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Dishonored and Honored Plagiarists

Posted By Reed Irvine On January 25, 2002 @ 1:51 am In AIM Column | No Comments

The Stephen Ambrose plagiarism story broken by the conservative Weekly Standard in mid-January has since expanded to tarnish another distinguished author, Doris Kearns Goodwin. She has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson, members of the Kennedy family and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Weekly Standard has disclosed that her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, contained a lot of material taken without proper attribution from Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times by Lynn McTaggart and lesser amounts from two other authors.

The Standard provided three examples of virtual verbatim copying from McTaggart’s book and said that there were dozens of other examples. The Boston Globe reported that “Goodwin was sad and contrite as she discussed the literary controversy,” but it said she denied that it was plagiarism because there were “extensive footnotes.” However, The Standard learned from Lynn McTaggart that the plagiarism was so great that she threatened to sue for copyright infringement.

The Standard quoted her as saying, “I read her book and was shocked because there were many similarities.” She said, “(T)here were dozens and dozens of individual phrases and unusual turns of phrase taken virtually verbatim, or paragraphs where a few words had been changed.” She told the Standard that when Goodwin was confronted with the evidence and the threat of a lawsuit, she and her publisher agreed to pay McTaggart a substantial sum of money and acknowledge in future editions the source of the material with “a broad thank you” and footnotes.

The day before this story by Bo Crader was posted on the Standard’s Web site, the Wall Street Journal published a column by Mark Lewis, a writer for Forbes.com, that focused almost entirely on Stephen Ambrose’s plagiarism, describing, but rejecting the theory that “Hollywood made him do it.” That is to say that the lure of big money from writing books that could be made into movies, caused him to begin “churning out potboiler histories at breakneck pace to earn those ever-larger advances and movie deals.” Lewis rejects this because Ambrose has written some 30 books since 1962. Lewis found that he had borrowed material for the third volume of his biography of Richard Nixon, which was certainly not written with movie rights in mind.

Lewis devoted only a paragraph to Doris Goodwin, saying that “she does not mass-produce books and only one of them has a taint.” That one, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, was the one that borrowed heavily from McTaggart’s book and the only one that was made into a TV miniseries. If Lewis had known about the threatened lawsuit that induced Goodwin and her publisher to compensate McTaggart for copyright infringement, he might have been reminded of another book that depended on borrowed material even more than McTaggart’s book. It was also made into a highly acclaimed TV miniseries.

That was Alex Haley’s Roots. Considerable publicity was given to the TV special aired by NBC on January 18 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Roots miniseries, and this would have been a good time to point out that Alex Haley and his publisher were sued by Harold Courlander for having taken so much material from his novel, The African. Courlander charged that Haley had not only copied over 80 passages from his book, but that he had copied “language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.” He said that it was doubtful that Haley could have written Roots without relying on The African.

Haley, who claimed that Roots was based on his genealogical research and oral family history, denied ever having read The African, but the similarities were overwhelming. He and his publishers settled the lawsuit in December 1978. Courlander, now deceased, told me that he was paid over $500,000. Roots was fiction and plagiarized fiction to boot. This was not mentioned in the stories about the 25th anniversary commemoration of the TV miniseries.

Alex Haley shares with Martin Luther King Jr. the dubious honor of being our most successful and highly honored plagiarist. King’s plagiarism, which was first exposed by the Wall Street Journal in 1990, is better known than Haley’s, but it is not politically correct to report either one. On Jan. 21, the holiday commemorating King, the Wall Street journal published a column about him. It was full of praise and some mild criticism. One word that was much in the news at the time was conspicuous by its absence. That word was plagiarism.


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