Category Archives: history

Who said what? A cautionary tale

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here is a cautionary tale for both historians and journalists. We all wrestle from time to time with trying to establish just what is “on the record” — that is, what did people actually say. For most of us, most of the time, the gold standard is a mechanical or digital recording. It seems so appealing: if you’re in doubt about handwritten notes, just “check the tape” (even though most recording devices no longer use tapes).

But what happens when the recording itself is murky, ambiguous, or just plain impossible to decipher?

Here’s one example, from Sheldon M. Stern — and he should know, as a historian and the former historian at the JFK presidential library in Boston, the source of many releases of presidential tapes and transcripts. He cites a single passage from the Nixon tapes that has appeared in several books, all with variations in the transcriptions. 

Here’s my takeaway from his recent article:

It is becoming increasingly clear that scholarly works rooted in the extraordinary and unique presidential recordings from the JFK, LBJ, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation. Historians are familiar with books that utilize written primary sources, synthesize primary and secondary sources, or annotate the private papers of prominent historical figures. But, books based on audio recordings are clearly different because the historian takes on a unique responsibility in this new genre. He or she is obviously reaching conclusions about a primary source; but, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also inevitably creating a subjective secondary source. As a result, the historian must demonstrate the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of historical analysis or interpretation is really quite the same.

Is there a “solution” to this “problem.” Not really, I suppose. All we can ask is that anyone who works in non-fiction should approach these issues in good faith and, wherever possible, preserve original materials and make them available to others.

Meanwhile, let the interpretations continue. . . 

156728-NTA

 

 

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The Graham era ends at WashPost. Here’s how it began. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

With the resignation of Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, the period of ownership by the Graham family finally ends after 80 years. The new owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, exercised his prerogative and put in place a new figure to run the overall business of the paper. The new publisher will be Frederick J. Ryan Jr., 59, a founder of Politico. (He is usually identified as “a former Reagan administration official” — which I guess is code for saying he’s actually a Republican.)

The news of Weymouth’s departure (ouster?) brings to mind the question of how her great-grandfather took over the paper in the first place. As the leading daily paper in the nation’s capital, the Post is a major institution in American journalism — no matter who owns it — so it is worth paying attention to.

Such, such were the days — when the Post was immensely profitable. In his first few years as top editor in the 1960s, Ben Bradlee got to expand the newsroom by 50 new positions!

Here is an excerpt from my book, Covering America, in which I describe the paper’s takeover by Eugene Meyer, the patriarch of the family that became known as “the Grahams” when his daughter Katharine (cq) surprised everyone by becoming publisher. Given Meyer’s role in Washington, it was a bit like Janet Yellen deciding to buy the Post.

[Full disclosure: I was a contract writer for the Post from 1989-1997, so I was Kay Graham's employee in those years. I met her twice, and it felt like meeting the Queen.]

[Apologies if this text doesn't wrap.]

 

Katharine Graham was an unlikely choice to topple a president. The insecure,

awkward daughter of a wealthy businessman, she had never been prepared to

run anything more complicated than a dinner party. Her role in life was all set at

birth: as with Iphigene Ochs, daughter of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs,

Katharine’s task was to marry a man who could inherit her father’s newspaper, the

Washington Post.

Katharine was born to wealth and privilege. Her father, Eugene Meyer, the son

of an immigrant from Alsace, went into investment banking and made a fortune

on Wall Street. Her mother, Agnes Ernst, grew up outside New York City in more

modest circumstances; she went to Barnard College on a scholarship (over her

father’s objections), then did some freelance reporting for the New York Sun.

Agnes’s life changed when she met Eugene Meyer. A non-observant Jew, Meyer

married Agnes in a Lutheran ceremony. By the time Katharine was born in 1917,

Meyer’s personal fortune, derived from the Wall Street investment company he

had founded, was estimated at $40 to $60 million. With the coming of war in

1917, Meyer decided to offer his services to the Wilson administration as a “dollar-

a-year” man—the first in a series of public service appointments, under both

Democrats and Republicans, that would culminate in his running the Federal

Reserve Board and then the World Bank. While working in Washington, Meyer

attempted to buy the failing Washington Post in 1929, but the owner rejected his

$5 million offer. After more losses, the paper went bankrupt, and Meyer was able

to buy it at auction in 1933. When William Randolph Hearst dropped out of the

bidding at $800,000, Meyer got the paper for $825,000.

Young Katharine Meyer, meanwhile, grew up in high style, spending much

of her childhood in Mount Kisco, outside New York City, where the family had

a vast mansion. She attended the exclusive Madeira School, then entered Vassar

before transferring to the University of Chicago. Upon her graduation, her father

arranged for Katharine to work on the San Francisco News, where she started at

the bottom, helping to cover labor brawls on the waterfront and learning to drink

boilermakers. (Still, she remained a Meyer. Once, after a day of covering the longshoremen, she went with her aunt to the opening of the opera season, wearing

a long black velvet gown with leopard-skin straps that had been sent from back

East.) After a year, she headed to Washington in 1939 and went to work at her

father’s paper, on the editorial page. She soon met the brilliant, handsome Phil

Graham, who had risen from hard times in Florida to the front ranks of the most

ambitious young men of his generation. He had been editor of the Harvard Law

Review and was now clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Phil proposed to Kay, he had one condition: that they live on his salary

and take nothing from her father. On those terms (more or less), they married

and began making plans. Phil pursued the law, and Kay went back to work at

the Post, writing items for a Sunday section called “Brains.” During World War II,

while Phil was in the Army Air Corps, the Post finally began to make money, and

Eugene Meyer started thinking about a successor. Everyone assumed that it would

have to be a man, and Meyer turned to his son-in-law. Phil raised objections, but

eventually Meyer overcame them, and Philip Graham became associate publisher

of the Washington Post on January 1, 1946, moving up to publisher soon after. Kay,

meanwhile, played an affluent woman’s domestic role—looking after the children

and supervising a household staff that included a nurse, a cook, and a laundress.

Although she continued to write for the Post, she and Phil had a very traditional

marriage.

Phil Graham did not know much about journalism, but he learned quickly. He

also discovered that the part he liked best was making deals. In 1948 he bought an

interest in the CBS radio station WTOP, bringing the Post Company into broadcasting.

In 1950 he built a new headquarters for the Post in downtown Washington.

In 1954 he helped engineer the purchase of the Washington Times-Herald, a move

that gave the Post a monopoly in the city’s morning newspaper market, and thus

ensured the paper’s financial future as far ahead as anyone could see. In 1961, Phil

took the advice of the assistant Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, Ben Bradlee,

and bought the weekly newsmagazine for some $8.9 million. In all these moves,

Graham had wide latitude. The company had been incorporated, but it was entirely

in the family’s hands. When the Post needed money for building or acquisitions,

Phil asked his in-laws for it, or he raised cash by selling assets. After Meyer died in

1959, Phil was fully in command. He was building a media empire under his own

control.

During the Kennedy years, the Grahams were reaching an apex of early success.

Still in their forties (just like their friend the president), they were rich, powerful,

and connected. Outwardly they seemed like a golden couple. But there were

clouds, sometimes quite dark. The problem was Phil. Always a heavy drinker, he

had become increasingly erratic during the previous decade, swinging between

periods of high energy when he was making business deals or brokering political

alliances, then plunging into gloomy spells when he would lie nearly catatonic for

weeks at a time. In an era that valued stoicism and dreaded mental illness, Phil and

Kay always managed to keep his condition quiet. Once, in 1957, he had snapped,

weeping uncontrollably. Kay was panic-stricken, struggling not only with her husband’s

collapse but also with her own ignorance about mental illness and her sense

of shame at the stigma. Phil took about a year to recover, spending much of his

time at their country place, Glen Welby, in Virginia. Under the care of Dr. Leslie

Farber, a devotee of “existential psychology” and a follower of Rollo May, Phil

had his ups and downs, but the trend was largely downward. He became abusive,

and he began an affair with a young Newsweek staffer, Robin Webb.

In early 1963, Phil’s condition became public. He and his girlfriend flew to Phoenix

to attend a meeting of The Associated Press. There, in a ballroom full of the

nation’s top publishers, Phil Graham lost it. He stormed the podium and berated

the audience, telling them that they were all fat bastards and promising to wipe his

ass with their papers. Then he started taking off his clothes. Roused from a state of

stupefaction, Otis Chandler (publisher of the Los Angeles Times) and others stepped

in and hustled Phil off to a nearby room. Eventually Dr. Farber flew out to Arizona,

administered a tranquillizer, and put Phil aboard a presidential airplane dispatched

by Jack Kennedy. Phil was admitted to Chestnut Lodge, a private mental hospital in

suburban Washington, where he seemed to get better. He announced his intention

to divorce Kay, marry Robin, and take the Post away from the Meyer family. For

Kay, this was rock bottom: she could see that Phil was slipping away from her, but

she was determined to hang on to her family’s newspaper. By June, Phil was much

improved. He declared that the affair with Robin was over and that he wanted to

return to Kay, who welcomed him back. He was staying at Chestnut Lodge again,

but he talked the doctors into letting him out for a weekend in August. He and Kay

had lunch on the back porch at Glen Welby, then went upstairs for a nap. Phil got

up and went out. A few minutes later there was the sound of a shotgun blast. Kay

bolted up and raced around the house looking for Phil. She found him in a bathroom.

There must have been blood everywhere. . .

Now she was alone. After Phil’s suicide, everything depended on Kay; she was responsible for the kids, the houses, the staff, the family fortune, plus a potentially

great newspaper. It was a daunting array of challenges of very different sorts. In

many ways, the most difficult was the Post. In 1963, women in American journalism

were few in number and low in prestige. Despite some prominent exceptions such

as the syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson or the reporter Maggie Higgins,

very few women had managed to move beyond what were still known as the “women’s

pages” (or “society pages”), where they wrote about weddings, fashion, and casseroles.

A young woman might work for a while for a newspaper or magazine taking

photos, as Jacqueline Bouvier had done (that was how she met Jack Kennedy),

or she might work as an assistant to an editor or publisher. But almost no women

wielded any real power in the newsrooms. Nor did they wield much power in any

other industry; in 1960 only 5 percent of all working women were in management.

When Mrs. Graham (as all her employees called her) took over the Post, she was a

pioneer at every turn. The boards she eventually joined—of the American Newspaper

Publishers Association, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post Company

itself—had never had a woman member before. In 1963, Mrs. Graham could

not even join the National Press Club, just a few blocks away from the Post, because

it was still all male. Even the Post itself would be the focus of an antidiscrimination

action by women employees, which resulted in a settlement shared by everyone in

the category, including Kay Graham. In that setting, it was widely assumed that she

would sell the paper or turn it over to someone else to run.

So what she did next came as a surprise. She decided to run the Post herself.

Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to

lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post

Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee

over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped

him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by

presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom

years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up,

bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly

far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every

advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee

took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from

$2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the

newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper,

creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which

reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.

But that was not Mrs. Graham’s domain. She visited the newsroom from time

to time, and she was delighted with Bradlee, but her real duties were upstairs, in

trying to run the whole business. Some time after Phil’s suicide she also began to

return to her social life, often on the arm of former Illinois governor and twice

unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Her role was a

busy one. She had many friends in Washington and another roster in New York,

where she and Phil had gone regularly for years to keep tabs on Newsweek, which

was based in midtown Manhattan. She became quite friendly with Babe Paley,

wife of the CBS chairman. Through Babe, Kay met Truman Capote in the early

1960s, and they became friends as well. In 1966, now that she was resuming her

social life, Capote told Kay that he was going to host a ball to cheer her up—“the

nicest party, darling, you ever went to.” Capote thought it would be fun to hold

it in the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel and that it would be extra

special if the guests wore masks and dressed all in black and white. Kay would be

the guest of honor. The Black and White Ball, held on November 28, 1966, became

a phenomenon, a who’s who of the worlds of media, business, the arts, and the

burgeoning field of pure celebrity. Anyone who was fabulous simply had to be

there. Later, Kay would say that she felt like “a middle-aged debutante” and a bit

like Cinderella. The media, naturally, had a field day . . .

Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham react to the 1971 SCOTUS ruling in the Pentagon Papers case.

Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham react to the 1971 SCOTUS ruling in the Pentagon Papers case.

 

 

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Rove on Iraq: “We create our own reality”

By Christopher B. Daly

As U.S. policy-makers argue over what to do next in Iraq (How about doing nothing?), it is worth recalling how this all came about. One source of the current situation that is worth recalling can be found in a rare moment of candor in the Bush White House. Thanks to the estimable journalist Ron Suskind, we have a glimpse into the interventionist mindset that propelled U.S. forces into ground action in Iraq. In a New York Times magazine piece from October, 17, 2004, Suskind reported on a conversation he had had in 2002 with a person he could not name but could only identify as a “senior adviser to Bush.” Later, Suskind was able to reveal the identity of that source: turns out, it was Karl Rove, the top political brain in the entire Bush operation.

Here’s what Karl Rove said:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is why we need journalists — not just to “study what they do,” but to hold them accountable.

(h/t to Larry Houghteling)

images

 

 

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Iraq: Why journalists should study history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I like to say: History keeps happening.

The events of recent days in the part of the world known as Iraq cannot be understood or explained without mastering a lot of history, going back well before the U.S. invasion and occupation. A good starting point for journalists covering the region (or merely pontificating about it) and for news consumers would be this map, drawn up in secret by the Great Powers who won World War I. In this historical map from 1919, British and French diplomats literally drew lines across the sand and decided how to divvy up the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

(Don’t miss: the notation “secret” on the upper left.)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.  (British Library)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.
(British Library)

This map shows how the European powers essentially created Syria (A) and Iraq (B) without regard for traditional ethnic, religious, tribal, or commercial interests. There was no plebiscite, no consultation with local leaders. That’s the fundamental (modern) problem in the region.

To zero in on Iraq at present, here’s a valuable recent map from the Washington Post, showing a much-needed degree of granularity that goes beyond the artificial “national” boundaries. At a glance, the grey area suggests the need for an independent Kurdistan. The green area from Baghdad to the Gulf suggests the contours of a smaller country populated by Shiites. The yellow areas may well make more sense as a new Sunni country that includes parts of Syria.

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.  Washington Post

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.
Washington Post

 

My suggestion: Don’t listen to any journalist, analyst, or U.S. politician who could not intelligently discuss these maps for at least an hour in an informed way.

[My personal view: these are not real countries with genuine borders, so they cannot be effectively governed by anyone until borders are brought in line with social reality. In any case, this is not a U.S. problem. This region belongs to the people who live there. If they want to have a civil war or a religious war, they are entitled to have one. If any outside parties bear any responsibility, it would be the British and the French.]

 

 

 

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Data viz: 19th Century Edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks to TNR and this terrific piece by Susan Schulten about two very powerful maps that could have (and should have) shaped the settlement of the United States. Essentially, they tell the same story: do not attempt European-style agriculture west of the long-grass Great Plains. 

Here’s a map made by the great one-armed Western explorer John Wesley Powell for the U.S. Geological Survey:

drainage_thumb

In it, he drew a north-south line from the middle of North Dakota to Houston and warned against even attempting to farm those areas (except for the far West Coast). The wonderfully colored areas depict the watersheds of the region’s major rivers.

 

And here’s an earlier map showing rainfall totals across the country. Again, the message is pretty clear.

U.S. rain chart

U.S. rain chart

 

 

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D-day media roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

On this historic occasion, here’s an array of historic media images from D-Day and the following couple of momentous days as the Allies fought their way off the beaches and began the horrible “hedgerow campaign.”

–Robert Capa’s iconic photos for LIFE magazine can be seen at this memorial page maintained by Magnum (the photo agency Capa helped to found.) These are the highest quality I have found yet.

D-Day invasion photo by Robert Capa

D-Day invasion photo by Robert Capa

–Recently discovered are these rare color moving images made by Hollywood film director George Stevens while he was volunteering to aid the war effort. (Thanks to The Telegraph (U.K.), via HNN.) Stevens directed “Shane” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” among many others, including “Gunga Din” with Cary Grant and “Woman of the Year” with Hepburn and Tracy.

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–Here is an image of the NYTimes special “extra edition” on June 6, 1944, with a “time stamp” of 6 a.m..

NYT D-Day Extra

 

Here is the front page from the following day:

D-Day plus 1

D-Day plus 1

–Here is the Times‘ own version of the June 6 paper.

–Here is a gallery on Google’s new “Cultural Institute,” where I compiled more images from the U.S. National Archives. (This is my first use of this feature. What do you think?) This gallery includes some great images of Higgins boats, which carried the day on June 6, when many of the heavier tank-landing craft (LSTs) got bogged down. Amazing fact: most of the Higgins boats were made of plywood, not steel.

–One more, from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division:

Americans in Times Square learn the news about D-Day

Americans in Times Square learn the news about D-Day

 

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A pox on “A pox on both their houses”

By Christopher B. Daly 

I spend a lot of my waking hours at the intersection of Journalism and History, two empirical fields that share a lot of DNA. It’s an interesting place to hang out, and I wish more of the residents of each street would roam around more on the other street.

Today, a story in TPM about an item on a blog known as the 20Committee, nicely frames an issue that highlights one of the distinctions between the disciplines of journalism and history. The upshot is that journalists do us all a disservice when, in the name of non-partisanship or “fairness,” they throw up their hands and blame Democrats and Republicans equally for behaving in ways that are partisan, counter-productive, hypocritical or the like. As a former political journalist myself, I know this phenomenon well, and I know where it comes from: it is an adaptation to the pressure many American journalists feel to write as if they have no stake in the outcome, to show an aloof indifference to cause or candidate or party.

Many journalists, particularly in the mainstream media who work in the reporting tradition, apply this technique to coverage of hard problems like Obamacare or fracking or political spending. This is the problem often referred to as “false equivalence” or “false balance.”

But, I would submit, no historian who studies our current period in the future would be caught dead doing that. Every historian of our present situation will look at essentially the same facts and will exercise judgment.

[I will further predict that 95 percent of them will conclude that our current messes are the fault of Republicans. But, to use another favorite journalistic evasion, Only time will tell.]

Shutterstock/ Christos Georghiou

Shutterstock/
Christos Georghiou

 

 

 

 

 

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