This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 13, 2002 — It was certainly the juciest ongoing phenomenon of the book business in 2001: how, with one notable exception, the country's top pop historians got themselves into trouble by, well, getting history precisely wrong . . . even, in some cases, deliberately so.

First, Pulitzer Prize–winner Joseph Ellis was revealed to have lied about everything from being a high school football star to a heroic paratrooper in Vietnam. Then Bancroft Prize–winning Michael Bellesiles was accused of misrepresenting and/or making up a wide variety of research in his "Arming of America." Even esteemed mega–seller David McCullough — the voice of history itself in Ken Burns documentaries — was found to have based one chapter in his smash "John Adams" on an apparently made–up quote (from Thomas Jefferson, no less). That discovery led to the revelation that there were also some serious factual errors in McCullough's previous multi–million selling "Truman."

Now, barely two weeks into the new year, the lone exception to the rule, who happpens to be the biggest of the big in the world of pop historians, has proven to be unexceptional: Stephen Ambrose has admitted to plagiarism.

Accusations were first leveled against Ambrose just days ago in The Weekly Standard, where editor Fred Barnes noted that Ambrose's new book about Senator George McGovern's experience as a World War II fighter pilot, "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B–24s over Germany" (currently the number 12 hardcover on The New York Times bestseller list, where Ambrose's "Band of Brothers" has been the number one paperback for most of the Chirstmas season), bore remarkable similarities to a 1995 book written by University of Pennysylvania professor Thomas Childers, "Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II."

"The two books are similar in more than just subject," observed Barnes.

For example, on page 83 of "Wings of Morning," Childers writes: "Up, up, up, groping through the clouds for what seemed like an eternity. . . . No amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered. B–24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds all over the sky."

And on page 164 of "Wild Blue," Ambrose writes: "Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered — B–24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds over here, over there, everywhere."

Elsewhere, the language is precisely identical.

"The bombadier, navigator, and nose–turret gunner were forced to squat down, almost on hands and knees, and sidle up to their stations through the nose wheel well of the ship," writes Childers on page 21 of his book . . . and Ambrose on page 95 of his.

Both passages continue similarly, to a discussion of the gunner's position: "It was the most physically uncomfortable, isolated, and terrifying position on the ship," writes Childers. "The gunner climbed into the ball, pulled the hatch closed, and was then lowered into position."

"The ball turret was, as McGovern said, the most physically uncomfortable, isolated, and terrifying position on the plane," writes Ambrose. "The gunner climbed into the ball, pulled the hatch closed, and was then lowered into position."

Well, that was just part of it, and making all the lifting even more egregious was the fact that, as Barnes reported, "The only attribution Childers gets in 'The Wild Blue' is a mention in the bibliography and four footnotes . . [which] give no indication that an entire passage has been lifted with only a few alterations . . . or that a Childers sentence has been copied word–for–word."

Ambrose's publisher, Simon & Schuster, immediately issued a statement on behalf of Ambrose, whom the company said was out of the country: "All research garnered from previously published material is appropriately footnoted." Childers, meanwhile, contacted by Barnes, said he'd noticed the passages but had decided not to "go after Stephen Ambrose" because "The man has done an awful lot of good" and "What would I say? Shame on you?"

To his credit, it took only a day for Ambrose to come clean. Suddenly available for The New York Times, he said, "I made a mistake for which I am sorry. It will be corrected in future editions of the book."

Childers, meanwhile, told The Times, "I think it is a classy thing to do, and I appreciate it." And that, to all concerned, seems to be the end of it. Or is it?

True enough, Ambrose is to be appplauded for the promptness of his response — it took David McCullough days, you'll recall, to admit that he'd been caught with his pants down, and he has yet to correct mistakes he said he would; and it took Joseph Ellis months to even begrudgingly acknowledge that maybe possibly perhaps it was concieveable that he'd offended Vietnam vets.

But the real question is how does any such "mistake" — let alone such an extensive one — happen in the first place?

Last September, in an article for The American Prospect magazine, writer Nicholas Confesssore offered some hint of how such an error could occur in a profile of Ambrose that noted he's an awfully busy man, collaborating with Stephen Spielberg on movies ("Saving Private Ryan"), consulting on television specials ("Band of Brothers"), and making frequent guest spots on CNN and PBS and NBC. Ambrose is also "immensely popular on the lecture circuit, where he commands a reported $40,000 per engagement plus transportation on a private plane."

And then there are the books, that seem to come out with greater and greater frequency. How does he do it?

"Mostly by becoming an efficient and unabashed recycler of his own work," said Confessore, who noted that Ambrose's "The Good Fight," for example, was "essentially a simplified combination of 'Citizen Soldiers' and 'Band of Brothers'," and that 1999's "Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals" "consists largely of reworked passages from 'Band of Brothers' and previous books on Lewis and Clark, Crazy Horse and General Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon."

In itself, there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But it's easy to imagine — fair or not — how a man so busy can become less than dilligent about the quality of his "product" as it becomes more and more lucrative.

Which may be the real problem — that history is becoming just another product, something produced and marketed with the quality of attention given the rest of the entertainment industry products.

While the resurgence of interest in history amongst a pop readership is a heartening thing, we are all well–advised to remember that accurate history isn't always so easy to read, nor is it always entertaining.

But accurate history is the kind that's most profitable . . . to readers.

Last Week’s Column: THE 2001 MOBY AWARDS Proof that the book biz is still the place for intellectualism: the year's dubious achievement awards.


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