The Roosevelts and the media — a historian weighs in

By Christopher B. Daly

[Update: Here's a thoughtful, tough evaluation of Ken Burns from an academic historian. It makes some points I have been struggling to articulate. H-t to Harvey Kaye.]

Could either Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt get elected today? That’s a fun question to kick around as the epic new video documentary by Ken Burns unfolds on PBS.

A rare view of FDR using crutches. PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC. Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

A rare view of FDR using crutches.
PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC.
Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

The lead writer of the series is the redoubtable Geoffrey C. Ward, who is probably one of the most successful, most familiar, and least known American historians of recent decades. Ward, who apparently has never had an academic appointment in a university history department, has a real knack for writing history in a way that lots of people appreciate. A graduate of Oberlin and former editor of American Heritage, Ward has an impressive track record: 18 books (including a 1989 biography of FDR, A First-Class Temperament), a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Parkman Prize for history, seven Emmys, a bunch of other prizes and the “Friend of History Award” from the Organization of American Historians.

Among his many talents, I would say Ward excels at the majestic, omniscient note needed to introduce Big Subjects in our national drama like the Civil War or the Roosevelts. One arrow in Ward’s quiver is the “historical conditional” verb tense, as in: “His When his words are read by Peter Coyote, you better listen up.

As this recent NYTimes piece notes, Ward has a special connection to FDR — Ward suffered from polio as a child and still wears braces as a result — that perhaps gave him a special affinity or empathy with the president. Although it is not taught much in school, empathy may not be a bad quality in a historian.

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns PBS photo

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns
PBS photo

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Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I am rounding up some recent reports and commentary about journalism and history.

Here is a new report from our friends at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, asking:

Where are the women in the executive ranks of the news media?

Good question.

Here’s the latest episode of NPR’s “On the Media.” This week’s show looks at the decline in “beat reporting.” Any thoughts from my JO310 alumni?

Here’s the latest episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — much improved since Brian Stelter replaced Howie Kurtz. So, should news organizations censor ISIL’s propaganda videos? I say, yes.

And from the NYTimes. . .

Here is B.U. Prof. David Carr on TMZ’s sacking of the NFL.

Here is a confusing story about NPR doing “live” shows. (Isn’t all of NPR live?)

Here is a story about the sale of Digital First Media. Want to buy a newspaper? (I don’t mean one copy, I mean a whole paper!)

Here is an update on the Hachette-Amazon brawl. I am still not sure which side to join in this one.

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Get to know about a new use of narrative

Here’s an update about the Story in the Public Square project, which is going on in Rhode Island (and in which I have a small role). From a blogpost about a recent planning meeting:

Ideas flow at Story in the Public Square’s First Story Board Meeting

By Alisha A. Pina

PROVIDENCE — A Narragansett Tribe elder and oral historian named Sunflower.

An Emmy Award-winning producer and director.

An author and Bryant University professor who has archived the wartime letters of countless women.

These are three of the about two dozen dedicated and diverse members of the Story Board, a group advising The Providence Journal and Pell Center leadership with its Story in the Public Square initiative. Since its inception in 2012, there have been two day-long conferences that studied, celebrated and practiced storytelling in its many forms.

 The Story Board, which was created after a coffee house conversation, met for the first time Wednesday at The Providence Journal to brainstorm for the third annual Story Day conference being planned for the spring of 2015 — and future projects.

“The room overflowed with ideas,” said G. Wayne Miller, a longtime Providence Journal reporter and visiting fellow at the Pell Center.

Miller is leading the initiative with Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes, who on Wednesday likened the Story Board to chocolate and peanut butter because it fits so well with enhancing Story in the Public Square.

The still-being developed theme for Story Day 2015 is music — its abilities to heal, narrate emotion, bring strangers together and move past global boundaries.

“Music transcends,” said Kendall Moore, a Story Board member, award-winning filmmaker and University of Rhode Island professor. “…It has impact everywhere.”

Suggestions from Story Board members include discussing the origins and necessity of black gospel; two types of classical music in India; how the hearing impaired still enjoy music; the importance of arts and music education in schools; and creating a block of time for young musicians to jam with a seasoned artist (s).  There could be bands, dancers and solo artist between lively panel discussions.

Getting additional youth and community members involved was also emphasized, as well as topics for the annual youth contest.

Said Miller, “this is not a closed club.”

Providence Journal Staff Writer and Columnist Alisha A. Pina is a member of the Story Board, a culturally, ethnically and creatively diverse advisory board with representation from every Rhode Island college and university and members from the broader community. Meet all of the Story Board members at www.salve.edu/story-board

 More information about Story in the Public Square can be found online atwww.publicstory.org; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/StoryInThePublicSquare; and by following @pubstory on Twitter.

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The Monday round-up

Here’s the latest from David Carr, about the iconography of beheading.

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Here’s the new issue of Common-Place, a terrific site about history, complete with a mystery story about a “missing” congressional election in Massachusetts in 1814. Hmmm. . . 

 

 

Here’s a discussion on NPR’s “On Point” about my friend and colleague Mitch Zuckoff’s new book on Benghazi.

 

Here’s an inconclusive report on the resignation of the executive editor of Politico. (Reminder: one of the “5 W’s of journalism” is “WHY?”) Hmmm. . .

 

Here’s where the Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan wrestles with the issues raised by doing “profiles in the news.” 1101330313_400

 

(Preview: not all the people journalists cover are admirable; deal with it.)

 

 

 

 

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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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What is college for?

By Christopher B. Daly 

imagesThe perennial question of what college is good for has been getting a burst of new attention lately, triggered by a loud lament from former Yale professor William Deresiewicz (cq?) in a July rant against the Ivy League in The New Republic (which has become the most-read item in the storied history of TNR). The article was a strategically astute pitch for Prof. D’s new book, Excellent Sheep, which argues that American higher ed is a mess because it culminates in elite schools where kids over-achieve for no reason and who end up going into careers in finance, again for no reason. [A bit of context, from Wikipedia: "He left academia in 2008, when he failed to receive tenure from Yale, to become a full-time writer."]

The article and book have prompted a fair amount of pushback. One of the most thoughtful appears in TNR itself, written by Steven Pinker from a high perch in the elite schools. Pinker, who holds an endowed chair in psychology at Harvard, does a fine job of engaging Prof D’s many arguments. I was struck by Pinker’s admirable attempt to make a positive statement about the purpose of higher education. Thank you, Prof P. 

Here’s the essence (from Pinker’s article “The Trouble with Harvard,” TNR, 9/5/14):

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. 

 

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

 If all of us who are involved in higher ed could achieve some, most, or all of these worthy goals, that would be ample justification. If some kids still go into finance, at least they’ll be discontented. 

 

 

 

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BU Prof: The Benghazi tragedy was caused by the CIA station chief

By Christopher B. Daly

Get ready: the Benghazi controversy is about to get a big new dose of fuel. My friend and B.U. colleague Mitch Zuckoff has a new book coming out next week that tells the story of the tragic assault on the U.S. compound in Libya from the perspective of five American commandoes who were there. The five men have teamed up with Zuckoff to write their jpegeyewitness account in a book titled “13 Hours.”

The release of the book is already reviving the arguments over who was to blame for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others during the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012. Most Republicans (including the Republican Party news outlet known as Fox News) are hoping to lay the blame on Hilary Clinton, on the grounds that she was U.S. Secretary of State at the time and therefore responsible for every bad thing that happened anywhere in the world during her entire tenure. The Republicans would like to use this tragedy to damage her politically as she gears up to run for president in 2016.

Most Democrats, meanwhile, would like to just see the whole thing disappear.

Most journalists, like Mitch, would like to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. Operating in a fact-based world, journalists (and historians, for that matter) need to establish a reliable, factual sequence of events before we can even have a political discussion. That’s what has been largely missing. Based on knowing Mitch Zuckoff for almost 30 years and working with him when we were both reporters at the AP and working with him since we have both been journalism professors at B.U., I can say that I would expect his version to be definitive. 

The debate is flaring up, as you can see from these accounts from MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the NYTimes (which somehow “obtained” an advance copy of Mitch’s book). Fox News jumped with a “special report” by Bret Baier. The book’s release also just happens to coincide with the start of hearings into Benghazi by a special House committee. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

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