This Boston Globe article about Charles Hoffer's book decrying the current state of history writing doesn't really provide any fresh insights about the plagiarism scandals involving Goodwin et al, but this description of Hoffer's thesis does put the conflict between popular and academic history into useful relief:
"American history," he writes, "is two-faced" -- split between celebratory popularizers who often value rousing narrative over scholarly rigor and academic specialists whose jargon-riddled, often dour monographs ignore the ordinary reader. Meanwhile, Hoffer accuses the American Historical Association (AHA), where he has served as an adviser on plagiarism and a member of its professional standards division, of abdicating its responsibility to enforce basic scholarly principles in both realms.
It is often said that such "celebratory popularizers" as Goodwin, Ambrose, and McCullough apply "literary" techniques to the writing of history, but essentially all this means is that their books indeed seek to present history though "rousing narrative." What is most objectionable about this formulation is its implicit denigration of what literature is really all about. The kind of transparent, "rousing" narrative to be found in the books of these history writers has nothing to do, at least as far as I can tell, with even the most conventional narrative strategies employed by 19th century novelists. (At least the 19th century novelists we still read; sometimes it is claimed that certain kinds of stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are "Dickensian," but as The Little Professor likes to point out, those who use this term usually reveal only how little they know about Dickens.) Serious writers of fiction use narrative to get at the sort of truth that the simple recitation of facts overlooks. Writers like Ambrose and McCullough use narrative as a way of whitewashing these truths in a smooth, even coat of received wisdom.
In my opinion, Hoffer (or at least the author of this article, Matthew Price) exaggerates the extent to which academic historians have "retreated behind a wall of footnotes and obscure jargon." Some of the very academics cited in the article as defenders of academic history--Eric Foner, for example--also write history as a form of narrative. Perhaps the scholarly journals print their share of data-oriented papers, but most books by academic historians that get any kind of coverage in mainstream book reviews seem to proceed through at best a more muted form of "rousing narrative." Gordon Wood, one of the more esteemed historians in the United States, is quoted in the article as defending McCullough.
Is it really true that readers of history can only be led to take it seriously through the distortions of narrative most simplistically conceived? Is it really the case that human beings can make sense of what's happening to them, and what has happened, only through the imposition of "story" onto reality? Are we really that feeble-minded? Over the course of the 20th century, most serious writers of fiction--presumably the natural home of "story'--have come to see the limitations of stories as understood in such reductive terms as are frequently used to define them. Will journalists and historians ever come to see these limitations as well?