The practice of public relations is guided by a set of basic principles. Good news, for example, should be released when people are paying attention, bad news when they are not. Throughout most of the so-called civilized world, August was made for the latter, and the run-up to Labor Day weekend is a bad news festival for those who must tell some.
Thus it was that Emory University chose the last week of August to announce that History Professor Michael Bellesiles will spend his fall semester on paid leave, pending the overdue conclusion of the universitys investigation into substantial and far-ranging charges of research fraud.
Bellesiles is the embattled author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Purporting to be a work of immense and painstaking scholarship, the book was said to present incontrovertible evidence, gleaned from historic records, that few Americans owned guns before the Civil War.
Portrayed by its publisher as "the N.R.A.s worst nightmare," the book rapidly became an intellectual talisman of the anti-gun set, the subject of rave reviews so enthralled by its revisionist thesis that they never questioned its veracity. It received the Bancroft Prize, a biggie for historians.
Perhaps Professor Bellesiles did not understand that writing history has become much akin to physics: for every action, there is an opposite reaction, sometimes more than equal. Perhaps he believed that the growing culture of feelings over facts was further along in development than it actually is. Whatever his motivations, not now known to anyone who is talking, his book seems so bereft of accuracy that it can be compared only to outright hoaxes, of which there hasnt been a really good one in a while.
In some of the records that Bellesiles said showed few guns, Law Professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University found more guns than Bibles. "Virtually everything Bellesiles said about these records was false," says Lindgren. In fact, shortly after the books publication two years ago, so many historians of sterling reputation had so thoroughly refuted substantial parts of the research that one can only wonder why Emory University, the books publisher and the overseers of the Bancroft Prize are taking so long to act.
Perhaps all involved are missing a page from that handy dandy public relations manual. That would be the one that says when youve got a major public problem, there is only one solution, if any: Tell the truth. Tell it fast. Tell it fully. Tell it frequently.
Maybe next August.