Tag Archives: history

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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America’s history of censorship

By Christopher B. Daly 

A recent obituary reminds us that during World War II, President Roosevelt created and operated a wide-ranging and largely effective program of censorship of all news media. The news is the death, at age 94, of Cal Whipple, who was a Pentagon correspondent for LIFE magazine during the war. It was Whipple who persuaded the military to re-examine its policy of banning photos of dead U.S. servicemen. Eventually, the top brass referred the matter to the president, and Roosevelt personally intervened. (It might have made more sense, of course, for LIFE’s publisher, Henry Luce, to take up the matter with the president — but for the fact that Luce was a Republican and quite a FDR-basher by 1943.) The result of Whipple’s efforts was this stunning photo by LIFE’s George Strock:

Photo by George Strock/ LIFE magazine.

Photo by George Strock/ LIFE magazine.

That photo (which I paid Getty Images for the right to use) was followed by many more, all of which brought home the reality of war.

Here is an excerpt from my book, Covering America, about the issue:

 

   Another special case involved war zone photography. Initially, U.S. military and civilian censors banned the publication of photos showing dead American soldiers or sailors. It was assumed that such images would be bad for civilian morale, and they would probably not bring the troops much cheer either. For twenty months after Pearl Harbor, not a single photo depicting a dead U.S. service member appeared in the news media. Much of the initiative for change came from the editors of Life magazine, which, with a circulation of more than 2.5 million a week,23 had emerged since its founding in 1936 as the nation’s premier showcase for photojournalism. Among its wartime staff were Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, and Robert Capa. With its large format and glossy paper, Life gave photos their greatest possible impact. In a 1942 advertisement for itself, Life expressed its philosophy: “Never has LIFE glossed over the horrors that stalk in the wake of the Axis aggression, but has shown war as it really is . . . stark, brutal, and devastating.” Even so, the censorship guidelines prevented showing dead GIs, so editors at Life and elsewhere pressed their case for greater candor. In mid-1943 the Roosevelt administration reversed its earlier policy, and in September officials began releasing the first of the somber photos. The most famous was the one printed in Life showing three dead soldiers lying where they had been shot on a beach in New Guinea. The photo, by George Strock, was a masterpiece of composition and understatement. The dead men’s faces were not visible, and their wounds were hidden as well. The editors and the military brass all worried about the public reaction, but they need not have: most letters to Life supported the decision, and there was no measurable drop-off in American support for the war. Ever since, readers on the home front have been given a closer and more realistic look at war. . .

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History keeps happening

By Christopher B. Daly

I guess it’s a good thing to see a historian at a glamorous Hollywood event. (I mean, it’s probably better than a glamorous Hollywood event without a historian, right?)

Seen below, left to right: Doris K-G, Daniel D-L, and his wife, Rebecca Miller (who was not identified in the caption of his photo in the NYTimes, but she should have been: Although not a historian, she is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller; she went to Yale; and she has her own career as an actress, screenwriter, novelist, and director.)

l to r: Historian, Lincoln impersonator, multi-talented person.

l to r: Historian, Lincoln impersonator, multi-talented person.

 

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The Oscars: revisionist history on film?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Hooray that more than half of the leading contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards have historical themes.

A question that always hangs over such films is: how accurate are they? Accuracy, of course, is often in the eye of the beholder, but a more useful question might be: do any of these films revise history in a way that improves our historical understanding, warps our historical understanding, or makes no difference?

Keep that in mind tonight when watching the Oscars show a propos the following:

–Les Miz (just how often do the poor break into song?) imgres

 

 

 

 

imgres-1–Argo (does it matter that the character played by Ben Affleck was really Hispanic? If you don’t think so, then Ah, go fuck yourself!)

 

 

 

imgres-2–Zero Dark Thirty (who says that torture “worked”?)

 

 

 

 

imgres-3–Lincoln (did one weary, kindly man “free the slaves” all by himself?)

 

 

 

 

imgres-4–Django Unchained (was the past an orgy of stylized violence?)

 

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Civil War at 150

By Christopher B. Daly

Among the many worthwhile efforts to recall the U.S. Civil War on its 150th anniversary is an attempt to add a visual dimension. The “Civil War 150 Pinhole Project” is reviving the technology of the pinhole camera to make dramatic images of re-enactors and others. A hat-tip to Michael Falco, a photographer based in NYC for making this happen.

Some results:

Antietam cornfield

Antietam cornfield

crossing_artillary

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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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Stanley Karnow, 1925-2013

Today brings news of the passing of Stanley Karnow, who wrote one of the most-cited works trying to figure out what happened during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was an exemplar of the journalist-turned-historian.

Here is the Times obit, which mentions that Karnow was also on the Nixon “enemies list.”

Here is the AP version, which notes that Karnow got his start in journalism on his high school newspaper and at the Harvard Crimson.

The ultimate quote:

‘‘What did we learn from Vietnam?’’ Mr. Karnow later told AP. ‘‘We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’’

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The Civil War at 150

Don’t miss this project at the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina (where I went to grad school in history). The library is posting a letter written by a Civil War soldier on the exact day on which it was written 150 years ago. (Hint: practice reading hand-writing!)

Here’s today’s entry:

18630127_01

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Book notes

By Christopher B. Daly

A couple of updates from the world of letters:

–My B.U. colleague Amy Sutherland has a Q+A with the estimable Tracy Kidder in the Boston Globe. A brief highlight:

BOOKS: Anything else you avoid?

KIDDER: Most biographies are too long. But I loved “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild. I don’t want to read any more memoirs about dysfunctional families. I don’t think it’s a form that should be condemmed. It’s just there’s been a surfeit of it.

I certainly agree with his point about biographies: they have become so vast that they are approaching the point where they are both un-readable and un-writable. There are a number of biographies I’d like to read and a handful I’d like to write, but the prospect of either is daunting. Bring back the short biography!

–My friend Amy Wilentz will be speaking this Friday at the Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. aboutWilentzAmy_creditPaulaGoldmanher new book on Haiti, which has been getting great reviews. Come if you can.

 

 

–I found this review in today’s NYTimes irritating. What bothers me is the premise that Adam Begley brought to his reading of a new history of Venice by Thomas F. Madden, titled Sunken Treasure. The reviewer takes the author to task for writing a book of history that tackles a great subject, synthesizes a tremendous amount of material, and writes a readable version for intelligent general readers. Where’s the harm?

But if it’s new, it’s not innovative. Madden has written a conventional narrative history, sweeping in scope and calmly, blandly authoritative. Though he’s a professional historian who teaches at St. Louis University, he seems more proud of his storytelling than his scholarship.

That view is what drives the mania among academic historians for writing books with novel arguments on arcane subjects. Later in the review, Begley calls Madden a “breezy, cheerful, evenhanded” debunker of myths. Begley begrudgingly allows that the last general history of Venice was written a generation ago, and that book dropped the tale in 1797. Madden has tapped newer research, brought the story up to the present, and done so in an engaging way. Why is that not enough?

Painting by Gentile Bellini/Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice (1496; detail)/Photographed by Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY

Painting by Gentile Bellini/Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice (1496; detail)/Photographed by Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY

 

 

 

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