A Thanksgiving Gripe

Yo, professor. Cantcha read?

Very much against the spirit of Thanksgiving, a complaint:

Peter Charles Hoffer is professor of history at the University of Georgia and a member of the American Historical Association’s professional division, which is to say, he’s an ethics cop. Let us turn to Page 206 of his new book, Past Imperfect, a review of the various scandals that have beset the history profession in recent years:

Ambrose’s and Goodwin’s plagiarism gained momentum from the way that popular history is produced and consumed. With sales and topicality as the prime determinants of publication and commercial success, the canons of scholarship must take a backseat. Consider what it would require to reverse this order of march. Timothy Noah, writing in Slate magazine, tried. “Mayhew has a matchless reputation as an editor of journalist and pop-historical trade nonfiction,” he wrote, so she should take “moral leadership” in plagiarism cases. But did Noah want Mayhew to check her author’s thousands of notes? Paste labels in the frontispieces of all her books certifying them free of plagiarism? Hire a small army of researchers to read every passage for illicit borrowings?

Hoffer’s aim here is to demonstrate that it’s unrealistic to expect publishers of popular history to police themselves, because they are not in “the scholarship business” but rather “the merchandising business.” But Hoffer seems unaware that I was criticizing Mayhew not for her behavior before the plagiarism was identified, but after:

Obviously Mayhew can’t be expected to know whenever one of her writers lifts a passage from someone else (though it’s slightly mortifying to learn that in one of these instances, a Mayhew-edited book by Ambrose boosted material from a Mayhew-edited book by journalist Robert Sam Anson). Chatterbox does, however, expect a distinguished editor to come clean once her authors’ hands are caught in the cookie jar. Simon & Schuster’s initial responses to the Ambrose and Goodwin revelations were shamefully Enron-like. In Ambrose’s case, a company spokesman weighed in with a laughably dishonest denial when confronted by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. In Goodwin’s case, after Lynne McTaggart alerted Goodwin that she’d stolen passages from her book Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, a secret settlement was struck that served the interests of every party but the reader.

I then proceeded to suggest a specific reform that, were I Mayhew, I’d try to implement and publicize:

What if boilerplate were to be inserted into all future book contracts requiring authors to waive any future financial claims stemming from plagiarism of up to, say, one entire page of their work? That would make it impossible for confidential private settlements to be arrived at, because the wronged party’s financial incentive to settle would no longer exist. Your only recourse would be to go public with your complaint. This scheme may sound like punishing the victim. But Chatterbox doesn’t really think there’s much real-world harm to an author who gets plagiarized by another, partly because the overall financial stakes in book publishing are so small, and partly because, even when a runaway best-seller lifts a few paragraphs from a flop, one can hardly argue that those few paragraphs accounted for the best-seller’s success. What Chatterbox does imagine is that it’s mostly just annoying to see someone else get away with stealing your work. You’d like to see the thief get shamed, and the best way to achieve that is to go public.

Now, it’s possible Hoffer thinks my lawsuit-avoiding, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” scheme is a stupid idea. (Thomas Mallon, who wrote a very thoughtful book about plagiarism, wasn’t crazy about it.) But I resent Hoffer’s suggestion that I hadn’t thought this through—that I was merely making a platitudinous criticism to make myself feel good, in the manner of, say, Leonard Bernstein airily denouncing the arms race.

So, what’s up? Did Hoffer read my item, and simply pretend that I never answered his rhetorical question? On Page 269 of Hoffer’s book, in footnote 58, Hoffer states quite plainly that his source was “How To Curb the Plagiarism Epidemic” by Timothy Noah, Slatemagazine, Jan. 28, 2002. My suspicion, though, is that Hoffer actually encountered my views on this subject via a profile of Mayhew that appeared in the New York Times Book Review on June 27, 2004. The author, Laura Secor, paraphrased my Slatepiece thusly:

(No one seriously blamed their editor, but one commentator, Timothy Noah of Slate, suggested Mayhew make amends by using her influence to spearhead an industrywide campaign against plagiarism.)

My best guess is that Hoffer saw this, thought to himself, “how stupidly platitudinous,” and then looked up my precise quote in the original without actually reading the piece (or, perhaps, had a research assistant look it up). It isn’t an ethical lapse, but rather, the more familiar kind: inaccuracy due to laziness. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time, and I’ve been called on it, just as I am now calling Hoffer on it. Let’s see if he fesses up. Our judges will not credit a response that does not admit the initial lapse but merely plows ahead with a criticism of my proposal while failing to acknowledge that he’s only just now acknowledging that the proposal was ever offered. If he admits that he didn’t know about my solution when he wrote, or forgot it, he may of course fire away without further comment from me (except perhaps in answer to his new criticisms).

See how much better these things work when conducted in the court of public opinion, rather than in a court of law? (Not that my complaint would actually be covered by any law.)

We now resume our regularly scheduled Thanksgiving.