August 2014

I don’t usually write a blog post just to say “go read this other person’s blog post”, but some cases are worth an exception. Andy Oram’s recent post at O’Reilly Radar

Does net neutrality really matter?

is a must-read if you think you know where you stand on network neutrality.

The million comments received by the FCC (and one of them was mine) certainly indicated a healthy interest and watchfulness on the part of the public; with luck, the FCC will understand them that way. But the simplistic recommendation virtually all of us made in those comments, essentially that the FCC should grab the bluntest and most direct instrument at hand, Title II authority, and use it to regulate Internet traffic in a one-size-fits-all way, may not be the best outcome for the Internet. Andy Oram’s post explains why.

I still think that wave of comments was, overall, a good thing. The FCC, and by extension Congress, are now very aware that if smaller players start to have real trouble getting good Internet connections (inbound or outbound), it will be an electoral issue. But just because the comments demonstrate vigilance doesn’t mean they’re actually making the best technical recommendation available. After reading Andy’s post, you’ll understand why. In particular, follow his link to Michael Powell’s comment about the “Mercedes Divide”.

Once again, Andy Oram’s post:

Does net neutrality really matter?

A quick update for those who’ve seen my previous post (and followup) about the false charges of plagiarism levied by Craig Shirley against historian Rick Perlstein:

The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, agrees that Rick Perlstein was unfairly swift-boated here, and that the NYT contributed to the problem. See her post today: “Was an Accusation of Plagiarism Really a Political Attack?”

Sullivan discussed the matter with NYT deputy media editor Bill Brink, who, rather incredibly, said

We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story.

It was out there.

What’s so wrong about that — and what Bill Brink should know already, in his bones, if he’s working in journalism — is that there is no out there.

To act as though there’s such a thing as out there, and to think that one can just report on whatever’s happening out there, is merely to enable the rumor-spreaders and gossip-mongers who are the enemy of truth-seeking journalists. This is easy to see by induction: if Rick Perlstein didn’t engage in plagiarism (which he didn’t), but the NYT prints an article saying that he’s been accused of it, does that mean it’s now “out there”? And now that it’s out there, that would justify an editor at, say, CNN doing a quick spot on it too? Fair game, because it’s out there now, right? Meanwhile, the false charge gains credibility with every ratchet-step in prestige of the outlet repeating it. So walk back the cat: whatever source the NYT got the charges from has to evaluated, like any other source, and not be amplified if not credible. But instead, the NYT just played a middle step in a rumor chain.

Repeating rumors is not journalism. If the story is about the fact that a rumor is circulating, then clearly state that — meta is okay, though it should be reserved for very rare cases (this wasn’t one of them) where the effect of the rumor is itself a story. And the responsible way to report on those cases is to actually evaluate the evidence for and against the rumor, while making it clear that the story is about why the rumor is circulating. If the rumor has no basis in fact, that absolutely must be made unambiguously clear in the story, preferably in the lede. Quick test: if your story isn’t promoting the circulation of something true and discouraging the circulation of something false, you’re doing it wrong.

The original NYT piece didn’t meet any of these tests. As Margaret Sullivan rightly says:

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.

If Bill Brink still doesn’t understand this, even after reading Sullivan’s piece, he’s in the wrong job.

Update (2020-11-16): Craig Shirley has taken us full circle now. As described in detail in the Wikipedia article’s Talk page, his online bio at has now restored the claim that he “…was also a decorated contract agent for the CIA”, and now cites the Wikipedia article as the source! The citation is stale, of course, sicne the Wikipedia reference was long ago removed as it cited only Craig Shirley’s own bio as its source. I just now asked the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to snapshot his site’s bio page, so we can track any future developments in Craig Shirley’s past.

Update (2015-08-26): The claim of CIA employment has since been restored to Craig Shirley’s Wikipedia page, this time with a citation pointing to… itself as the source! I discuss this in more detail in the Wikipedia Talk page for the Craig Shirley article. (That link is to a specific version of the Talk page, in case it later gets edited and the material I wrote is removed for some reason.)

Last week I wrote about how historian Rick Perlstein had been falsely accused of plagiarism by author Craig Shirley. In the course of writing that post, I looked at Craig Shirley’s Wikipedia page, and found something really surprising. At that time, the page contained this — completely unsourced —  assertion about Craig Shirley:

He was a decorated contract agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Whuh?” I thought to myself.

Before going on, I want to make something very clear:

Just because an assertion is on a person’s Wikipedia page, that doesn’t mean a) that the assertion is true, nor does it mean b) that the person who is the subject of the page added it. In other words, Craig Shirley himself might have nothing to do with this claim, and there is no proof here either that he is ex-CIA or that he wanted people to think he was.

Since the claim was unsourced, I added a standard [citation needed] tag to it (in this change, for those keeping score at home).

A couple of hours later, an automated Wikipedia maintenance bot came along and added a date to my tag. Then a day later, John Broughton, a pretty experienced Wikipedian, came along and removed the claim entirely, on the grounds that contentious assertions must be sourced, and if they are not, the proper remedy is to simply remove them. (John Broughton was quite right, by the way; I’d been tempted to make that edit myself, before settling on just marking it as needing a citation.)

Naturally, I became curious about when and how the CIA claim had first appeared on the page, so I looked deeper into the page history. It turns out it’s been there since 29 December 2012, when it was added as part of a bunch of changes to the page by a user named Reagan1988. Here are all the substantive changes added in that revision by Reagan1988:

His books have been hailed as the definitive works on the Gipper’s campaigns of 1976 and 1980. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch and has lectured at the Reagan Library. …

Shirley is the founder of the Ft. Hunt Youth Lacrosse Program, was coach there for 14 years, compiling a record of 121 wins, 19 losses and 4 ties, winning several championships. In the 20 plus years since Shirley founded the program, thousands of boys and girls have enjoyed learning and playing for Ft. Hunt. He was also an editor of Coaching Youth Lacrosse, published by the Lacrosse Foundation.

… His varied interests include sailing, waterskiing, sport shooting, renovating buildings, and scuba diving. He was a decorated contract agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is so embarrassing that I think there’s a real possibility it’s a false-flag operation, by someone who doesn’t like Craig Shirley, to make it look as though Shirley had made these edits to his own Wikipedia page. On the other hand, the CIA assertion stayed in the page from late 2012 until last week. I don’t know Craig Shirley personally, but my guess is that a person who runs a public relations firm is aware of what his own Wikipedia page says, and unlikely to be so concerned about maintaining good Wikipedia form [1] that he would have let an error remain in his own page for more than a year without doing something about it.

So that’s where things stand. I don’t know how seriously to take the claim that he was a “decorated contract agent” for the CIA, and I don’t know if Craig Shirley had anything to do with its presence in his Wikipedia page.

I wonder who the user “Reagan1988” is. Whoever they are, all they’ve ever done (at least while logged in as that user) is edit Craig Shirley’s page, for a short period between 29 December 2011 and 10 January 2012. They have apparently made no edits since then.


[1]: There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule against editing one’s own page, by the way, though if one can say that one has never done it it’s a nice way to shut down certain trolling arguments. For example, my own page has had an uncorrected error for a few months now. I didn’t put it there, but I also haven’t corrected it since I feel it would be bad form to edit my own page. What Wikipedia’s Conflict-of-Interest Policy says on this is:

If you have a personal connection to a topic or person, you are advised to refrain from editing those articles directly, from adding related advertising links, links to personal websites and similar, and to provide full disclosure of the connection if you comment about the article on talk pages or in other discussions.

An exception to editing an article about yourself or someone you know is made if the article contains defamation or a serious error that needs to be corrected quickly. If you do make such an edit, follow it up with an email to WP:OTRS, Wikipedia’s volunteer response team, or ask for help on WP:BLPN, our noticeboard for articles about living persons.

[2]: Thanks to my friend Sumana Harihareswara for clueing me in to the link for getting all of Reagan1988’s contribution history on Wikipedia.

So, a friend of mine just got accused very publicly of plagiarism by author Craig Shirley.

The charge is completely bogus, and note that I have carefully arranged the above phrasing so as not to cause the Internet’s search engines to add any weight to the charge merely from my mentioning it here. You can’t trust those bots to use good judgement.

I’ve read Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge cover to cover, and now have seen the specific accusations Shirley makes. Perlstein shouldn’t even have to defend himself or his fine book against such claptrap, but unfortunately, because of a shallowly-reported New York Times piece about the accusation yesterday — the usual problem of just reporting what each side in a dispute says, instead of digging into the sources and presenting enough factual information for an interested reader to discern what’s actually going on — it’s necessary for the rest of us to do for free what the NYT reporter failed to do for pay.

So first, kudos to Paul Krugman for noticing and writing a short piece about it today. But a full presentation of the facts overwhelming favors Rick Perlstein’s case here, so I’d like to offer the primary sources — the claims Craig Shirley is actually making:

  1. First letter from Craig Shirley’s lawyer (07/25)

  2. Second letter from Craig Shirley’s lawyer (07/28)

  3. Response from Rick Perlstein’s lawyer (07/30)
    …and if you read only one of these letters, read this one; their response is beautiful.

I know you might not have time to read them — though you should if you can: Shirley’s side is fascinating as an exercise in intellectually bankrupt brazenness, and Perlstein’s lawyers are a joy to watch in action as they take it apart claim by claim — so I’ll give just the flavor of it here:

From Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution (2004) From Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge (2014)

Page 326: “In 1982, White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker was in the Oval Office with President Reagan. While reminiscing about the 1976 campaign, Baker asked Reagan if he would have accepted the offer, if it had come from Ford. Seconds passed, and Reagan said, ‘Yes, Jim, I probably would have.’

Page 794: “However, when Jim Baker was his White House chief of staff in 1982, Reagan told him he would have taken the running mate spot if Ford had offered it.”

Yes, I’m not making this up — in fact, that’s the very first example of so-called plagiarism Shirley offers.

Now, Shirley and Perlstein are both writing about historical events, Shirley in a 2004 book, Perlstein in a 2014 book. So apparently, if Perlstein reports the same historical event that Shirley reports, Perlstein must be guilty of plagiarism, because… Craig Shirley has some kind of monopoly on history itself?

The rest of the accusations in Shirley’s letters are similar to the above. Essentially, he accuses a fellow historian of, well, being a historian.

Plagiarism or amnesia: those are your choices, in Craig Shirley’s universe.

It’s difficult to know what to do when someone behaves like this. It’s like Shirley is standing in front of you, pointing his finger at a carrot

a carrot

…and he says “See? There’s the smoking gun! Right there!”

And you look at it and you say, “Uh, I’m sorry, but that’s just a carrot…” It doesn’t do you any good. You can’t argue with people who insist that a carrot is a gun. All you can do is try to ensure that everyone else understands what’s happening.

It’s true, and perfectly normal, that Shirley’s book was the source — or sometimes one of several sources — for some of the historical facts used in The Invisible Bridge. But Perlstein never tried to hide this: he thanks Shirley in the acknowledgements, and cites Shirley repeatedly — over 100 times — in the source notes, the way any good scholar should.

One of the amusing side threads in Shirley’s letters is his umbrage over one of Perlstein’s best decisions: the decision to put the source notes for The Invisible Bridge online, instead of printing them in the book itself. The advantages of doing it this way are obvious, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s the new normal: 99% of readers don’t ever look at the source notes (so why waste paper?), and for the scholars and other interested parties who do want to look at them, they’re actually easier to use in electronic form (hint: you can do automated searches on them that way — that’s how I was able to quickly count the citations).

Perlstein never covered up that he was doing this. Quite the opposite: he states it clearly in the book, explains why he’s doing it, and the print edition gives the Web address for those source notes. Here they are:

Somehow, Shirley’s laywers try to twist this innovative and entirely practical step into something sinister — getting their facts wrong in the process. From Shirley’s first letter:

After realizing the book contained no bibliography, footnotes, end notes or other citations, Mr. Shirley initiated an exchange of e-mail messages in which Mr. Perlstein confessed to making a “principled decision” to omit them because he thought they were “useless except for show.” (Of course, as Mr. Perlstein’s May 2014 phone call to Mr. Shirley betrays, he found the notes in Reagan’s Revolution to be quite useful.)

This is such a bald mischaracterization of what Perlstein said and meant as to be a misquotation. Perlstein did not “confess” a decision to “omit” the notes; rather, he explained that he had placed them online, which saves space and makes them more easily useable by those most likely to use them. He also never said that source notes are “useless except for show”; what he said was that printing them in the treeware book is useless except for show — and he’s right.

And from Shirley’s second letter:

Also, it is worth noting that while Mr. Shirley is referenced in the online source notes for these passages, the address at which the notes are posted appears nowhere in The Invisible Bridge or on its dust jacket — a fact which further evidences Mr. Perlstein’s intent to steal and conceal.

Wow. “Intent to steal and conceal”. Yes. That must be why Perlstein put the source notes online, where they could be indexed by any Internet search engine and more easily found by scholars.

What can one say about a historian like Shirley, who would wilfully misunderstand a bone fide and clear explanation from a colleague about perfectly legitimate sourcing techniques? At the very least, that one should worry about Shirley’s ability to faithfully report, in his own work, what he has learned from his own sources.

That worry would be justified, it turns out.

Look carefully at footnote number 2 in the response from Perlstein’s lawyer, which says:

Your two examples of Mr. Perlstein’s supposed failure to credit Mr. Shirley fail. Mr. Perlstein’s source for Nancy Reagan’s quote on page 631 of his work (and the reason his quote is different from Mr. Shirley’s) is a book published in 1977, PR as in President, by Victor Gold (p. 97).

Leave aside the obvious fact that it’s not plagiarism when you use the same Nancy Reagan quote that someone else uses — she said it; that’s just a historical fact — and leave aside even the fact that Perlstein had two sources for that quote, only one of which was Craig Shirley’s book. There is something more interesting going on here:

That book by Victor Gold, PR As in President, which came out twenty-seven years before Craig Shirley’s book, is one that Craig Shirley acknowledges having read too. (He told Rick Perlstein so on the phone.) Perlstein describes Gold’s book as an “excellent book, full of behind-the-scenes nuggets”, and one such nugget is that Ronald Reagan’s famous and supposedly spontaneous speech at the 1976 Republican convention where Reagan lost the nomination to Gerald Ford — a scene that Perlstein concludes his book with — was not in fact spontaneous at all, but had been carefully negotiated with the Ford campaign. Shirley claimed to have read and liked Gold’s book — but in Shirley’s own Reagan’s Revolution (2004), he still, with a bit of perfunctory hedging about how “sources differ”, portrays the speech as having been extemporaneous. You don’t have to know much about political campaigns, or for that matter about Ronald Reagan, to know that is highly unlikely on its face. (Update: There’s more detail about this episode in David Weigel’s excellent piece today about the false plagiarism charges.)

Rick Perlstein would never be so shoddy as to make a mistake like that. I’ve not only read Perlstein’s book, I’ve gotten to watch him working on it on many occasions. I’ve seen his own library, and sat next to him at scholarly libraries as he pulled out resource after resource and pored over them; I’ve seen how obsessively he checks sources, not merely scouring the Internet, but also flying out to various physical libraries to get access to material that isn’t yet online — not just print, but audio and video too. Rick Perlstein would never let an important detail like that slip by without bothering to integrate it — and properly attribute it.

And yet it is Craig Shirley sliming Rick Perlstein with baseless charges of plagiarism. Shirley’s lawyers should have had the good sense and the professional standards to tell their client that the accusations make no logical sense, but instead they wrote letters that misstate both the facts and the law, to their extreme discredit. (Perlstein’s lawyers, on the other hand, should get some kind of prize for the clarity and thoroughness of their response — how they managed to maintain a straight face while writing it, I don’t know; perhaps they didn’t.)

In the end, this will blow over, and Rick’s book will be the bestseller and conversation-changer it deserves to be. But the kind of “he said, she said” reporting that leads unsuspecting people to believe there’s some kind of real controversy needs to be vigorously countered. There’s no plagiarism here; there is just deep research, great narrative and analytical writing, and thorough attribution of sources. Craig Shirley should be grateful to be cited in a book as good as Rick’s, and no objective person who looks at the claims — just at the letters from Shirley’s side, even without reading the responses — would come away thinking there was a problem.

So, please:

  1. Buy Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, read it, and tell all your friends about it. It’s the best analysis of the why Ronald Reagan became President, and what that signifies about the U.S., that I have ever read (and the book includes a deeply perceptive capsule biography of Reagan, along the way).

  2. If you hear someone say things like “Oh, wasn’t there some scandal about that book? Something about plagiarism?” let them know firmly that there is no scandal, no plagiarism, and that they have been successfully conned by an unscrupulous (perhaps jealous) author and his allies.

Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute. If you want to help spread the word, you can retweet this (or redent this).

Enjoy the book!

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan