On O'Reilly and the Failure of History
Over the weekend, political pundits had a field day with the news that Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's new book on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln would not be allowed in the Ford's Theater gift shop* (sorry, "Museum Store") because an independent reviewer found too many errors. Some of these errors, primarily misspellings, were extremely minor. No book is free of them, and I sympathize to an extent with O'Reilly because in today's bare-bones publishing world a simple typographical error on the writer's part far too often goes uncaught because copy editing and proofreading have been cut to the barest minimum. My books, too, have suffered from this. It's difficult to proofread one's own work, and with little help from publishers, typos happen.
But the other class of errors in O'Reilly's book are much more disturbing. He and his coauthor have made serious errors of fact because, as one reviewer noted, the two authors relied on poor-quality secondary sources in creating their book. This cuts to a fundamental truth about book publishing today: At some point, someone should have told O'Reilly that obsolete secondary sources were inappropriate for a supposedly serious book of history. But no one is willing to stand up for facts in the face of financial gain and fame. We have seen this just recently with another bestseller: a book about history's largest atrocities that relies entirely on secondary sources and media reports and yet is inexplicably the subject of media adulation.
It's just sad. There is a place for popular history that tells interesting stories by building on the work of scholars. But to do so requires two things O'Reilly can't bring himself to do: get the facts right, and give credit to those who did the real work of gathering those facts.
* Correction 11/15/11: The Ford's Theater museum gift shop offers O'Reilly's book. It is the Book Store at the site, subject to National Park Service quality standards, which refused to carry the book.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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