Michael Bellesiles: back in print, and back in trouble

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an essay by Michael Bellesiles, the disgraced former Emory professor and author of Arming America, who lost his job (and his Bancroft prize) after bloggers revealed extensive fabrications in the book, which purported to show that guns were rare in early American history.

Bellesiles is now an adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University, and his essay is about a student in his class in military history whose brother, the student told Bellesiles, was shot by a sniper while serving in Iraq and died.

The essay raised red flags for many readers, not only because of Bellesiles’ record, but because they couldn’t verify the details (casualty records are public, and none matched the story the student told Bellesiles).

Eventually, The Chronicle checked the story and couldn’t verify it either (their account is now appended to the essay). Their conclusion: the story was made up, but by the student, not Bellesiles.

Picking up the idea that the student was the one at fault, Megan McArdle at the Atlantic writes, “Of course, maybe the student thought it would help him pass the class; in fact, maybe it did. Whatever the motivation, Bellesiles was taken in. Stupid, yes, but not exactly incomprehensible. You’d feel like a monstrous jerk if you added to the pain of someone whose brother had just died in Iraq by demanding that he prove he wasn’t lying.”

One of her commenters, JamieMc, said, “But this isn’t a scholarly article or journalism. It’s a personal essay. I’m not sure why anybody would expect him to research it. . . . My point is that the genre he’s working in here doesn’t really call for the kind of fact checking that some folks seem to be outraged that he didn’t do. He isn’t a journalist.”

JamieMc is wrong about the obligations of journalism. I replied:

Even “personal essays” are expected to be factually correct if they are submitted to, and appear in, a reputable and prestigious academic publication. At that point, such essays become journalism, whether or not the author can otherwise be described as a journalist. (Heck, blog posts are expected to be factually correct, however seldom that expectation is met.)

I edited many such pieces in nearly 20 years as a journalist, at several different daily newspapers, and you’d better believe it was part of my job to reject submissions that didn’t check out, and to display a healthy skepticism about which ones needed to be checked out. This essay invited skepticism because it was just too pat; and given who it came from (The Chronicle had been burned by Bellesiles before, you know), it demanded skepticism, if not instant rejection.

Any professional editor should have expected him to provide evidence that the story was essentially true.

I wrote a column on Bellesiles and Arming America in 2002, when Emory’s investigation was just gathering steam; since the paper I wrote it for closed in 2009, here’s a Google cache.

Bellesiles has a book coming out shortly; you have to wonder why any publisher would take such a chance.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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