Category Archives: journalism history

Where to draw the line between history and journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

As an author with a foot in both camps, I often wonder where the dividing line can be drawn between history and journalism. After all, both fields are devoted to empirical research into the past — just along different timelines.

Journalists want to know what has just happened — within, say, the previous day or so. Some journalists also want to explore what those developments might mean.

Historians want to know what has happened beginning at some time prior to the present, going as far back as the evidence can go. Most historians also want to comment on the meaning of those facts.

Because these inquiries overlap so much, it’s often hard to say who’s who. Many journalists explore historical topics. For example, my colleague in the B.U. Journalism Dept. Mitch Zuckoff, a veteran journalist, has written two best-selling books involving WWII topics and a brand-new best seller about the disaster at Benghazi in 2012. Is he a journalist or a historian? [As for me, I've written a history of industrialization and a history of journalism, but I do not have an academic appointment in a history department.]

Thanks to the BBC, we now have some data about how non-specialists (at least Brits) view this issue. In a recent survey, the BBC History Magazine asked folks to specify when events become part of History. Their answer: about 10 years.

Here are the results:

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The BBC also rounded up some expert opinion, and here are some of those thoughts:

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What’s your view? When does history start?

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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history

Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

Good Monday, readers!

–As so often happens, first up is B.U. Prof. David Carr.

His latest Media Equation column heralds the re-vitalization of The Washington Post under big-spending owner Jeff Bezos. Hooray for new money in the news business. Personally, I am very pleased to see my old

Katie Zezima Mediabistro

Katie Zezima
Mediabistro

employer having the resources and the sense to hire smart young journalists like BU alumna Katie Zezima, now part of the Post’s political coverage team — covering the White House, no less — after her stints at the NYTimes and the AP. Good luck to the Post’s owner (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and the paper’s top editor (Marty Baron).

–Sticking with the Times for a moment, here is the Public Editor’s recent comment on the big flap between Amazon and Hachette, involving many writers on both sides.

Can someone help me get to the bottom of this issue? Is there a “good guy” in this fight? Who is really on the side of authors? Are all authors in the same boat?

–Interesting piece here about the European approach to archiving material on the Internet. Even better is 140929_r25505-320this recent New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin.

–Delighted to see Peter Canellos, after being unceremoniously released by the Boston Globe, has landed an important new job at Politico. Why is Politico thriving? Maybe it’s because they hire talented people. . . (On the other hand, Politico has some of the most vicious comment-ers on the Internet, so if you want to hear “the other side” about Canellos, just read the comments. Phew!)

–The radio show “This American Life” by Ira Glass has launched a terrific new audio narrative that they are 537_lgcalling “Serial.” It is described as a “spin-off” and is available as a podcast. I listened to the debut installment this weekend, reported by Sarah Koenig and a team. It’s a terrific tale of the reporting of a doubtful prosecution of a “convicted murderer.” It ended on a real cliff-hanger, leaving me ready for more.

–The always worthwhile NPR program “On the Media” delivered again this weekend. I particularly enjoyed this piece on the work of Craig Silverman, the founder of the site “Regret the Error,” which paid attention to the neglected subject of news media carrcorrections. His latest cause: tracking rumors as they emerge online, at his new side Emergent.info. Good luck with that, Craig.

–The Nieman Journalism Lab asks “What’s up with those 100 layoffs in the New York Times newsroom?” Ken Doctor has some answers.

–History keeps happening: the culture wars shift ground to the teaching of history. Conservatives don’t like the new guidelines for teaching Advance Placement U.S. history courses in high school. Part of their beef is that the new approach, devised by “revisionist” left-wing academic historians, dwells too heavily on America’s faults. Imperiling our sense of patriotism (Is that really the take-away kids are supposed to get from studying history), this new approach focuses too much on negative stuff, like protests.

So, how do smart high school kids respond? THEY PROTEST!

I’d say that shows they have already learned something!

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What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

by Christopher B. Daly

Plenty.

The little-known artist Alfred Waud was one of the most important “visual journalists” covering the greatest conflict in American history. Along with the young Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Waud was assigned to cover the fighting, including the critical Battle of Gettysburg, by drawing sketches that could quickly be converted into engravings that could be printed along with text in the pages of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly.

Much better known are the photographs of Mathew Brady (and his less-well-known team of assistants). But Brady’s photos, for all their power and terribly beauty, all suffered from the technical limitations of the mid-19th century. In order for the chemical emulsions used in photography to leave an impression on the glass or metal plates, the camera’s shutter had to be left open for a comparatively long time — at least several seconds. As a result, cameras in the Civil War era were unable to stop action. If the subject was moving, the image would be blurred.

So, it fell to sketch artists to capture any scene involving motion or action.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly.
Library of Congress.

Now, a professor at Northern Kentucky University has used a Waud sketch to try to learn more about the crucial fighting that took place in Gettysburg, Pa., from July 1 to July 3, 1865. Emeritus Prof. Michael C.C. Adams argues that the sketch by Waud can be used to deduce the distance at which the opposing forces opened fire on each other. Many more Waud sketches can be found online or at the Library of Congress.

In the history of journalism, those Civil War sketches are some of the first examples of illustrating the news in a documentary fashion. Hats off to those brave sketch artists who got right up to the front lines armed with nothing more than a palette and some chalk.

 Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg. Library of Congress


Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

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Holder: Worst AG in US history for journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly

There are, of course, many ways to evaluate the performance of Eric Holder as the Attorney General of the United States. Since he announced his intention to retire, many voices have attempted to determine his legacy. I want to focus on his treatment of journalists, which may be the most hostile in the history of the country.

His most egregious and unconstitutional offense has been to investigate and prosecute journalists for doing their jobs — which, at its most vital, entails gathering and sharing information about the actions of our government. When that news-gathering has involved discovering information that the government prefers to keep secret, Holder has been ruthless — far more agressive, for example, than he was in prosecuting those lenders and speculators who crashed the U.S. economy in 2008.

It’s not just a campaign against “leakers” such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. What has really marked Holder’s approach is his determination to go after the journalists who get secrets from government sources. Among his biggest targets has been the New York Times (no accident, of course, because the Times is a leader in investigating government secrets). With considerable restraint, the Times made these observations today:

But Mr. Holder has continued Mr. Kennedy’s work in another way, one he is less likely to embrace but is no less part of his legacy. Like Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Holder has frustrated and confounded even his staunchest allies for his views on civil liberties.

Mr. Holder approved of the National Security Agency’s authority to sweep up millions of phone records of Americans accused of no crime. He subpoenaed journalists and led a crackdown on their sources. He defended the F.B.I.’s right to track people’s cars without warrants and the president’s right to kill an American who had joined Al Qaeda.

And later:

Mr. Holder’s Justice Department started more investigations than any of his predecessors into government officials who disclosed information to reporters. He subpoenaed journalists’ emails and phone records, and demanded their testimony. The New York Times reporter James Risen, who has refused to reveal his sources about information on Iran, remains under subpoena.

Mr. Holder acknowledged in the interview that those efforts went too far at times and pointed to new rules limiting investigations involving journalists. . .

To put all this in historical perspective, it might be worth noting that Holder is not the only attorney general in U.S. history

Attorney General Charles Lee, 1795-1801

AG  Charles Lee, 1795-1801

to have prosecuted journalists. One notable enemy of journalists was the third AG — the rarely remembered Charles Lee of Virginia, who served under Federalist president John Adams and enforced the blatantly unconstitutional provisions of the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to publish certain kinds of criticism of the government or its officials. (When the Jefferson administration came into power in March of 1801, Lee was promptly replaced by Levi Lincoln Sr. of Massachusetts, and the Sedition Act was mercifully allowed to expire.)

Then there was Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who occupied the office during the late years of the Wilson administration. He is most notorious for carrying out the “Palmer raids” on suspected radicals, but he

AG Palmer

AG Palmer

also prosecuted several high-profile cases under the Sedition Act of 1918 to attempt to silence critics of U.S. involvement in World War I.

Ultimately, I suppose, it is worth remembering that all attorneys general are nominated by the president, and they serve at his (or her) pleasure. So, attorneys general are only as good as the president allows — or requires — them to be.

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Gail Sheehy: still pitching herself

Don’t miss today’s review in the Times of the new memoir by Gail Sheehy. Not that she needs any more exposure.

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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. . . 

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Vice Media: extremism in the defense of liberty

By Christopher B. Daly

Two stories about the news media nicely frame a major dynamic that is remaking the practice of journalism. On the one hand, USA Today, the most expensive launch in the history of Old Media, announced the layoffs of 70 people, including about three dozen from the newsroom. When USA Today was launched in 1982, it was the disruptor, challenging theimgres staid, b+w, graphics-free traditional printed serious newspaper. The journalistic Establishment hated USA Today and mocked it, saying it was vulgar and represented a dumbing-down of Serious Journalism. Ten years and more than $1 billion later, founder Al Neuharth of Gannett proved that there was a market for shorter stories, punchier graphics, and color inks, and for a while USA Today flourished.

 

Fast-forward: the other big news of the last 24 hours is the announcement that upstart Vice Media has attracted half a billion dollars in investments recently, giving it instant heft and standing in the new media landscape. What is Vice up to? One insight comes from one of the co-founders, the Canadian Shane Smith. He has said Vice is engaged in a “relentless quest for total media domination.” Sounds just like Al Neuharth – or Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, for that matter.

[Update: here's a version from The Economist. Fun fact: it's "dated" Sept. 6, even though today is only the 4th, because of the magazine's traditional print schedule of publication in separate "editions." -- There's a quaint idea from another century.]

Along with stories about penis size and dog meat, Vice has ambitions to play in a bigger league and pursue higher-impact stories, financing expensive film expeditions to remote locations. More power to them! I hope they use most of the new $500 million to hire lots of young, smart, multimedia journalists (at least more than the dozens laid off at USA Today).

They’re ready for Vice; is Vice ready for them?

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