Monthly Archives: January 2013

First draft of history?

By Christopher B. Daly

Today’s NYTimes carries a fascinating piece about a subject that has to be a difficult issue for the paper — the New York Times itself. The piece opens with the observation that “Journalism is meant to be the first draft of history” — which is a paraphrase of a quotation usually attributed to Phil Graham, the one-time publisher of the Washington Post, who declared that “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” (It’s curious that today’s Times piece, by Leslie Kaufman, omitted the word “rough,” which certainly belongs in that formulation, as we shall see.)

At issue is a book written in 1964 about the notorious Kitty Genovese murder, by A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who is described in today’s news story in the Times Arts section as “a new and ambitious metropolitan editor.” (An aside: when a newspaper calls one of its own “ambitious,” that’s usually a code word for something closer to “ruthless.”) Rosenthal is a legendary figure at the Times, known for ruling the newsroom as the paper’s managing editor for most of the 1970s and executive editor for most of the 1980s. In 1964, Rosenthal had already won the Pulitzer Prize, for his foreign reporting.

Genovese, who was 28, was murdered around 3 a.m. as she was returning from work to her apartment in Queens. She was attacked, stabbed to death, and raped. What happened next imageshelped propel the Genovese case into the realm of urban myth and pop sociology.

Rosenthal, who was an editor, not a reporter, was having lunch one day with the NYC police commissioner, and they were naturally discussing the Genovese case. The commish mentioned that 38 people had witnessed the crime but did nothing to stop it or to summon help. That kind of a fact (if fact it be!) is catnip to a reporter, and Rosenthal was off to the races with a version of the Kitty Genovese story that was almost certainly exaggerated. According to today’s story:

Mr. Rosenthal quickly mapped out a series of articles centered around a tale of community callousness, and then followed in June with his quick-turnaround book, published by McGraw-Hill. National and international interest in the issue spiked, and soon the Kitty Genovese case became a sociological phenomenon studied intensely for clues to behavioral indifference.

Notice, in the above paragraph from today’s story, the use of the words “quickly,” “quick” and “soon.”

images-2In any case, the Rosenthal book about the Genovese case became an overnight  that helped to establish in the public mind the notion that big cities are scary collections of anonymous people who don’t care about each other.

Now comes a publisher, Melville House, which has re-released the Rosenthal book in a digital format, with the original — and misleading — material intact. Let’s not kid ourselves about “digital reissues.” They are a way for publishers to extract some more money out of their backlist titles. Those are books published long ago that they are probably out of print and no one is buying them any more. Along comes the Internet, and those books can get a second life on-line.

Trouble is, what about a non-fiction book that has known errors of fact or interpretation? Should it be re-issued in its original text? Should it be corrected, revised, or updated?

Here’s how the Times puts it today:

In the years since, however, as court records have been examined and witnesses reinterviewed, some facts of both the coverage and the book have been challenged on many fronts, including the element at the center of the indictment: 38 silent witnesses. Yet none of the weighty counter-evidence was acknowledged when Mr. Rosenthal’s book was reissued in digital form by Melville — raising questions of what, if any, obligation a publisher has to account for updated versions of events featured in nonfiction titles.

It could be argued that at a certain point, a work of journalism becomes valuable as an artifact of its own era. It becomes a document (or “primary source”) that allows later generations to look back and understand why people use to share certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are later discredited. So, a historian or anyone else who is curious about the changing perceptions of urban crime during the 1960s would want to read the Rosenthal book in its original form, because it sheds light on its period. That, it seems to me, is a perfectly valid way of thinking about historic works of journalism. All the publisher has to do is to say so.

Alternatively, of course, a publisher could commission someone to produce a “new, revised” version that would update, correct, or revise a flawed original. In that case, future historians will probably want to have access to both the original and the update.

For another perspective, here is a passage from Wikipedia:

In September 2007, the American Psychologist published an examination of the factual basis of coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder in psychology textbooks. The three authors concluded that the story is more parable than fact, largely because of inaccurate newspaper coverage at the time of the incident.[10] According to the authors, “despite this absence of evidence, the story continues to inhabit our introductory social psychology textbooks (and thus the minds of future social psychologists).” One interpretation of the parable is that the drama and ease of teaching the exaggerated story makes it easier for professors to capture student attention and interest.

So, it would appear that there is more revisionism to be done.

[Incidentally, today’s Times story omits another awkward fact: the Times is still something of a Rosenthal paper. Abe’s son, Andrew, is a “masthead editor” at the paper, where he is in images-1charge of the Times‘ editorial pages.]

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The global state of press freedom

It’s not very good, according to the latest assessment from Reporters without Borders. Here are the details, from the Paris-based advocacy group’s latest report. (What does it mean when there is more press freedom in Germany than in America?)

Here is the big picture:

Web

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TNR re-designs itself

By Christopher B. Daly

The venerable opinion magazine The New Republic is getting a makeover. Here is a video report from the NYTimes about the new look.

TNR was founded in 1912 by Progressive journalist Herbert Croly. One of his first recruits was Walter Lippmann, who became one of the most prominent US journalists of the 20th Century. Here’s my take, from Covering America:

In 1912 a friend asked Lippmann if he would like to write a book. Lippmann

published A Preface to Politics the next year to favorable reviews, and while living

in New York and mingling with the leftist and bohemian crowd around the intellectual

and patron Mabel Dodge, he started another book. While he was working

on it, Lippmann got an invitation to lunch from Herbert Croly, a prominent Progressive

thinker and journalist. Croly, who had been impressed by Lippmann’s

debut book, had a proposition: How would Lippmann like to join the staff of a

new magazine Croly was putting together? The magazine was to be smart, literate,

and progressive. He could write and edit and make $60 a week. Lippmann

jumped at the offer. It was another stroke of good fortune. The magazine, which

still had no name, was eventually called the New Republic, and it became one of

the most influential journals of opinion and analysis of the twentieth century.14

Croly’s goal was to “be radical without being socialistic”15 and to advance his view

that the small, weak central government envisioned by Jefferson could not possibly

deal with the challenges posed by companies like Standard Oil or the big

meatpacking firms or the sugar trust. Instead, the country needed new agencies

like the Interstate Commerce Commission or the Food and Drug Administration,

staffed by a new class of expert public servants who would have the power

to police and guide these huge private enterprises. This was just the outlook that

Lippmann had been moving toward ever since he left Harvard, one that ultimately

drove him away from the socialists and muckrakers of his youth. . .

 

 

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Stanley Karnow, 1925-2013

Today brings news of the passing of Stanley Karnow, who wrote one of the most-cited works trying to figure out what happened during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was an exemplar of the journalist-turned-historian.

Here is the Times obit, which mentions that Karnow was also on the Nixon “enemies list.”

Here is the AP version, which notes that Karnow got his start in journalism on his high school newspaper and at the Harvard Crimson.

The ultimate quote:

‘‘What did we learn from Vietnam?’’ Mr. Karnow later told AP. ‘‘We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’’

imgres

 

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The Civil War at 150

Don’t miss this project at the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina (where I went to grad school in history). The library is posting a letter written by a Civil War soldier on the exact day on which it was written 150 years ago. (Hint: practice reading hand-writing!)

Here’s today’s entry:

18630127_01

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Book notes

By Christopher B. Daly

A couple of updates from the world of letters:

–My B.U. colleague Amy Sutherland has a Q+A with the estimable Tracy Kidder in the Boston Globe. A brief highlight:

BOOKS: Anything else you avoid?

KIDDER: Most biographies are too long. But I loved “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild. I don’t want to read any more memoirs about dysfunctional families. I don’t think it’s a form that should be condemmed. It’s just there’s been a surfeit of it.

I certainly agree with his point about biographies: they have become so vast that they are approaching the point where they are both un-readable and un-writable. There are a number of biographies I’d like to read and a handful I’d like to write, but the prospect of either is daunting. Bring back the short biography!

–My friend Amy Wilentz will be speaking this Friday at the Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. aboutWilentzAmy_creditPaulaGoldmanher new book on Haiti, which has been getting great reviews. Come if you can.

 

 

–I found this review in today’s NYTimes irritating. What bothers me is the premise that Adam Begley brought to his reading of a new history of Venice by Thomas F. Madden, titled Sunken Treasure. The reviewer takes the author to task for writing a book of history that tackles a great subject, synthesizes a tremendous amount of material, and writes a readable version for intelligent general readers. Where’s the harm?

But if it’s new, it’s not innovative. Madden has written a conventional narrative history, sweeping in scope and calmly, blandly authoritative. Though he’s a professional historian who teaches at St. Louis University, he seems more proud of his storytelling than his scholarship.

That view is what drives the mania among academic historians for writing books with novel arguments on arcane subjects. Later in the review, Begley calls Madden a “breezy, cheerful, evenhanded” debunker of myths. Begley begrudgingly allows that the last general history of Venice was written a generation ago, and that book dropped the tale in 1797. Madden has tapped newer research, brought the story up to the present, and done so in an engaging way. Why is that not enough?

Painting by Gentile Bellini/Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice (1496; detail)/Photographed by Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY

Painting by Gentile Bellini/Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice (1496; detail)/Photographed by Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY

 

 

 

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The big picture

By Christopher B. Daly 

In case you missed it, here is the Washington Post‘s panoramic photo of Obama’s second inaugural, which is quite impressive. (I’m just not crazy about those tags. They take up a lot of space and block a lot of pixels. Maybe there is a better design.)

And if you want to know how it was done, here is an explanation by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou.

Can you spot yourself?

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