Well, a court might be asked to decide that question.
What is clear is that Perlstein, in his new book about the rise of Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s, is extremely sloppy (to put it mildly) with attribution. Conservative author Craig Shirley, a superb chronicler of all things Reagan, has built quite a case that Perlstein has pilfered Shirley’s thoughts, research, and sometimes his exact words, all taken from Shirley’s masterful Reagan’s Revolution, which provided a huge number of nuggets of theretofore unreported, behind-the-scenes occurrences during Reagan’s 1976 race for the Republican presidential nomination . Perlstein, though, notes that he did cite Shirley more than 100 times in his “source notes” published at his personal online website. But Shirley provides a fairly large number of examples of material, and often exact (or near-exact) words used by Perlstein, that quite obviously came from Shirley and nobody else, but which not even the online “source notes” credit.
So if Perlstein was trying to steal Shirley’s work, why would he have credited Shirley so often — but why not credit him on so many other occasions when he should have?
This is all rather complicated, and I am biased (about which, more, in a few moments), but…. it’s important. True intellectual property is, or should be, sacrosanct. So, here goes:
First, Perlstein is doing something quite unconventional in his new book. The actual hard copy of his book not only contains no footnotes, but also no bibliography at all. This is something quite unheard of. Indeed, I would argue that it’s wholly unacceptable. A work of history or journalism that draws heavily on other work should acknowledge that other work right then and there, where the reader can see it without doing a major search of his own. Instead, Perlstein’s book calls such conventions “mostly superfluous” and refers readers to his web site, where all the attribution is supposed to be made.
Even apart from Shirley’s allegations of plagiarism, Perlstein’s practice comes under serious fire even from a left-leaning reviewer for “Open Letters Monthly.” That publication’s managing editor, Steve Donoghue, rightly points out the absurdity of Perlstein’s method:
[A]lthough you can, theoretically, confirm citations this way, it sure as Hell isn’t easy, convenient, or always intelligible. If you encounter a detail in The Invisible Bridge that you want to check in the end notes, you have to put a bookmark in the book and click over to rickperlstein.net, then click on the tab for The Invisible Bridge, then click on “Source Notes.” Doing that calls up a list of the entire book’s chapters, notes, and citations, but the chapters aren’t separately linked, so if you’re looking for a detail in Chapter 15, you’ll have to scroll all the way down the page. And once you get there, you then have to find the note – they’re numbered in these on-site source notes, but they’re not numbered back in the text, so the numbers online are useless and instead you have to navigate by the snippet of prose signaling the spot in the printed text …
Then comes Donoghue’s coup de grace: “This isn’t the spirit of the open source software movement, in other words. This is Soviet cryptology.”
What’s worse, as Donoghue points out, is that Perlstein is often sloppy (at best) even inside the material he is sourcing — changing small words within quotes, collapsing timelines within events, adding drama where the original source did not do so, and other sorts of things that amount to serial massaging of reality for either dramatic or ideological effect. As Donoghue wrote, “ Those suspicions spread like a stain throughout the book; almost everywhere you look, you find Perlstein neatening and shortening and simplifying and exaggerating.”
Again, that’s just a generic criticism, not even involving Craig Shirley’s more serious allegations of outright plagiarism.
What is probably the most illustrative example of Shirley’s contentions, as noted by Fred Barnes, is this: “[O]n page 297 of the Shirley book: ‘Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.’ On page 771 of Perlstein’s book: ‘The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.’”
That passage appeared in Perlstein’s book without a single credit or attribution to Shirley, either in the hard copy of the book or even online.
Now, it must be said that there can be at least some acceptable leeway in modes of attribution. If one book borrows from only three or four others, and makes clear in its own pages that it is drawing largely on just those three or four accounts, then it might be able to get away with avoiding footnotes on every factoid. Facts that are uncontested and that do not seem terribly original might not require individual footnoting, as long as thoughts and material original to the other author are clearly delineated — and as long as, within the hard copy itself, there is specific acknowledgement, whether in bibliography or footnotes, of the sorts and level of borrowing from the original source.
But I’ve never, ever heard of a conscious decision to put the notes in an entirely different place, especially one so readily amendable as a website. Even if Perlstein had been perfectly meticulous in his online sourcing, it would still be a violation of the tenets of intellectual property. Or, at least that’s how I and I think most others would see it.
All that said, here is some important full disclosure. First, Craig Shirley is a friend of mine. Moreover, the friendship began specifically because of the book in question, Shirley’s first. I reviewed Reagan’s Revolution for the Wall Street Journal. Before I did so, I knew Shirley only from one very brief, passing meeting. But I gave his book a strongly favorable review, albeit with a few pointed criticisms included as well. Amazingly, Craig called (or wrote; I don’t remember which) and thanked me not just for the praise but even for the criticisms. He said he thought the criticisms were valuable, and that he would keep them in mind for the next book he wrote.
When I moved from Mobile to DC, Craig invited me to gatherings of conservatives and then, out of the blue, asked me to edit his second book, Rendezvous with Destiny, about how Reagan rose from his 1976 defeat to his victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. The book, in size, is a tome — an amazingly thorough compendium of great material, all told with verve. As such, the editing job took far more hours than I had expected, so that on an hourly scale, I didn’t exactly make out like a bandit financially. But far more valuable was the personal satisfaction of being affiliated in some way with such a wonderful project.
What’s relevant here (in addition to my bias in favor of Craig Shirley) is the nature of much of my editing work. (I was not the only editor, by the way. But Craig asked me to go through the whole thing word for word with the same care as if mine were the final edit.) Although the overall work was a joy, there were a number of times when Craig and I clashed (in a friendly way), not so much over how he wrote or organized his material, but on the sheer volume of material he included. Again and again I would suggest that he had included anecdotes that were interesting in themselves but which did not move along the narrative. “This great book is too long,” I would say. “We need to keep the reader engaged in the main narrative thrust, without scaring him with so much detail that he thinks he’ll never get through it.”
To which, Craig’s invariable first response was: “But nobody else has this. Nobody else has ever told this anecdote. If I don’t, nobody will — and it’s important to get it on the record!”
I’m proud of Craig for the final choices he made as to what to include and what to remove. But what’s crucial here is just how important it was to Craig that he had unearthed information, through his amazingly and admirably indefatigable research, that would add to the historical record. Craig wasn’t just recounting generally known information in a new way or with a new interpretation; he was adding valuable new information to the world’s store of knowledge.
That’s why Perlstein’s carelessness (or worse) is so particularly galling: His attributional omissions weren’t merely a matter of failing to credit a turn of phrase or two; instead, in a number of the 45 examples cited by Shirley’s complaint, they were failures to credit original, painstaking research. In other words, he didn’t just fail to observe some antiquated formality; instead, Perlstein, whether by intent or by lack of attributional rigor, really did present Shirley’s original, personal, careful work as if it were Perlstein’s own.
Shirley has threatened to sue Perlstein and his publisher for $25 million. A case like that, if filed, could take years to wind through the courts. Perlstein could at least partially make amends, and show himself to be more of a man of honor than he now appears, if he would just step forward and offer an apology and a mea culpa. If he really intended to fully and thoroughly credit Craig Shirley for Shirley’s work, and if therefore his 100+ citations online of Shirley’s book lacked 45 other citations due to unintentional negligence alone, then Perlstein should say so, in public. Otherwise, he can’t complain if somebody else doesn’t afford Perlstein himself credit where it otherwise might be due.
One more note: Readers might have noticed that nowhere in this lengthy blog essay have I actually mentioned the name of Perlstein’s new book which is causing such a ruckus. As per Perlstein’s own practics, that was intentional. If you follow my links, you can find it online elsewhere. And if Perlstein doesn’t appreciate this lack of specific citation, well, now he knows how Craig Shirley feels.