Perlstein and the NY Times

You might think, from this article, that there is a real issue about Rick Perlstein’s scholarship.  But you would be wrong, and what a pity that Alter, just hired, would debut so awkwardly.

Alexandra, reporting is not collecting quotes from both “sides” of a story, especially when one side is a historian with a reputation and a long record and the other “side” is a hack and a flack.  See, you can actually use your Columbia J-School training about what plagiarism is, not to mention your special expertise covering the publishing industry, to discern the facts,  and tell us what they are, and you should, and you didn’t.

You can also figure out that someone like Craig Shirley is not the real goods with fairly rudimentary research skills.  Even I could figure that out, and from the second sentence on his Wikipedia page:

He is best known as “one of the most esteemed Ronald Reagan biographers“.[1]

See the little [1]? it points, in support of the assertion, to a piece of Reagan hagiography, by someone I never heard of, on Breitbart.  Breitbart. The Wikipedia page sounds as though it was written by Shirley or his intern, but it doesn’t matter: Wikipedia is open source, and if Shirley is allowing that to remain on his page, he has a concept of esteemed, and of evidence therefor, that waves red flags all over the place.  Having a keyboard and a fax machine doesn’t make someone a “side”.

Please go down the hall to the climate change desk and get a quick hit of why “he said, she said” is not journalism, and also get the phone number of the advertising department to pass on to people who try to use you as a free mouthpiece.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

3 thoughts on “Perlstein and the NY Times”

  1. One of the odder criticisms of Perlstein is using online notes. This is partly money-saving by publishers, and just part of the economic crisis of print. But online references also expand what an author can provide in the way of supplementary material. Thomas Piketty's magnum opus Capital in the XXIst Century, 970 pages in French, has not only endnotes and bibliography online, but massive statistical tables and methodological discussions. You can download the whole apparatus : in one zip file, it's 13 MB, comparable to the size of the book. Good journalists today, like Paul Krugman or George Monbiot, provide hyperlinks to sources in the online versions of their columns. We bloggers here always supply hyperlinks in our posts, it's no more than standard good practice. From time to time, I supply a spreadsheet online to back up a chart.

    “The concern for me is that the URLs won’t live forever," Alter quotes a guy at Houghton Miflin. Well, they – the URLs created by scholarly publishers and newspapers – should live forever, or as long as a book does. The BBC aims at permanence of URLs, and most of their stuff is ephemera. If domains are changed, you should leave a pointer to the new one. There's also the Wayback Machine.

  2. Michael, thanks for hitting this, and more for pointing out that a journalist can't honestly dodge the question of what plagiarism is. They can't plead ignorance here.

  3. PS: Long and detailed textual analysis by MarkLiberman at Language Log. Short take: Perslstein "patchwrote" some passages without attribution – but if this is culpable, so equally is Shirley. Patchwriting – reworking details in your own language is IMHO inherent to narrative history. Sourcing every single fact is impracticable and makes sourcing dysfunctional. If you claim that LBJ had Kennedy shot, you had better supply multiple sources. If you write that Jacquie's suit was stained with her husband's blood, an evocative but uncontroversial detail, do you really need to source?

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