Ford’s Theatre’s Upstairs/Downstairs Problem

Accuracy and Attribution Challenged in Bill O'Reilly's Lincoln Book

By Jonathan L. Fischer - Arts Desk
|  Tuesday, Nov 15, 2011  |  Updated 10:19 AM EDT
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Ford’s Theatre’s Upstairs/Downstairs Problem

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In my roundup this morning, I pointed to a Washington Post report that the museum store at Ford's Theatre has opted not to sell "Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America," by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, because it doesn't meet the shop's standards for accuracy and attribution.

The Ford's site -- and the museum and shop in its basement -- are operated by the National Park Service. But programming at Ford's Theatre falls upon the Ford's Theatre Society, which Monday morning emailed me, as well as reporters at The Washington Post and TBD, to clarify that O'Reilly is only banned in the Park Service-operated basement shop.

At the ground-level gift shop, run by the society, you can still buy a copy of "Killing Lincoln."

"We decided several weeks ago to carry Bill O'Reilly's book 'Killing Lincoln' in the Ford's Theatre Society gift shop," said Paul R. Tetreault, the director of the Ford's Theatre Society, in a statement. "While we understand the National Park Service's concerns about the book, we decided to let our visitors judge the book themselves."

I'm curious why two organizations involved in educating the public about Abraham Lincoln would come to different conclusions about whether the book was appropriate to disseminate.

(Among numerous errors, O'Reilly book portrays Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Mary Surratt as a victim of a vengeful government's overreach, a depiction most Lincoln scholars would dispute. It also sets scenes in the oval office, which didn't exist in 1865.) 

But when I asked to interview Tetreault, the theater's publicist explained that he's on a train today, and that it would be easier for him to answer my emailed questions. I'll update when I receive his responses.

 

I'm just guessing here, but the nearly 2,000 comments below the Post article -- many of which accuse the theater of engaging in anti-conservative discrimination -- are probably a good clue that the Ford's Theatre office was fielding some angry calls this morning.

Most visitors to Ford's probably don't distinguish between the Society- and Park Service-operated aspects; the same goes for their gift shops. So the Ford's Theatre Society likely felt it was taking heat this morning for a decision it didn't make. Hence its defensive request for clarification.

That was the wrong move. By allowing the book to stay on the shelves without a meaningful explanation why -- because, yes, "let our visitors judge the book themselves" is a cop-out -- the Ford's Theatre Society has undermined the Park Service's decision.

More importantly, the society has done a disservice to our understanding of history.

A gift shop is not a university library, fine, but the Ford's Theatre Society has been entrusted with a special obligation to Lincoln's legacy. Either it should explain the process by which it decided to sell "Killing Lincoln," or remove it.

Or better yet: The society should just cop to the fact that it's comfortable selling a pop version of the Civil War. When Robert Redford stopped by the theater earlier this year with his film "The Conspirator," Tetreault introduced the screening.

Redford, who is well known for his liberal views, is guilty of one of the same inaccuracies as the conservative O'Reilly -- the notion that Mary Surratt was collateral damage of the assassination.

Maybe the Ford's Society is worried that the political optics of the Park Service's decision will rub off. It should be more concerned with the flimsy version of the Civil War it sometimes peddles.

Ford’s Theatre’s Upstairs/Downstairs Problem was originally published by Washington City Paper on Nov. 14, 2011.

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