Tag Archives: history

The best book you may never have read (or forgotten about)

By Christopher B. Daly

Thank you, Dwight Garner, for the appreciation in today’s NYTimes for a neglected American classic — the 1974 oral history All God’s Dangers. It’s amazing to think that this wonderful book has fallen below the radar. Even compared to the other books that were finalists that year for the National Book Award, All God’s Dangers deserves to be read, taught, and remembered.

[What were those other books? It was a non-fiction all-star team:

--The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro

--All the President's Men, by Woodward & Bernstein

--Working, by Studs Terkel

--Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig.]

Rosengarten’s book, which began life as his dissertation for his doctorate in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, tells the story of an Alabama sharecropper, Ned Cobb, in his own words.

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

It was was an inspiration (and a model, along with Terkel’s book, Working, another oral history) for the book that I and five co-authors began working on in 1982, called Like a Family. Like those two 1974 books, our book focuses on working-class people, telling their own stories in their own voices.

 

 

In his piece in the Times, Garner focuses on the book All God’s Dangers and does not pay much attention to whatever happened to the subject, Ned Cobb, or the author, Ted Rosengarten. You can find more about Cobb here and here. And you can find more about Rosengarten, who became a writer in South Carolina, here and here.

Ted Rosengarten

Ted Rosengarten

 

 

 

 

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Fun with maps: American history edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

A big hat-tip to The University of Richmond for its excellent work in digitizing an important collection of historical maps of the United States. The source material is the great Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, published in 1932 by scholars Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright. Now, the maps have been digitized, so they are much more accessible and actually more informative, since some of the changes those old maps documented can now be animated.

Credit goes to the Digital Scholarship Lab and the Mellon Foundation.

Here are two of my favorites:

1. This one shows rates of travel as of 1857, taking New York City as the starting point. It allows you to see how far apart different places in America were near the eve of the Civil War.

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2. This one shows how wealth was distributed in 1880. Surprise: Nevada had the highest per-capita wealth, probably because it had so many silver mines and so few people.

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Million+ historic photos put online

By Christopher B. Daly 

Don’t miss: if you are a historian, researcher, or dedicated browser, visit the new flickr site of The British Library. The library recently made news by posting more than 1 million historic images — all digitized, all in the public domain, and all available for use now. Plus, there’s metadata for each one. The site is not as easy to navigate (it’s actually a bit overwhelming) as the U.S. Library of Congress site for the Prints & Photographs Division, but I’m hardly complaining.

It’s also based on flickr, so you need to have an account to take full advantage. (I tried to re-activate my old Yahoo account — Yahoo bought flickr a few years ago — but it was so cumbersome and annoying that I gave up, for now. I got these images by dragging them in from news sites.)

British Library Flickr

 

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Preserving video news (before it’s too late)

By Christopher B. Daly

Three cheers for WGBH-Tv in Boston and the Library of Congress, which are teaming up to preserve a significant trove of television news footage from public TV. According to the Boston Globe, the project will also result in digitizing the material and putting it online, where everyone will have access.

In researching my book, Covering America, on the history of journalism in America, I found the most difficult kind of historical material to get hold of was radio and television. In general, broadcasters have done a terrible job of preserving their original news programs (and you can just about forget about transcripts), and they are terribly ephemeral. If something is not done, a big chunk of US history will just be lost.

Thanks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for under-writing all this.

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Errol Morris on the Zapruder film of JFK’s shooting

By Christopher B. Daly 

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, there is some remarkable work being done by journalists and historians around this central but still perplexing event. Here is an article that brings together the journalist Ron Rosenbaum and the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in a discussion of the famous Zapruder film — the DIY film of the exact moment at which President Kennedy was shot. There is a fascinating story behind a single frame of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie. Rosenbaum and Morris also discuss many of the leading works about the assassination, from conspiracy theories to debunking efforts. 

What is most amazing to me is that even now, there is no definitive explanation of the assassination — not for the physics of the shooting, not for the motives of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, not for the roles that others may have played. In other words, the central public event of my childhood might or might not have occurred in the way it seemed to, and the grown-ups have yet to tell a convincing story.

Too sad.

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Textile production returns (sort of) to the US South

By Christopher B. Daly

According to a story in today’s NYTimes, the management of the big textile companies have finally achieved a long-sought goal: production without workers. In the book Like A Family, my co-authors and I tell the story of what happened when the U.S. textile industry moved in the early 20th century from its first home in New England to the Piedmont region of Southern states like Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

From the get-go, owners and managers sought to replace labor with capital whenever they could. Here’s an example of advertising we found in the trade press of the 1920s.

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Now, it appears the industry has reached rock-bottom in terms of employment and is actually able to compete with low-wage competition from India, China, and elsewhere.

 

 

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Review of “Covering America” by J&MC Quarterly

I am posting this enthusiastic review in the scholarly journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly because the journal charges a lot for access.

Book Review:

CA cover final 2Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism

Reviewed by Giovanna Dell’Orto (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA)

 

This engrossing, wide-ranging history of American journalism from

the colonial era to the present makes a tremendous contribution to

mass communication education by being that rarest kind of

textbook—one that reads like literature instead of CliffsNotes.

Covering all the bases, from the Zenger trial to the Huffington Post,

and with excursions into much lesser known histories across news

media, Covering America makes perfect and enjoyable mandatory

reading for undergraduate and graduate classes in journalism history.

Christopher Daly, an associate professor at Boston University’s

Journalism Department, approaches this monumental historical

survey with the reportorial flair appropriate for a former Associated

Press and Washington Post journalist, which sets it apart from more

pedagogical classics like Emery, Emery, and Roberts’s The Press

and America. Literally from the first line, Daly grabs the reader with

striking, cinematic details that make the past come alive. Page 1

opens with a teenage Benjamin Franklin skulking along the dark

streets of eighteenth-century Boston, trying to put one over his

brother in order to start his writing career—and the readers are

hooked, be they scholars who have been teaching colonial journalism

for years, like this reviewer, or freshmen who might have never heard

of Franklin.

Similarly intimate visual vignettes are peppered throughout the next

nearly five hundred pages, including an iconic Ed Murrow “sitting on a

bench in a White House hallway, chain-smoking Camel cigarettes” as

FDR decides how to react to just-received news of Pearl Harbor. At

the other end of the press–government relationship spectrum, we are

treated to the image of President Nixon dancing at the White House

wedding of his daughter at the very same moment when “the

typesetters and pressmen at the [New York] Times started printing”

the Pentagon Papers stories.

Most helpful for classroom use, in all these cases and across the

volume, Daly assumes no prior historical knowledge on the readers’

part, and retells the basics of U.S. history through the eyes of the

journalists and media owners who put its first draft in front of the

American people. Most chapters even conclude with short summaries

of how their main characters—from Franklin to David Halberstam—

ended up, much like the end titles in documentaries, so that no gaps

are left in a remarkably comprehensive story.

Some journalism historians might object that this volume skates very

close to the “Great Men” tradition. The narrative focus is unabashedly

on the major figures that made journalism what it is (and yes, for the

vast majority of the three hundred years covered it was mostly white

men). As Daly puts it repeatedly, social, political, economic, and

technological developments influenced the shape of journalism, but

for the major shifts to happen, “somebody had to do something.”

Since this book’s main audience is not the specialist, focusing on the

adventures of those various “somebodies” at the expense of scholarly

interpretative controversy seems an effective trade-off for terrific

storytelling that gets the major points across memorably.

In addition, the book does make two fundamental conceptual

arguments that give it depth and a unifying thread. Daly argues that

journalism has been central to the history of the country. From the

early Republic Party press all the way to today’s blogs (which, as

Daly notes, are not that different), the media history narrated in the

volume shows how journalism helped shape American life.

Sometimes, it has done so with nefarious effects, but also with a

“long tradition of service to humanity.” That service, however, has

recurrently been imperiled by the practice of journalism as a

business.

The most heartfelt, compelling question raised is the strange bed

fellowship of journalism and money. At the end of chapter 12, which

focuses on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and is perhaps the

book’s best, Daly reflects on what he feels was the “apotheosis” of

the raison d’être for independent, aggressive journalism: “Build a big

enough audience so that you can make enough money to tell anyone

to go to hell. The risk of such an attitude is sounding arrogant, but

without it there is no real journalism.” But money, as the book shows,

is not always a journalist’s friend—not when it has meant

acquiescence to governmental or corporate interests, not when it is

intended to fatten shareholders’ wallets instead of newsgathering

operations, and not when it is made by pandering to the evil twin of

mass interest, the enduring prurient passion for celebrity scandals

and gore.

For an overview book, the level of detail is astounding, especially

since it does not detract from the narrative flow. With illuminating

forays into law, technology, and policy making, readers are

introduced to pamphleteers, editors, reporters, columnists, and

broadcasters, from Thomas Paine to Matt Drudge by way of Horace

Greeley, Ida B. Wells, Adolph Ochs, Harry Luce, and less obvious

figures, such as Harold Ross and Walter Winchell. From the smelly

printing equipment in colonial shops to the Supreme Court justices’

opinions and the account behind the iconic napalm-burned

Vietnamese girl photograph, there are no major stories left untold.

Striking quotes straight from the media—the Liberator’s opening

editorial, Ernie Pyle’s Captain Waskow’s tribute, Earl Caldwell’s

report of the King assassination—enrich the atmospheric narrative.

Until, that is, the digital era: The one major criticism of this volume is

that its treatment of what Daly calls the last major period of journalism

history, the digital revolution from the mid-1990s onward, is

unsatisfactorily perfunctory. The entire digital era gets a twenty-page

chapter that does not even mention such critical developments as the

rise of fake news shows or shattering scandals such as the Jayson

Blair affair, which is hinted at in the conclusion.

Writing what amounts to a history of the present is certainly difficult,

but the end of the book feels abrupt, and the first decade of the

twenty-first century deserves the same lively, in-depth study as the

other eras so masterfully narrated. Despite that shortcoming, this

volume is a top-choice main history textbook and reference work for

journalism educators, researchers, and students at all levels.

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Notice of “Covering America”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A shout-out to Rutgers historian David Greenberg. In a book review in the current issue of the Journal of American History, Greenberg more or less dissected a new book called News for All the People. Then, unexpectedly, he swerved into a nice mention of my book:

Historians of journalism seeking a new synthesis will be better served by Christopher B. Daly’s Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (2012), which does not emphasize racial oppression quite as much yet does debunk cherished myths of American journalism history while presenting a coherent narrative account.

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NYTimes videos revisit recent past

By Christopher B. Daly 

Without much fanfare, the New York Times has been engaging in an interesting experiment that revisiting old news stories to address the ageless qusetion: “Oh, yeah . . . whatever happened to that?”

Rev. Al, back in the day.

Rev. Al, back in the day.

The service is a partnership between the Times video section and a private non-profit called “RetroReport.” (It’s not that easy to find on the Times site, but here is the link to the page that lists all seven such reports done to date.) According to the partner’s website, RetroReport’s mission is to produce video follow-ups to big stories from a decade or more ago that dropped off the radar of the news business. Recent examples include revisiting the Tawana Brawley case, the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the Y2K hubbub. The folks at RetroReport seem to be a mix of young documentarians and some heavy-hitting alumni of top-shelf operations like 60 Minutes, the Ken Burns films, and PBS.

This is a potentially great idea that brings the Times into the realm of creating the second draft of history as well as the first. In a sense, the Times has entered the field

Biosphere 2. Remember?

Biosphere 2. Remember?

of historical revisionism, giving its audience the chance to re-evaluate stories that once seemed to have one point or significance only to find that new evidence or new concerns have cast the recent past in a different light.

One theme that emerges from these early versions: a lot of stories are wrong the first time around.

Another theme: Despite the predictions, the sky rarely falls.

History keeps happening.

 

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History keeps happening: Southern textile factory gets new uses

By Christopher B. Daly

The Loray Mill in its heyday, when it made fabric for the Firestone tire company.

The Loray Mill in its heyday, when it made fabric for the Firestone tire company.

The huge brick textile factory complex in Gastonia, North Carolina, once considered the largest in the world, is about to find a new life as an apartment complex, complete with amenities like restaurants and shops. From the description in today’s New York Times, it looks like the old factory has come a long way from the original life of the Loray Mill, built in stages starting in 1902.

That earlier story is the one told in the book that I co-authored with five fellow historians, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Published in 1987 and reissued in 2000,51gBhqv0KTL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX225_SY300_CR,0,0,225,300_SH20_OU01_ Like a Family puts the Loray Mill (see chap. 4), located near Charlotte, into the broader context of Southern industrialization, told largely from the workers’ point of view, based on their own testimony in hundreds of oral history interviews. That work was made possible through the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, which continues to do fine work in oral history. The SOHP interviews are mostly on deposit at UNC’s Wilson Library, where they are open to scholars. You can even search for a term like “Gastonia” in the search tool.

That should keep you busy for a while!

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