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. . .