Yesterday I posted on what happened when Sam Wineburg decided to investigate a dubious footnote in Howard Zinn’s bestselling American history textbook, only to discover that it was a bad game of broken telephone, as one secondary source relied upon another secondary source that relied upon another secondary source.
Right-wing writers, of course, do this kind of thing, too.
The amazing Andrew Ferguson, an essayist at The Weekly Standard who is on my short list of “Read Everything He Writes,” recently offered an omnibus takedown of a half-dozen Trump-era bestselling books, among them a book by Dinesh D’Souza, who has perfected the art of being a right-wing troll.
Ferguson relays a footnote he decided to investigate:
If you’re crazy enough to jump down the rabbit hole of his footnotes, you’ll see that D’Souza’s apparently fastidious method covers a lot of hedging, speculation, and misinterpretation.
To take one small example: Lyndon Johnson is a pivotal figure in D’Souza’s tale. Johnson, he writes, “is a man who, according to a memo filed by FBI agent William Branigan, seems to have been in the Ku Klux Klan.” He was? “This memo was only revealed in recent months, with the release of the JFK Files. Progressive media . . . have largely ignored it, trying to pretend it does not exist. Branigan cites a source with direct knowledge.” D’Souza then treats LBJ’s Klan membership as settled fact and a building block in his case against the Democrats.
I’ve got to side with the progressive media on this one. The FBI memo that D’Souza is using to misinform his readers was written in early 1964. It was released last year in the (presumably) final dump of government documents about the Kennedy assassination. It is a piece of raw intelligence, unverified, repeated with no assessment of its credibility. Branigan, the FBI agent, writes that a “confidential informant” told him that the editor of a magazine published by the Citizens’ Council of Louisiana, himself a Klan member, had told the informant that he, the editor, had seen documented proof that Johnson was a member in the 1930s.
No proof was provided. Even the website D’Souza cites as his source for this damning nugget, thehayride.com, says the claim of Johnson’s Klan membership amounts to nothing more than a rumor.
D’Souza’s embrace of rumors is selective. Another FBI memo in the same document dump, for example, reported that the KGB thought Johnson had plotted to kill Kennedy. By D’Souza’s standard of historical evidence, this memo should be enough to write, “Lyndon Johnson seems to have plotted to kill his predecessor.” Wisely he keeps this bombshell from his readers.
Again, the lesson is if a claim seems too good—or too outlandish—to be true, check the source. And learn to trust authors who use and cite sources properly and carefully.