The Plagiarism Dead-Enders

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 7 2014 9:52 AM

The Plagiarism Dead-Enders

96263851-the-skyline-of-washington-dc-including-the-us-capitol
It's hard to publish a book about this town

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the strangest part of the New York Times' story on Rick Perlstein's "plagiarism" accusers was the reference to a review that had yet to be published. Alexandra Alter had gotten a gander at Sam Tanenhaus' upcoming review of Perlstein's book, The Invisible Bridge. "Lamenting the lack of primary sources," reported Alter, "he wrote that Mr. Perlstein had 'adopted the methodology of the web aggregator.' "

It was a serious accusation, but now that Tanenhaus' review is up, there's very little to it. Tanenhaus makes much of how Perlstein has referred to a "whackadoodle far-right," which is from a 2012 article, not the book; anyway, it's curious that the author of 2009's instantly irrelevant The Death of Conservatism would huff at the idea of bad tendencies on the right. In the essay that inspired Tanenhaus' book, he identified the mid-1970s as the death of "mature conservatism" and the moment when right-wingers became "inverse Marxists" and "revanchists." How is this different than Perlstein's argument? Perlstein just lacks Tanenhaus' pompous fatalism about his subject. 

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So the "web aggregator" line looks even worse in the full review.

His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism. 

Reading that, you might assume that Perlstein abandoned the archives to write this book. But Perlstein's online notes refer to findings from Michael Deaver's papers at Stanford, Ronald Reagan's papers at his presidential library, Richard Nixon's papers at his library, and half a dozen other primary source archives. Perlstein does use more online sources than he did in his 2001 book. Has anything happened since 2001? Have more sources been placed online? Why, yes, they have.* And the problem with Perlstein consulting those sources is ... what, exactly? There's some snobbery here about using sources that can be linked to, but no argument that the sources are illegitimate. 

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's replacement-level gossip columnist, reports that Craig Shirley will pursue a lawsuit against Simon & Schuster. As an aside, Bedard adds that "the Atlantic magazine said Perlstein has shown in his latest political history that he is less a researcher-historian than a simple 'web aggregator' who collects publicly available information and stitches it into a book." That's an amusing case of projection from an aggregator who bases stories on press releases in both blog and email form. The standards for accusations in court and accusations on the Internet are quite different, as some people are about to discover.

*This is half-anecdote and half-self-promotion, but my own book about progressive rock has been much, much easier to report because fans and archivists have placed so many out-of-print sources on the Internet.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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