When the news of historian Stephen Ambrose’s plagiarizing of History Professor Thomas Childers’ “Wings of Morning” broke on Jan. 4, Childers figured the brouhaha would die down in about a week.
When we spoke with Childers in his College Hall office Jan. 25, he was still fielding calls from reporters and wading through oceans of e-mail.
“I’m surprised that, in the lingo of your profession, this is a story with legs,” Childers said of the ever-widening plagiarism scandal, which has gone on to ensnare popular historians David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both accused of plagiarism as well.
The story has kept Childers plenty busy. He has been interviewed by CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, Newsday, People, Entertainment Weekly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, campus dailies at Yale and Brigham Young…“I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody,” he said, adding, “This doesn’t happen around here, not to me at least.”
And if he had his druthers, it wouldn’t be happening to him now. “I’m in a difficult position, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve been an admirer of Ambrose for some time because of the work he did.”
Popular historians like Ambrose and McCullough play a vital function, in Childers’ view. Their books, he said, show that there is a large, literate audience that is interested in history. And, oddly enough, the attention being paid to the plaigiarism underscores this. In fact, he said, the lesson of the scandal is not that popular history is not to be trusted. Rather, it’s that there are ways to go about incorporating the work of other scholars, and ways not to. “You don’t just take someone’s words and present them as your own,” he said. “Somehow, you’ve got to alert the reader. Quotation marks, maybe?”
For the most part, he said, the press has gotten this story right, even given the constraints under which journalists work. “I’m at pains to say, Look, here’s the context; here’s the situation the author finds himself in. Those things fall by the wayside as reporters rush to meet deadlines and write stories to fit space.”
And, he said, he hasn’t noted any particular political axe-grinding on the part of the reporters following the story. Except, maybe, for one. “The New York Times reporter was looking for [signs of right-wing partisanship],” he said, with questions suggesting that conservatives were upset with Ambrose because the book in question, “The Wild Blue,” includes George McGovern as one of the figures portrayed. “For one thing, McGovern is old news and below the radar screen of today’s conservatives,” Childers said. “Another reason it doesn’t make sense is because Ambrose is a darling of the right.”
However, the experience has left him wiser to the ways of the media. “I’ve learned that little off-hand remarks that I once said going out the back door or in passing make their way into print,” he said. “I can see now why people in public life measure their words very carefully.”
And he doesn’t like being cast as the man passing judgement on a colleague, either. He recalled with particular distaste a recent appearance he made on “NewsNight,” CNN’s 10 p.m. nightly newscast.
“I didn’t want to be on TV pointing my finger, saying, You shouldn’t have done that, so I tried to avoid doing that.” Childers said he had known about the plagiarism for five months before Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard, first published the evidence. “If Barnes hadn’t broke the story, I wouldn’t have done anything.”
Childers was also somewhat surprised by student reaction to the news and his subsequent announcement that he planned to continue using Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” in his history course. “The students were saying, If we did this, we’d be in deep trouble,” he said. “I said that this was an isolated incident.” Later reports that Ambrose had lifted passages from other books led Childers to reverse his position and drop the Ambrose book.
He was even more surprised to get calls from People and Entertainment Weekly. “When they called, I thought, It’s Bruce [Kuklick, professor of history] playing a joke on me. But it wasn’t.”
That attention had a pleasant side effect, though: “It made my reputation in the eyes of my 14-year-old daughter,” he said. “She thinks I’m something special because I was in People.”
On the whole, he said, “It’s been a real education for me. And I hope it’s dying down.”
Originally published on February 7, 2002