles case may have become too comprehensive. We seem to want more hangings, and so plagiarism--never clearly defined--has become a excellent medium to trash historians who have not been perfect in their attributions. I do not believe that Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have been intentionally or intellectually dishonest. I don't think there was a clear or willful intent to steal material or defraud the public. It is often the competitive rush to publish which often creates these and other kinds of problems. I can remember a criticism of one of my works which ridiculed my choice of some words. In more cases than not, it was the rush to trim narrative and lose pages in the last month before publication that was the culprit. I used the thesauras perhaps too liberally, desperately seeking a synonym with one less letter to lose a line in a paragraph, and over many paragraphs, lose a page, etc. I also had to trim my footnotes, leaving nearly all discursive ones out. Much was lost and more made to criticize, based on deadline and trimming.

There is also another problem that is seldom discussed. When an historian has read and consulted so many works, it sometimes becomes fuzzy in one's mind what came from somewhere and what "appeared to occur to the historian" because the ideas have been mulled over for so long and so many times. I do not find it surprising that passages are sometimes "similar" to other sources in this regard. Some of these may be "tricks" played on (and in) the mind of the writer. This syndrome becomes more profound when a writer's successive works are on the same subject. The mind is not a computer that carefully separates one's research from one's thoughts. The only sure-fire way to avoid this is to write only and literally from notes, without any outside stimulation, and that tends to dampen style, if nothing else. We don't expect musicians to come up with all new "tunes," so why wouldn't an historian's work to some extent mirror work that is already completed? I am not suggesting that failure to attribute is not a sin, but it is, as Fought and Kates have suggested, hardly the same as creating false records.

Finally, plagiarism, after this witch hunt, will probably continue to remain a vague concept, much the same as is the concept of a "chair." We all think we know it when we see it, but it is much harder to come up with a general definition that everyone can all agree upon. And like "chair," we will always be troubled by nuances. Does a chair always have four legs? Must it have a back? What must it be made of? What can it not be made of? At what point is a "chair" achieved? Likewise, plagiarism. Has the historian who "thought" he came up with a phrase guilty of plagiarism when it is discovered that the phrase (which may constitute an idea) has already been used elsewhere? At what point is an idea an idea? Does plagiarism include the "theft" of phrases that may not constitute or may not rise to the level of an original idea? What phraseology of an author is sacrosanct in constituting an original idea and can not be used unless an attribution is made? The farther and farther one delves into this question, the murkier and murkier the issues get. Taking the fear of plagiarism to its logical conclusion would handicap the writing of history. To some extent, plagiarism will remain, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. And as with most political processes (of which the current witch hunt is one), some of the misfortunate writers will be called to task and flogged--and some will not be. At present, it does appear that the lashes are meant for the rich and famous. If it were not for fear of spreading the witch hunt still farther, I would suggest that some enterprising graduate student(s) make their career of investigating plagiarism beyond the ranks of the rich and famous, to the ordinary ranks of the historian, to see what can be seen, and perhaps fulfill once again the age-old adage that "misery loves company."

Vince Burns - 9/24/2002

I'm not sure where this comment will go but am incautious enough to post it. Although Nobile's pestering of the Timesmen is commendable for sake of historiography, his time might be better spent simply trying to id additional parallel passages himself. It should be relatively easy to run gobs of Goodwin's book and a likely secondary "source" through an automated parser. There are pieces of software that will do this quite easily on the web. They work w/ Word documents but it shouldn't be too much work to do the same w/ eBook version of Goodwin.

Then Nobile can answer the question himself, instead of publishing this rather uninteresting exchange w/ the Times reporters.

John G. Fought - 9/24/2002

I agree with Mr. Kates that plagiarism of the kind seen here is a less serious form of scholarly misconduct than fabrication: at least the plagiarist can be shown to have read something that actually exists. But the essence of plagiarism is not the copying, it's the failure to attribute the work to its true author. The various institutional guidelines defining scholarly misconduct, some reprinted in part on HNN, make it clear that what is being stolen is not just the content but the claim of originality that goes with authorship. If one wrote a paper in which long sections were copied, but meticulously referring to the original authors in each case, using quotation marks, footnotes, and the rest of the apparatus of scholarly publishing, that would not be plagiarism. But it would earn the scholar no credit for originality, only for thoroughness at best. If on the other hand an author takes one original idea from another's work and presents it as his own, rewriting it to express the same idea in different words, that is plagiarism. And it happens quite a lot. It has happened to me, for instance.
One good reason for carefully exposing it each time it is found, and for punishing each offender, is to raise the level of awareness far enough to prevent the theft of original work from student seminar papers and dissertations, the vilest form of plagiarism, and the hardest to uncover and punish. The victims are usually afraid to come forward and press their cases, and with good reason. Another related but slippery offense is what I call 'involuntary coauthorship', in which promising work by a graduate student or junior faculty member appears under the names of a senior scholar and the junior one, when the facts, if known, would support authorship by the junior member of the team alone as the original creator of the work, Often the junior might have published it as sole author, but was 'encouraged' to use the senior's prestige to open the door. I have no illusions about stopping this method of 'honoring' a promising student.
But I feel strongly that the grosser forms of plagiarism are still worth attacking.

don kates - 9/23/2002

Unlike the Bellesiles Scandal, which involves a genuine fraud,all this plaigarism scandal is the proverbial tempest in the teapot. Author X writes a biography of Patrick Henry after 19 months of reading every prior bio of him plus countless articles about him and/or his time. She "steals" therefrom endless facts and many important ideas which she collates and presents with a modern "spin." Moreover, her doctorate in American history represents years spent absorbing the facts and ideas of prior analysts.
No problem: that's just RESEARCH, because she has meticulously rewritten every single thing she "stole." But let her copy even a single paragraph in haec verba and -- horror of horrors -- its plaigarism!!!
There is no comparison to an undergraduate student plaigarising an article. Implicit in the assignment is that among the skills the student is supposed to be displaying is the ability to write. Moreover, taking all your ideas from one source is plaigarism; take from many sources and it is, once again, research.
In an age of widespread historical ignorance we should be just delighted that history is being presented to the public in a form that many people absorb. Underneath many of the denunciations is the jealousy of "real scholars" who have never been able to publish anything in a mass market publication, but just write books for obscure scholarly presses which print them because they and other "real scholars" are going to order them up for a captive audience of students taking a course.