Journalism informed by history

By Christopher B. Daly

After a summertime hiatus, I want to revive this site. As ever, there is much to say about journalism, history, and the assorted other topics that show up here from time to time (NCAA, fossil fuels, etc.)

Today, I want to praise the NYTimes business columnist Eduardo Porter for his smart and effective use of history to inform what was essentially a political column about Donald Trump.

Porter begins with the premise that we all have our own histories and that our individual histories are entwined with the broader histories of our times. In Trump’s case, that personal history involved a coming of age at a very unusual period in American history — when the fraction of the foreign-born population was at an all-time low.

When Donald Trump was reaching adulthood in the mid-1960s, the United States was a less diverse place. By 1970, the share of the population born overseas had shrunk to 4.7 percent, the slimmest on record. Only about 0.4 percent of the population had been born in Mexico.

For a person of Trump’s time, that experience helps define a norm, against which all change is experienced as a deviation. Thus, for Trump and the slice of the population that is about his age (69, about the oldest possible slice of the baby boom), the last few decades represent a disorienting change in the composition of American society. Incidentally, there is nothing inevitable about his perception that such change represents a decline. He might see it as a plus. The fact that he interprets the change as a harm tells us a lot about Donald Trump as an individual. The times in which we live do not dictate everything about us; they just give us material to work with.

My only gripe with Porter’s column has to do with an issue that pervades the Times. Why won’t the paper include more links to source material? Most of the links in the online version link to other Times stories or to backgrounders prepared by the Times. In the Porter piece, it would make sense to link to the works of some of the experts he cites or to link to the Pew study he relies on. I suppose the paper is worried that readers will depart from the Times‘ site via links and never return. But I think that’s wrong. I think more readers would value the Times more if it included external links.

Besides, if the Times is going to write using a historical perspective more often, the writers will have to meet the standards that historians have for evidence. Footnotes anyone?


Leave a comment

Filed under history, Journalism

This Week in Fossil Fuels

By Christopher B. Daly 

Dear readers:

Sorry about the unannounced hiatus. All I can say is, there was a beach involved. I am returning to this theme by posting a bunch of links that I was gathering all through the late summer.

Further in my defense: I spent some of my time last month pursuing a solar option for the rooftop of my own home. Putting a fair amount of money where the mouth is.

Some fairly recent developments:

–Another coal company bites the dust. One bond rating agency says investors should avoid the whole sector:

The bond rating agency Fitch expects coal companies to struggle in the future. “The sector default rate is likely to increase further in the near term,” its analysts wrote in a note to investors Monday.

–How crazy is it to over-cool offices? Way to go, men!

Molly Mahannah shivering at work in the summer in Omaha. NYT photo.

Molly Mahannah shivering at work in the summer in Omaha. NYT photo.

–How hard do advocates of fossil fuels fight? Pretty hard, according to this NYT story. (Don’t miss the comments.)

In a related development, TNR comments on the GOP response to Obama. A sample, from Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell:

“I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy,” the Kentucky senator said. The new regulations, he argued, would mean “fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, and higher electricity costs for families and businesses.”

Problem is, there are only about 6,000 coal-mining jobs in Kentucky.

Not only that, but we have to ask: WHAT IS THE IDEAL NUMBER OF COAL MINING JOBS ON THE PLANET? (I’d say it should approach the number of whale-oil harpooneers.)

–I wasn’t sure whether Newsweek was still in business, but here’s a science lesson.


–NO FRACKIN‘ WAY!! (another upside to low oil prices)

–Who says coal is cheap? It’s actually very costly when you count all the costs.


–Even Bloomberg (the pro-business news agency that’s afraid to rock the boat in China) had to report on this grim news: air pollution, mostly from coal, kills 4,000 Chinese people a day. A day.

If you missed the viral Chinese documentary “Under the Dome,” here’s a link to a story about it.

–Even oil companies don’t want to drill for oil. Sheesh. (Are you listening, Drew Faust? Or do you plan to hold onto those stocks until they’re worthless?)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Grim Anniversary: The A-bomb 70 years later

By Christopher B. Daly

Seventy years ago this week, the United States used atomic bombs in war for the first (and so far only) time in history. It is an occasion to reflect on what that action meant and what it continues to mean for every person on the planet. Without getting into the debate over the morality or the military effectiveness of the bomb, here are some thoughts on the journalism of that fateful period.

Here is a recent piece by me that ran on The Conversation (a terrific website in which academics are invited to write for non-specialists). It is adapted from my book Covering America.

Here is the NYTimes own history of its role in the coverage.

And here is the text of John Hersey’s masterful account of Hiroshima.


William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.  Military photo.

William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.
Military photo.

1 Comment

Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times

Media Roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

–I am so proud of my old newspaper, The Washington Post. The paper has recently been rendering a major public service: a reckoning of all the shootings of civilians by police that take place in the United States. You might think that information would be routinely collected by Justice, the FBI, or at least every state police agency. You’d be wrong.

Turns out, there is no central governmental accounting. So, the Post stepped into the vacuum and built a database from the ground up.

Turns out, American cops shoot about two civilians a day, every day.

Is that too many? Too few? Just about right? I don’t know, but at least now we can begin to have a debate about it and come to terms with the police. As Juvenal put it 2,000 years ago: Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Or, Who will police the police? Who will guard the guardians? Who will watch over those who watch over?

In my view, this is exactly why we need a free and independent news media.

–Here we go again with the NSA.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for a robust, state-of-the-art intelligence service. To my mind, that means spying on other countries in ways that advance our national interests without them even finding out about it. That’s my standard for U.S. intelligence-gathering. Anything else has to yield to the Constitution. When it comes to spying on Americans, there is no reason for the executive branch to take it upon itself to routinely spy on Americans who are not even suspected of having broken any laws.

According to the Times, the secret agency has justified its secret program to a secret court, so we are all supposed to just shut up and submit our data. Absolutely not.



–So, I see that tourists will now be allowed to take photos while touring the White House. Yay.

If only the professional news photographers who cover the White House had the same liberty!

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, media, news

This Week in Fossil Fuels

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks a lot, SCOTUS! In an otherwise welcome flurry of decisions, the Court issued a ruling that means continued emissions from coal-fired power plants and continued release of mercury into the environment. Isn’t it obvious that Congress created the EPA to protect the environment and the people who live in it?

From the Times:

Writing for the majority, in the 5-to-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits. Statutory context supports this reading.”

If possible, Scalia has topped himself here in being not only wrong but also belligerent and hypocritical. He has done no cost-benefit analysis himself, so he does not know if the EPA’s action would cost “billions” while yielding only “a few dollars” in benefits. What is the long-term, total cost to society of all that pollution? Does he know? No, he does not. Plus, he justifies his view on the basis of “statutory context.” How about that? In other recent rulings, he has lectured his colleagues on the importance of ignoring “statutory context” in favor of what he calls “originalism” or (when it suits his purposes) something he calls “textualism.”


Filed under Uncategorized

Why is it so hard to talk about Charleston?

By Christopher B. Daly

What happened in Charleston this week meets the literal definition of terrorism.

Here’s a dictionary definition (from



the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

Here’s the FBI’s definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

So, why do the media find it so difficult to call it an act of domestic terrorism?

The NYTimes was willing to discuss the issue but not to use the term in its main coverage.

The most extreme case (as so often happens) involved Fox News. The Thursday morning episode of the show “Fox and Friends” hit a new low — in which the hosts and guests strained to frame the violent assault by a white man seeking to take his country back as an assault on religion and an attack on Christians. Wha?

Here’s a brilliant analysis by Larry Wilmore, who is getting better by the week. (courtesy of Comedy Central and TPM).gctqv5mtkz5pr8y6j2bi

1 Comment

Filed under Fox News, Journalism, media, news, terrorism

This Week in Fossil Fuels (6/19/15)

By Christopher B. Daly 

We take you now to the Vatican . . .

. . . where a pope who took the name of the saint who cared the most about birds and animals and all living creatures decided to take a stand on the moral issues raised by pollution, rampant consumerism, and brutal inequality. He is telling believers to forget about that line in the Bible about God giving man “dominion” over the planet. Instead, he’s telling believers to read the rest of the Bible and catch the main drift, which emphasizes humility, stewardship, and love.

Here’s a summary, courtesy of the Holy See Press Office, and here’s the full text.

Here’s the “lead” (in which Francis invokes his sandal-wearing, vegetarian, tree-hugging namesake):

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.[1]

–Uh-oh. What happens when the institution of the papacy flip-flops? Could be awkward for American Republicans. (Especially those American Republicans who expediently cite papal teachings on issues like abortion and birth control when it suits them.)

–Especially when the American electorate is moving the other way.

ELSEWHERE in fossil fuels . . .

–Batteries have long been the weak link in the transition to electric power. Could this guy have an answer?

–On the divestment front: add the pro-business MIT to the list of U.S. universities bailing out of investments in coal (and tar sands). Go, you Beavers!

–And here’s a series on coal-fired plants. Phew.

Leave a comment

Filed under coal, energy, fossil fuels, oil, Pope Francis