Writer Levels Low Blows at Harvard Profs

A small package arrived last month at The Crimson’s office with a slender book and a brief handwritten note that read: “Thought this might be of local interest. With compliments, TNP.”

“TNP,” I learned, stands for The New Press, a small New York City not-for-profit outfit that claims to publish “works of educational, cultural, and community value.”

Given those criteria, it’s unclear how the enclosed book, Historians in Trouble, by University of California-Irvine professor Jon Wiener, passed the publisher’s test.

And the innocuous note signed “with compliments” should have mentioned that in fact, Wiener has very few compliments for The Crimson. More accurately, Wiener excoriates The Crimson’s coverage of a 1988 campus controversy that erupted when several African-American students leveled charges of racial insensitivity against Winthrop Professor of History Stephan A. Thernstrom.

Since Wiener specifically takes aim at The Crimson, it’s hard to review his work without at least a twinge of defensiveness. And perhaps Wiener is correct that The Crimson blew the Thernstrom controversy out of proportion, contributing to the politicization of what was in reality a civil disagreement between a teacher and his students over a course syllabus. One chapter later, however, Wiener gets his facts flat-out wrong when he launches an unwarranted attack on Pulitzer Prize-winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Phillips professor of early American history at Harvard.

One could say that Wiener’s book is flawed from page one, but that would be inaccurate. Rather, the flaws start on page viii, in the prefatory “acknowledgments” section, in which the author writes that he is “indebted” to Thernstrom—among others—for agreeing to be interviewed.

Wiener’s profession of indebtedness is patronizing and disingenuous. Thernstrom, for one, won’t ask for that debt to be repaid any time soon. “I once knew Jon well, but we are not on speaking terms,” Thernstrom said last week.

When asked if he had read Wiener’s book, Thernstrom replied, “I haven’t bothered. I don’t think it would be worth my time.”

Thernstrom’s off-the-cuff assessment isn’t far off the mark.

ROTTEN TO THE CORE

In February 1988, several students from Thernstrom’s fall semester core course Historical Studies A-25, “The Peopling of America,” accused the professor of displaying “racial insensitivity” in the class. One African-American student, Wendi Grantham ’89 (who in her subsequent career as an actress appeared on HBO’s “The Wire” and NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets”), told Wiener that she objected to Thernstrom’s syllabus, which included slaveowner’s journals but not slave narratives. Another African-American student, Paula Ford ’88, told Wiener that Thernstrom “said black men beat their wives.”

According to Wiener, the criticism against Thernstrom was limited to three students in total, but The Crimson played up the story, exaggerating the extent of the allegations against the longtime professor. Wiener accuses Thernstrom of using the media attention to his advantage. Wiener writes that Thernstrom “turned these events into a cause celebre for the right, describing himself as a victim of left-wing political correctness.”

Wiener’s thesis seems—at best—implausible. He concocts a conspiracy theory that would make even Mel Gibson’s head spin: that Thernstrom deliberately drummed up charges of racism against himself so that he could come out of the controversy looking like a defender of academic freedom. Wiener suggests that The Crimson played a supporting role in this nefarious scheme by hyping up the allegations against Thernstrom. And according to Thernstrom, the plot paid dividends in 2002, when President Bush appointed the “neocon hero” Thernstrom to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.

A cursory glance through Wiener’s footnotes reveals that almost all of the reporting for his chapter on Thernstrom was done more than 13 years ago. Wiener published an almost identical account of the incident in The Nation in September 1991.

At least—although his reporting on the Thernstrom controversy is more than a decade old—Wiener’s reporting on the topic is thorough, if outdated. The same cannot be said for his next chapter, a poorly-researched piece that slams Ulrich and several other venerable scholars.

FUZZY MATH

That chapter, “Arming America and Academic Fraud,” takes up the case of Michael Bellesiles, an Emory University professor who stepped down from his post after colleagues raised serious doubts about the validity of the research behind his award-winning 2000 book on gun ownership in antebellum America.

Bellesiles’ book argued that firearms were far less widespread in pre-Civil War America than Second Amendment activists have led us to believe. According to Wiener, Bellesiles was tarred and feathered because the gun lobby “succeeded at putting pressure on his university, his publisher, and the history profession.”

Specifically, Wiener criticizes the conduct of an external review committee appointed by Emory to investigate the allegations against Bellesiles. All three of that committee’s members have strong ties to Harvard. Hanna H. Gray is a member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. Stanley N. Katz ’55, a professor at Princeton, received three degrees from Harvard. Ulrich joined Harvard’s history department in 1995.

Why did these three respected scholars volunteer to serve on the Bellesiles committee? Wiener cites two anonymous historians who said that Emory offered to pay members $10,000.

Really? “I have no idea if the others were paid,” Katz wrote in an e-mail Sunday. “Jon [Wiener] never asked me. I would have told him that I was not paid a cent (though my travel expenses to meetings of the committee were reimbursed).”

“We were NOT paid for our work,” Ulrich wrote in an e-mail Monday morning. “I believe I speak for the others in saying that our objective was to perform a service to the profession by helping to untangle the scholarly issues involved.”

Bellesiles inserted a controversial table into his book featuring the percentage of wills that listed firearms among an individual’s possessions from 1765 to 1859. But the table omitted the years 1774 and 1775. In both of those years, records show markedly higher rates of gun ownership. Colonial governments distributed firearms to militia members in the run-up to the anticipated conflict with Britain—a fact not mentioned in Bellesiles’ original work.

Wiener downplays the severity of Bellesiles’ methodological transgressions. Wiener writes that the review committee “found ‘evidence of falsification’ only on one page” of Bellesiles’ book. But Wiener misleads his readers, as a glance at the committee’s report—available on Emory’s website—makes clear.

The committee raises questions about research that Bellesiles claims to have conducted in Contra Costa, Calif.; East Point, Ga.; Salt Lake City, Utah, and Rutland County, Vt., as well as several Massachusetts courthouses. The report outlines a cross-country trail of unprofessional conduct. Yes, the committee only found evidence of intentional falsification on one page—but the committee documented examples of “carelessness” and substandard scholarship throughout Bellesiles’ book.

In perhaps the most absurd passage of a thoroughly absurd book, Wiener writes: “Gray, Katz, and Ulrich are guilty of…suppressing inconvenient evidence, spinning the data their way, [and] refusing to follow leads that didn’t serve their thesis.” But Wiener never explains what evidence was suppressed or what leads weren’t followed. He gives his reader no reason to believe that Gray, Katz, and Ulrich spun their data any way at all.

The committee was out to get the facts—not to prove a point. “We do not have a thesis,” Katz explained in his e-mail to The Crimson. “We found that [Bellesiles’] methodology and findings were unreliable in some instances. If Jon does not think that important, then he has a different view of historical truth than we do.”

IN GOOD COMPANY

“From my point of view, all of Jon’s reporting on this issue was at best sloppy,” Katz writes. “‘Lazy’ is probably more accurate.”

But in truth, Wiener’s journalistic transgressions run far beyond laziness. He violates a basic tenet of journalistic integrity by printing explicitly “off-the-record” comments, which are by definition not for publication in any form. Wiener says that he received an e-mail from James Lindgren, a Northwestern University law professor, headed “OFF THE RECORD, CONFIDENTIAL.” Wiener’s revelation turns out to be a dud: Lindgren’s e-mail contained only “lists of anti-Bellesiles academics who could be called for quotes, along with their contact information, and suggestions about how the story [on Arming America] should be written.” But Wiener’s brazen decision to flout journalistic standards is unseemly—if not unethical.

Unfortunately, TNP’s note—remarking that Historians in Trouble “might be of local interest”—understated Wiener’s reach. His book has received positive press in national publications and has garnered praise from well-known writers, including Howard Zinn. Wiener’s prose is fluid, but he veers off course when he fires salvos at Thernstrom, Gray, Katz, and Ulrich. The Crimson is proud to be among those lambasted by Wiener. We’re in good company.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.