I know it's not the biggest story around. It's not Chandra Levy's disappearance, not Dick Cheney's health, not Slobodan Milosevic's trial. But in its own way, it is as compelling as any of them, and the question it raises for journalists could not be more important.
Historian Joseph Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. I read it. He also wrote the acclaimed American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. I read it. And he wrote Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. I've ordered it.
And now I'm wondering. For, at the same time that Joseph Ellis was writing history in books, he was rewriting it orally. To both the classes he teaches at Mount Holyoke College and a reporter for the Boston Globe who interviewed him on the occasion of his Pulitzer, Ellis lied about his past. He said he served in Vietnam. He did not. He said he was a dedicated anti-war activist. He was not.
If this were a column about psychoanalysis, I would try to figure out Ellis' motives. Since it is a column about the media, I will try to figure out the Atlantic Monthly's motives.
In a recent article on its Web site, the magazine criticized the Globe for exposing Ellis. It said that since Ellis neither holds public office nor works for a public institution, he is entitled to private lies. It said that since his fellow historians attest to the accuracy of his scholarship, he is entitled to inaccurate representations of himself. It said that what the Globe should have done was, in effect, threaten Ellis.
"In my view," wrote the Atlantic's Jack Beatty, "the Globe should have put Ellis on notice: we know you were not in Vietnam, and if you tell future students or interviewers that you were, and we find out, we will publish our story."
First of all, Jack Beatty, Ellis' lies were not private. They were told to many students on many occasions, as well as to a reporter for a very large newspaper.
Second, what difference does it make if his scholarship is accurate? Ellis' books do not simply present facts, they interpret them — and how dare you tell me that, as a reader of those books, a person who pays $26 apiece for them, I am not to know something about the author that might influence my interpretation of his interpretation? Ellis has had some controversial things to say about Thomas Jefferson's character; it is important to me, in evaluating those comments, to understand the character of the man who made the charges.
Third, the Globe should have withheld the information about Ellis' lies and told him to shape up or else? What kind of nonsense is that? When did journalists get to be the morality police? Who decided that reporting the news was not enough for them, that they should reform the people who make the news? Do you hear the arrogance of this, Jack Beatty? Do you at least hear the manipulation?
As it happens, although I take issue with some of the conclusions in Ellis' books, I have for the most part been enlightened by them, and I am deeply appreciative of his erudition. I will not cancel my order for Passionate Sage. I will almost certainly read Ellis' next book, whatever the topic.
But just as Ellis' writing has forced me to think of Thomas Jefferson a little differently, so have his prevarications forced me to think of Ellis a little differently.
In both cases, I am pleased that my views are now more complex, which is to say more realistic, than they used to be.