New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan criticized the paper's decision to publish an article promoting specious allegations of plagiarism against historian Rick Perlstein.
The August 4 Times article chronicled the "serious accusations conservative author and publicist Craig Shirley has leveled against Perlstein's new book, Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Richard Nixon And The Rise of Ronald Reagan. Shirley has threatened to sue for $25 million in damages and has asked for all copies of the book to be destroyed because Perlstein paraphrased facts that he reported in his own Reagan biography.
The Times article was criticized by media commentators, including Times columnist Paul Krugman, who noted that the Times had raised the profile of the attacks without attempting to determine whether they were true. Perlstein has credited Shirley in the book's online endnotes (the page mentions Shirley in 125 instances) and an expert says Perlstein's attribution style is in line with accepted standards for historical works.
In a blog post discussing the Times' decision to go forward with the story, Sullivan wrote that the Times article had “amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader.” Sullivan pointed out that Shirley is “the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation” and that by writing the article, “The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.” From Sullivan's post:
My take: There's a problem here. An article about polarized reaction to a high-profile book is, of course, fair game. But the attention given to the plagiarism accusation is not.
Yes, the claim was “out there” but so are smears of all kinds as well as claims that the earth is flat and that climate change is unfounded. This one comes from the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation. By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn't help much. It's as if The Times is saying: Here's an accusation; here's a denial; and, heck, we don't really know. We're staying out of it. Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency -- and for good reason.
So I'm with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader. The standard has to be higher.
As Sullivan suggests, the original Times article elevated Shirley's attacks but failed to provide crucial context about Shirley's history that suggests his campaign against Perlstein was political intent.
While the Times article had noted Shirley's PR firm “represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter,” that undersells his long career of conservative activism and advocacy.
According to a biography page previously posed on his firm's website, in1982, he worked as a communications advisor to the Republican National Committee. He was the communications director for a political action committee supporting President Reagan's re-election and ran a PAC supporting George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.
Shirley's public relations firm ran a “major advertising and public relations campaign” supporting President H.W. Bush and Operation Desert Storm, and provided “in-kind support” to George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and the controversial Florida recount effort in that election.
He also orchestrated Paula Jones' press conference at the 1994 CPAC which helped to launch the right's impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, and has worked as a publicist for conservative groups and figures like Dinesh D'Souza, the NRA, Hobby Lobby, the Heritage Foundation, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry.
Shirley has also written two books about Reagan from a positive, conservative point of view: Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All and Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.
Despite this history and the fact that Shirley might have an axe to grind against Perlstein, whose work undermines his rosy view of Reagan, the Times reported on his specious claims against Perlstein and gave them wider exposure than they seem to merit. As Sullivan writes, "It's as if The Times is saying: Here's an accusation; here's a denial; and, heck, we don't really know. We're staying out of it. Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency -- and for good reason."