Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'm not sure any other writers are going to be able to get a big article out of unearthing purloined passages in Stephen Ambrose books. But this may be the exception. According to Nick Confessore's article from early last Fall, Stephen Ambrose has routinely plagiarized the work of ... Stephen Ambrose!

Of course, recycling your own material is one of the perks of being a writer. But as Nick describes what he found you quickly get the feeling that this modus operandi could spill over into recycling other people's prose.

So how has Ambrose managed to sustain this deluge? Partly by hiring a devoted army of research assistants, but mostly by becoming an efficient and unabashed recycler of his own work. Ambrose's chapter in this spring's No End Save Victory collection was, in a previous life, a chapter in Citizen Soldiers--a 1997 book that itself contains bits and pieces from Band of Brothers. The Good Fight, published this May and aimed at the children's market, is essentially a simplified combination of Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers. Though Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals (1999) is partly an account of Ambrose's relationships with his brothers, father, and pals, it consists largely of reworked passages from Band of Brothers and his previous books on Lewis and Clark, Crazy Horse and General Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon.
and more to the point ...
He not only makes new books from old books; he makes new op-eds from old op-eds. A devoted Ambrose fan will thus read about how the young GIs "wanted to throw baseballs, not grenades, shoot a .22 rifle, not an M-1" first in D-Day, then again in Band of Brothers, and then again in a cluster of World War II-themed newspaper pieces. Likewise, a passage from Citizen Soldiers about how "they went to school on the GI Bill of Rights, and then they started building the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the modern corporation," and so forth, turns up again in several columns urging the creation of a World War II memorial and in a piece musing about heroism in the age of political correctness.
Check out Nick's article to see the whole story.

Some bits of info are just too choice not to share with you. They say so much about this city.

You may remember that back during the Balkan Wars one of the contested spaces was the part of Croatia called the Krajina. This was essentially an ethnic Serb enclave within the borders of Croatia and as you might imagine this became a volatile crisis point in the fighting between Serbs and Croats. In any case, United Nations peace-keepers were sent into the region in the beginning of 1992 to maintain the peace. And did a reasonably good, though by no means perfect, job at it.

For a while, the matter was thus placed in suspense, until 1995 when then-Croatian President Franjo Tudjman gave the UN Mission an ultimatum to leave. Eventually the Croatians rolled in and retook the region with some quite ugly consequences.

But not, it turns out, without a good media strategy!

In an agreement signed on February 24th, 1993 the Washington foreign lobbying shop of Jefferson Waterman International agreed to help the Croatians deal with whatever bad press might ensue from reasserting their ethnic rights in the region. For instance, according to the proposal JWI submitted to the Croatian government, they advised ...

"Should the time come when it is necessary for Croatia forcefully to assert control over Croatian territory currently hosting a United Nations presence, a wave of criticism must be anticipated and countered. The groundwork to justify such actions should be laid now, not after the fact."
"A number of articles and individuals have articulated the viewpoint that both Croatia and Serbia are to blame for the current carnage, and that both are conspiring to carve up Bosnia. This viewpoint must not be allowed to go unchallenged."

Even ethnic cleansing needs a good PR campaign.

So what's the deal with me and Stephen Ambrose?

A number of readers have asked me to explain this earlier remark, which I made in the context of the plagiarism charges against Ambrose ...

Now before proceeding further, it's probably fair to admit that I come to this whole thing already not very friendly to Ambrose - for a number of reasons we can get to later.
Actually, a few readers are pretty damn insistent. One wrote this evening ...
You allude to the fact that you and Steve Ambrose are not on the best of terms but you never spell out why. I am curious to know what may have transpired between you two. Perhaps you are just bitter that he is a nationally respected professor while you are just a career student. The time to come clean about this is now!
Sheesh! That's kind of rough. 'Career student'? Hey, if it were almost ten years since I started a Ph.D. program and I was still only working on the last chapter of the dissertation, then I might be a career student, and maybe pretty hurtin' too. But I've got this whole journalism thing going! So I'm fine with it. And besides I get the parchment in June ... Okay, wait. I gotta center myself ...

Anyway, back to our story. So what's the deal with me and Ambrose? The reader noted above implies there's some sort of competition going on. But how would I compete with Ambrose. Over who's most crotchety? Who's most grizzled? Who's got the gravelliest voice?


Needless to say, I've never met Stephen Ambrose and have read very little of his academic work.

My beef with Ambrose is that in the recent years in which he has become a household name, he's become a purveyor of a sort of retrograde sentimentalism, the fashionable discontent of the 1990s ... You're never gonna find a generation like the WW II generation and the young'ens these days don't have the fiber! the gumption! to do the work that needs to be done. So I say vote for this feller George W. Bush. etc.

This is no beef with the men who fought and won World War II and liberated the world from fascism in Europe and militarism in East Asia. It's a beef with the cliche I feel Ambrose makes of it. And lessons he draws from it for today.

Just a tidbit.

John Shelk, VP of government affairs, American Gaming Assn., and Patrick Shortridge, chief political advisor for Rep. Dick Armey, to Enron Corp., Washington, D.C., as senior directors of federal government affairs.

Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter
May 23, 2001

Just make a note of it.

Monday: CNN promotion department runs ad saying Paula Zahn is "just a little sexy."

Tuesday: Larry King Live has Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson on to talk about her feelings about 9/11 for the third time (Nov.16th, Dec. 4th, Jan.8th).

Wednesday: Talking Points editorial board stymied trying to decide which is the bigger outrage.

Am I off base or are you getting the feeling we're talking tip of the iceberg here with Stephen Ambrose? With Forbes.com's unearthing of another apparent instance of misdemeanor plagiarism from twenty-five years ago this is really starting to get ugly.

As regular readers know, schadenfreude is a pretty primary emotion for Talking Points. Happiness, sadness, love, hate, schadenfreude ... that pretty much sums it up.

Still, I'm not enjoying this a bit.

The only positive I can see at the moment is that Mickey Kaus has found a way to leverage this into some more Marina Ein bashing. I mean first General Wiranto (accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor) , then Gary Condit (accused of crimes against self-respect in Washington, DC), what's next? Stephen Ambrose?

Come to think of it, there would be a certain symmetry because Marina Ein claims that words that are hers aren't hers, and Stephen Ambrose claims that words that aren't his are his.

So maybe it would work?

Can we get a credentials check over here? Is Larry Lindsey really an economist? It's sort of hard to figure after his appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday.

On the show yesterday, Lindsey told viewers that unemployment checks have no stimulatory effect on the economy, no boosting of demand.

Let's go to the tape ...

HUME: I want to ask you about something else Senator Daschle said in this somewhat remarkable speech he made the other day about the economy. He was speaking of the stimulus package proposed by the Democrats.

Quote, "We included unemployment and health benefits for laidoff workers in our plan because, as any objective economist will tell you, it's one of the most effective ways to boost demand and pump money into the economy quickly."

Setting aside "objective," can you think of any economist who would make that argument?

LINDSEY: Well, I think the president, as you know, is very much for health benefits and for unemployment, but not necessarily for the reason the senator said. He's there because these people need help, and that's why we...

HUME: Can you talk about the economic theory, if there is one -- do you know of any economic theory under which health care benefits and unemployment benefits are used to stimulate the economy?

LINDSEY: Our view is that paychecks are what the objective should be here and not simply bigger unemployment checks.

HUME: And the reason for that is what?

LINDSEY: Well, paychecks are what grow the economy. People who are unemployed need help and we're all for that. But unemployment checks don't grow the economy; paychecks do.

Now, Talking Points is no economist, but he had always understood that unemployment checks not only create demand and stimulate the economy (which only stands to reason since you're putting money directly into the hands of people who immediately have to spend it) but that this is the point. Unemployment insurance is intended to be counter-cyclical.

Exactly when the economy is contracting and people are getting laid off you have a roughly proportional, if lesser, amount of money being injected back into the economy. It's a bit like macro-economic shock absorbers. This isn't 'some economic theory', it's Macro-Economics 101.

In any case, I'll stop there, since I'm no economist and I'll run into some error soon enough if I keep going. But maybe Larry Lindsey ain't either. Do we need to take a closer look at the serial number on that Harvard Ph.D.?

PS. Special thanks to TPM reader MP for the catch?

Mickey Kaus is exactly right when he calls out conservatives for giving a general pass to Stephen Ambrose's lifting paragraphs from another author when they would crucify someone like Cornel West for doing the same thing. And I do mean, crucify.

First, a momentary sidelight on the Cornell West controversy. One of the ironies of the situation is that so much attention is being placed on rather touchy criticism of his self-indulgent rap album as a sign that he's somehow not a serious scholar or an academic loafer or something. This isn't true. The real problem is that West is an absolutely first-rate writer and thinker (take a look at his 1989 book The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, for instance) but he's spent recent years coasting (as many superstar academics do) with quickly scribbled popular works like Race Matters.

Now back to plagiarism.

Let me try to cover a number of different points here. First, the issue in question centers on a just released article by Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. In the article, Barnes makes a pretty much undeniable case that a number of passages in Ambrose's new book The Wild Blue The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany came from another book Wings of Morning The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers.

Now before proceeding further, it's probably fair to admit that I come to this whole thing already not very friendly to Ambrose - for a number of reasons we can get to later.

That said, this sort of seeming plagiarism case is a complicated matter. I've always thought we need to collectively reassess our rules and punishments regarding plagiarism. First, as cutting-edge literary theorists are happy to make annoyingly clear, much of our current idea of what constitutes plagiarism is rather new and arguably based on an unworkable idea of how much any sort of written work is really 'original'.

Go back a few centuries, and certainly to the ancient world, and much of what we now consider plagiarism was commonplace and entirely accepted. More relevant for our purposes is the fact that when you really probe a work of literature you can often find similarities to other works - and to a great degree this is because authors, when they sit down to write, are influenced by other things they've read or heard more often than they know.

It really is possible to read a passage of text, like it, have it get stuck in your head, and 'write' it yourself - or some near version of it - a few months later, entirely innocently. When someone gets nailed for something like this, every writer has to have some sense of 'there but for the grace of God go I', etc. And if they don't, they should.

Given that such things can occur because of inattention rather than bad faith, I've long thought we need to institute a revision of the popular law of plagiarism, one that would recognize what we might call misdemeanor and felony plagiarism. One of the problems with our current system is that it's so all or nothing. Either it's not plagiarism - which Ambrose's defenders are now saying. Or it is - and that means you're basically discredited for good.

There needs to be some middle ground - misdemeanor plagiarism - that wouldn't be the journalistic equivalent of child molestation which plagiarism is generally considered. This would make it possible to call an author out for sloppiness - not noticing that he or she had lifted a few phrases, or doing so where some credit really ought to have been given - without fundamentally challenging their character or legitimacy as a writer.

As long we don't have such a distinction, I think we're always at the risk - as Mickey Kaus is I think implying - that the charges and sentences tend to be inevitably arbitrary, with unpopular authors getting crucified and sometimes destroyed for things that sympathetic or popular folks end up skating through with. Or even if it's not a popularity thing. Maybe it's just random.

So where does Stephen Ambrose fall? Good question. From reading Fred Barnes' article, there is just no question that certain passages in Ambrose's book came from Childers' book. And these are not phrases or sentences. They're whole paragraphs - at least a couple of which seem nearly word for word.

Using the criteria I set out before, it does strain the imagination to think that you can read a paragraph at one sitting and then reproduce it unintentionally a few months later. Or even a few days later. Possible, I suppose. But real hard to figure.

On first blush, I think - and I'm gonna reserve final judgment - that this is very serious misdemeanor plagiarism. Something for which Ambrose deserves to be a bit embarrassed and at least admit that he must have copied some stuff unintentionally. But not the sort of thing that makes him damaged goods.

Let me say also that I think this sort of thing, and much worse, turns out to be distressingly commonplace.

Here's an example. When I was in college doing a long semester research paper, I read a book on topic X by an American historian with a fairly sizeable popular following. He frequently writes in the New York Times Book Review and places like that. So not someone that obscure.

After I read this guy's book on topic X, I came across an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation from the 1950s on the same subject. It turns out that famous historian A had pretty much gutted unfamous would-be historian B's dissertation, with only passing credit. And, just as importantly, the published book contained a number of passages lifted from the unpublished dissertation in what I guess we might call the Ambrosian fashion.

Which is worse, the wholesale lifting of the guy's work, with little credit? Or the specific passages lifted word for word?