As the Monitor noted a few years back in a column that drew more than the usual number of reader responses, there’s nothing worse than finding an error of fact in a nonfiction book. It makes the reader wonder whether finishing it is even worth the effort.
The Monitor looked at the following books, ranging from the silly to the more serious, when they were hot off the presses and garnering media attention in May 2005, and found errors aplenty.
Kissing Bill O’Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy (St. Martin’s Press) is a slender volume of mini-essays by TV critic Ken Tucker. Thumbing through the book at a local bookstore, the Monitor chanced upon a reference to “the late Richard Moll,” the actor who played the towering, good-natured Bailiff Bull in the mid-1980’s hit sitcom “Night Court.” Richard Moll dead? How sad. The news came as a complete surprise, and with good reason. A Google search later that day confirmed that Moll is very much alive. (He’s also the son-in-law of Milton Berle, who happens to be genuinely dead.)
Being an aficionado of old TV shows, the Monitor turned with some interest to Tucker’s chapter on the 1960’s “Batman” series. Talk about an error-filled mess. Tucker has the show premiering in 1964, when in fact it debuted in January 1966. He claims there were “no fewer than three incarnations of Catwoman (Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather, and Eartha Kitt),” when in fact Meriwether (Tucker misspelled her name) only appeared in the feature-length theatrical release, never in the TV series. And he writes that the show “burned out through overexposure after a mere two seasons,” when in fact it lived on for a third season (1967-68) with the character of Batgirl added to the cast.
A more serious book is Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), an account of New York City in the eventful year of 1977 as seen through the prism of mayoral politics and the New York Yankees’ world championship season. Early on, Mahler describes Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill as being “in his final weeks as Speaker of the House” in the fall of 1976. Actually O’Neill first began his tenure as Speaker of the House in 1977.
A Matter of Opinion (also published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a memoir from Victor Navasky, publisher of the left-wing Nation magazine. Twice in the space of two pages he has the rival opinion journal National Review commencing operations in 1956, when in fact it was 1955. Navasky also relates an anecdote in which he has the journalist and Communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers working as a contributing editor at National Review in 1963, when in fact Chambers died in 1961.
Finally, there’s David Harris’s The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah – 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam (Little, Brown).
Harris botches the identification of a television special on Senator Edward Kennedy that, due to its unflattering portrait of the Massachusetts senator and its airing on the evening of Nov. 4, 1979, coincidentally the very day mobs seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, quickly entered the annals of American political folklore. According to Harris the Kennedy fiasco was a segment on “60 Minutes,” when in fact it was an hour-long CBS News documentary that had nothing to do with “60 Minutes.”
But what really convinced the Monitor to forgo the Harris book was a quick read of the epilogue in which readers are brought up to date on the story’s central characters. In one howler, Harris writes that Warren Christopher (a deputy secretary in the Jimmy Carter State Department) “returned to Washington and served eight years as secretary of state” under Bill Clinton, which should come as news to Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state during Clinton’s second term.
Harris makes an equally bad mistake in tracking former senator and vice president Walter Mondale, whom he describes as having “returned briefly to the U.S. Senate in 2002 to fill out the few months remaining in the unexpired term of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash,” when in fact Mondale never returned to the Senate, even for a second – he was merely a candidate during the last week of the campaign, losing to Republican Norm Coleman. Gov. Jesse Ventura had appointed Dean Barkley, a close associate, to serve the remainder of Wellstone’s term.
The moral of the story? If you’re writing a report or an article or merely doing research for your own edification, never trust one source, however authoritative it may seem. Book publishers spend far less effort and expense on fact-checking than the average reader assumes.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org