Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bad Research, Good Research: O'Reilly vs. Jindal

Reviews by Donn Taylor

              O'Reilly: Those best-selling history books by TV personality Bill O’Reilly should come with a warning label, “This product may be dangerous to your understanding of history.” The three that I’ve read contain flagrantly wrong information, incomplete research, and inadequate documentation.
              For the latest, “Killing Reagan,” George Will has pointed out that neither O’Reilly nor his coauthor, Martin Dugard, actually went to the Reagan Library. Nor did they interview Reagan’s closest aides, Ed Meese, George Schultz, and James Baker. O’Reilly’s excuse was that those three “had skin in the game.” (Opposing viewpoints are not to be considered?) None of the book's hundreds of footnotes deals with any significant claim in the text, and the concluding list of "sources consulted" is too general to allow confirmation of specific claims. Some sources, like gossip writer Kitty Kelly, have dubious authority.

              I tossed “Killing Jesus” after stumbling onto two major factual errors. O’Reilly referred to “the Roman republic” at a time more than two decades after Augustus had turned it into an empire. Worse than that, he attributed the conquest of Israel’s northern kingdom to the Philistines rather than the Assyrians.
              In “Killing Kennedy,” O’Reilly’s only cited source for the Vietnam section was the notorious anti-war propagandist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky never let truth get in the way of his rants against America. For example, he described WW II Japan as “a helpless Asian nation.”  Others among his major falsehoods were refuted by philosopher and Boston University President John Silber in an essay titled “Poisoning the Wells of Academe.” There is no shortage of genuine histories of Kennedy and Vietnam, among which Mark Moyer’s “Triumph Forsaken” is outstanding for its use of communist as well as US sources.
              O’Reilly’s account of Kennedy’s philandering cites only sensational journalist Seymour Hersch, who has never missed a chance to denigrate the US. Hersch’s character? In a meeting of journalists in the 1980s, Hersch said if he’d been reporting in WW II, he would have published the New York shipping schedule even if he knew German subs were waiting outside the harbor. I don’t doubt the general truth about Kennedy’s private life, but a responsible writer would cite a more reliable source, reinforced by other sources.
              Indeed, even freshmen researchers are taught the dangers of relying on a single source.
              With these obvious failures, O’Reilly’s books are better left unread by serious readers. O’Reilly claims to be a historian. But his Fox News boss, Roger Ailes, described him best: “O’Reilly is a book salesman with a TV program.”

            Jindal: American Will, by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, is gratifyingly different, with each claim appropriately documented. (One chapter is supported by 68 endnotes.) But this book is far from dull history, for Jindal's writing is as vivid as O'Reilly's, if less sensational.
             Jindal describes ten turning points of American history in which will (courage, determination) brought positive results or lack of will brought failure. He describes, for example, the drama of the Antifederalists' struggle to add the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, President Jefferson's threat of military force in gaining Napoleon's agreement for the Louisiana Purchase, and Governor Ronald Reagan's defeat of President Nixon's establishment of a welfare state. But he also describes failures, such as Ambassador Joe Kennedy's policy of appeasement for WW II, the Republican Party split of 1912.
            But Jindal does not just tell history. At the end of each chapter he shows how that experience applies to the present time. The reader of this book will emerge with a better knowledge of American history and also with a sharpened appreciation of political and social issues on the current scene.
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