Off With Her Head

What a blast we're having with the Doris Kearns Goodwin story. But then, it's not just a story any more. It's a media block party, a cultural happening, a gigantic schadenfreude festival that has spread from The Weekly Standard, where Goodwin's "borrowings" and those of fellow historian Stephen Ambrose were first reported, to practically every corner of the news universe.

On CNN, Robert Novak did what he called a "police blotter" item on Goodwin: "It seemed only yesterday that everybody just loved popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. But lately, it's nothing but trouble for poor Doris." The New York Times ran a lacerating commentary by Martin Arnold that began: "The mea culpas being offered lately by two popular historians caught plagiarizing are lame." On The Drudge Report one day this week, there appeared a large photo of Goodwin looking silly in commencement garb, with a blind-sourced story avidly suggesting that she might be removed from the Harvard University Board of Overseers.

Like Ambrose, whose story broke first and played out more quickly, Goodwin has her media defenders, and they often appear in the same outlets as the merrymakers. But on balance there is no balance: This story is an ecstatic pig pile, and it looks like we'll keep jumping on "poor Doris" until she and her career are absolutely flattened.

And this is the really intriguing part of the Goodwin phenomenon. Her plagiarism is stunning, even if it was the result not of calculated theft but of stupid negligence, as seems to be the case. But to me, the story itself isn't half as interesting as the alacrity and vehemence with which we in the media have taken to it.

Though literary crimes make news fairly often, such stories rarely have the staying power of Goodwin's, or arouse such passion. Even Ambrose, who has been less contrite, has somehow gotten off easier, spared the daily humiliation that's been heaped on Goodwin as she gives up her most valuable television gig (on The News-Hour), withdraws as a Pulitzer judge, is disinvited to at least one college speaking engagement, and so on, to the point where she's the Hester Prynne of our time, banished to the wilderness with a scarlet "P" on her breast.

This is partly a function of relative status: Goodwin had occupied a higher spot on the cultural totem pole than Ambrose, and so had more honors and sinecures to lose. But I think there's something else at work here, a deep, largely unrecognized discomfort that Goodwin's story arouses in the media because: No. 1, she is one of us; and No. 2, her failure to acknowledge the work of others looks a lot like something media people do all the time. No. 1 is clear enough. Unlike Ambrose, whom we think of as mainly a popular historian, Goodwin is known, first and foremost, as a media figure, thanks to her extremely frequent, extremely skillful appearances on television. Her books may be good, but it was her winning on-screen persona, and her acumen as a pundit, that made her a superstar.

As for No. 2, let's review what Goodwin did: She took passages written by other authors, in particular one Lynne McTaggart, and inserted them into her own book without quotation marks. Since Goodwin cited McTaggart's book as one of her sources, thereby pointing readers to the source of the passages, it seems unlikely she was trying to pull a fast one.

Now let's look at something that journalists do all the time. A good story, a real grabber, appears in News Outlet A. It's such a good story that over at News Outlet B, they decide they'd like to have something quite similar. So they assign someone to sit down and, essentially, rip off Outlet A's story. In many cases, B not only doesn't acknowledge A at all, but goes out of its way to make it seem the story originated with B. Sometimes, it's not just the core idea of the story that's stolen but the sources, although generally it's wise to come up with a few new sources, for appearance's sake.

Every journalist has done some variant of this, and we've all had it done to us. It happened this week on a story that was widely discussed by the New York City-Washington media crowd. On March 1, Publishers Weekly reported that Washington Post reporter David Vise had bought thousands of copies of his new book, The Bureau and the Mole, from an online bookseller, and then returned many of them—raising suspicions that he was trying to increase sales numbers for the best-seller lists. In a second PW story published on March 5, Vise said he was merely purchasing books that he intended to sell himself, and had returned some for refunds after the price went down. Both stories ran on PW's online version, and were touted on Romenesko's Media News, a popular journalism Web site. On March 6, The New York Times ran its own story on Vise, without mentioning that it had been broken elsewhere. When a story first appears in a trade publication or some other outlet of lesser status, as here, major outlets are much less likely to admit it.

In TV news, petty thievery is a core skill, practiced every day by reporters who brazenly lift stories from the print media. This is so much a part of the fabric of the wider news business, we tend to forget it's cheap and ungenerous, bordering on, if not strictly, unethical.

When Doris Kearns Goodwin was caught stealing the work of others, she fessed up and apologized—less than most journalists ever have to do. It's no wonder that she makes us sick, or that we're taking such pleasure in her destruction.