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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