Tag Archives: history

The power of story

by Christopher B. Daly

Narratives in the news:

–Here is a smart piece about why some of us are drawn to TV narratives like Downton and other shows with strong narratives.

–Here is a smart piece about the power of narrators (although I think there is a bit of confusion here between narrators and protagonists, which are not the same).

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Rave review for “Covering America”

By Christopher B. Daly 

My book Covering America drew an insanely enthusiastic review in the Providence Journal on Sunday. The timing reminds me: IMHO, this book would make a great holiday gift for anyone who cares about American journalism, American history, American politics, the tech revolution in news, Jefferson/Lincoln/FDR, WWI/WWI/Vietnam, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Have I left anyone out?

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Notable historians die

By Christopher B. Daly

This week brings news of the deaths of two of the most prominent (and controversial) historians of the post-War period.

Eugene Genovese, a Marxist-turned-Catholic conservative. Author of a key work in the history of U.S. slavery: Roll, Jordan, Roll.





Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist nearly to the end. Author of a trilogy of essential works.




Rather than fight over who was a good person, we can do them and ourselves a favor by reading (or re-reading) their work and, in a spirit of free inquiry, judging it for ourselves.


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1968: A Hinge in History

[I recently finished reading a chunk of the new biography of Walter Cronkite that deals with the events of 1968. It put me in mind of the following essay, which I wrote for my book, Covering America, but had to cut for reasons of space. Enjoy.]



This image was described in The Last Whole Earth Catalog as: “The famous Apollo 8 picture of Earthrise of the moon that established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness (dry moon, barren space) and began to bend human consciousness.”

(photo by NASA)



By Christopher B. Daly

As the year 1968 began, the Beatles’ song from the year before was still playing on record-players and on radios:

I read the news today, oh boy…

 And what a flashing kaleidoscope of news it was. By turns amazing, shocking, depressing, inspiring, enraging, the news in 1968 seemed to have entered some uncharted realm. Things started normally enough. Americans woke on the first day of the year to read a UPI story reporting that the Census Bureau put the U.S. population at just over 200 million. During the first few days of January, they could also read about the exploits of the dashing O.J. Simpson, who rushed USC to victory in the Rose Bowl over Indiana. Newsweek reported that its own poll showed Republicans favoring Richard Nixon over his GOP rivals at the start of that presidential election year. Gary, Indiana, got a new “Negro” mayor, Richard Hatcher, whose first act was to appoint a white chief of police and order him to crack down on crime.

Then there was the news from Vietnam, all of it bad. During what was supposed to be a new year’s truce, Vietcong troops launched a sneak attack just a few minutes after midnight and “savagely mauled” ARVN forces, killing 19. The next day, the extent of the assault became clearer in a Times front-page story:

Vietcong guerrillas, attacking in regimental force, killed 26 American  infantrymen and wounded 111 early today in rubber plantation country near  Tayninh, 50 miles northwest of Saigon, United States officers said.

According to a Saigon newspaper, American psy-ops forces were blanketing Vietnam with propaganda leaflets. The only problem: six years into the war, Americans still had not learned to speak the language. The level of Vietnamese used in the leaflets ranged from “consistently awful” to “unintelligible.” From Hanoi came an AP report that North Vietnam had shot down 1,063 American warplanes in the previous year.  Trying to sum up the overall situation in a front-page piece on Jan. 1, Times correspondent Johnny Apple offered a “thumb-sucker”[i] that began this way:

SAIGON, South Vietnam, Dec. 31 — American officials at almost all  levels, both in Saigon and in the provinces, say they are under steadily increasing pressure from Washington to produce convincing evidence of progress, especially by the South Vietnamese….

So many portents and signals, and yet so much noise too. During the first week of 1968, readers could also find an AP story under the headline:


Yes, President Johnson signed a bill lifting the 15% tax, but only after having certified that there “is no known commercial production of bagpipes in the United States.” (Who knew?) The Times reported that cigarette sales were up 7.5 percent, to 46.6 billion smokes, and the paper documented the new year’s social news, noting that 29 debutantes had been “presented” at the Waldorf Astoria. The Times also took note of the fashion trend of the era, the miniskirt, and asked the classic question during periods when the hemline is up: “Will It Go Down?” The paper waffled and said only that the issue was a “cliff-hanger” heading into 1968.

Readers would have also found the following item in the Times on the first day of the year, a sort of all-purpose headline that the newspaper could have kept on file for use through the year:


There was plenty to fret about: the problems of crime, housing, violence, race, and war were not getting any better. As the year continued, the headlines from the homefront kept growing larger and larger. At the end of February, the Kerner Commission weighed in on the previous year’s urban riots. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” the report warned, adding that the news media were part of the problem because “the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”[ii] And, incidentally, the report pointed out that it was high time the news media hired some black reporters. Within weeks, more shocks: The U.S. abandoned the gold standard in March.

Then, in April, the news was suddenly wall-to-wall. In the estimation of the Times’ managing editor, Arthur Gelb, the first week of April 1968 was “the most crowded week of news since World War II.”[iii] It actually began on March 31. The president requested airtime on the TV networks to discuss the war. The advance text did not include the finishing lines, which were written at the last minute by LBJ himself. So, no one was prepared when Johnson suddenly announced: “… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” A political earthquake, followed days later by the bulletins from Memphis: Martin Luther King Jr. shot – assassinated, really, almost like JFK. In no time, the fury caused by King’s death erupted in the streets – Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Washington, D.C., even on military bases in Vietnam

That spring, the whole world seemed to be freaking out. Students at Columbia, led by an SDS radical named Mark Rudd, took over buildings and demanded an end to Columbia’s involvement in the war and its imperial expansion into the surrounding neighborhood. A new show called “Laugh-In” – which featured drug jokes, a pop-art esthetic, non-sequiturs, and nonsense (“Sock it to me!”) – became the top hit on TV. In France, students and workers staged an uprising demanding change. The hottest show on Broadway was called “Hair,” and it had actual naked people on stage, along with some catchy anthem-melodies. Then, June 5: Bobby Kennedy won the Democratic primary in California and was making his way through a crowded hotel in L.A. when a lone gunman shot him, practically point-blank. The next day, RFK died, too. Another national funeral, another round of anguished self-examination. Were Americans “the people of the gun”?

The news kept coming. In late July, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical condemning birth control. What a lot people heard was: sex is only for making babies. Thou shalt not have sex for the hell of it. (Well, screw that!) Within two weeks, the Republicans held their national political convention in Miami Beach, giving every possible signal that they were the party of straight, white, square people who accept hierarchy, who appreciate order, and who have no intention of turning the country over to a bunch of dirty hippies and crazy radicals. At the end of the month, the Democrats met in Chicago, and they staged a brawl inside the convention center and outside. Two gifted provocateurs, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, told the world that their Yippie Party had big plans:

            We will burn Chicago to the ground!

We will fuck on the beaches!

We demand the Politics of Ecstasy!

Acid for all!

Abandon the creeping meatball!



Provoked by such tactics and spoiling for a fight to begin with, the Chicago police erupted in a frenzy of beatings, letting the goddamn hippies know who was boss in Chicago. While the whole world watched, cops beat the kids – and they beat a few journalists, too, for good measure. A few weeks later, it was time to question another American tradition, the Miss America beauty pageant. Demanding an end to their “enslavement,” a group of radical feminists picketed the pageant in Atlantic City, setting up a “freedom trash can” on the Boardwalk which they filled with girdles, bras, high-heeled shoes, hair curlers and other things that pinched or demeaned women. The media went berserk, even inventing the myth that women took off their bras and burned them. In October, at the Olympics in Mexico City, two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, went to the stand to get their medals and raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Again, the whole world was watching. On Nov. 5, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew barely won the White House (43.4% for them, 42.7% for Humphrey, and 13.5% for George Wallace), but with less than 44 percent of the popular vote they got 100 percent of the power of the Executive Branch. In late November, the Beatles released another album – one with no apparent name, just a white cover – that featured a song called “Revolution.” Did they mean it?

Finally, just at the end of the year, the space program came through with some good news. Three astronauts managed to fly into space, get into orbit around the moon, see the dark side, and make it back home safe and sound. It had been quite a year.

 0   0   0   0

            During 1968, a year of miracles and horrors, something else was happening too. It never really qualified as “news,” but maybe it should have. Here are there, in twos and threes, millions of people, most of them under 30, were getting high for the first time, usually by smoking marijuana, then maybe some other psychotropic drug like hashish, mescaline, or LSD. Most of them were never quite the same afterward. Once they stepped through the “doors of perception” by deliberately altering their consciousness, they were not going to return to the “straight” world of alienated work, endless consumption, striving, conflict, and domination. Why should they? Why do that when life was a magical mystery tour, a carnival, a dream? Millions heard the call from Lennon and McCartney – “I’d love to turn you on” – and nodded. One result was a new divide in America, which had plenty of fault lines already: now the populace was self-dividing between hip and straight. These two cultures began to gawk at one another, even as they drifted further and further apart. The hip young people wanted nothing to do with the War in Vietnam, of course, but that was just the beginning. They wanted nothing to do with the whole world of hierarchy, power, Wall Street, thousand-year-old churches – basically, they rejected the idea that anyone should tell them what to do. They wanted a revolution, and it began with freeing their minds. They wrote about all manner of cosmic riddles and existential jokes: What color is time? What flavor is your hair? You ask, is the government too big? I wonder: Is the government real?

                        You tell me it’s the insti-tu-tion,

                        Well, you know,

                        You better free your mind instead…[v]

 One place to find the new culture was in music. Suddenly, the radio mattered, more than ever. New songs by Dylan or the Beatles were stunning, stopping people in their tracks. Pop music was not just silly love songs any more. Now, it could be about anything: it could be plastecine porters with looking-glass ties, or an opera about a blind boy who’s a wizard at pin-ball, or about the dark side of the moon. It could be made by men and women, it could be a sitar-player from India or an ancient black bluesman from the Delta, it could be fluffy and dreamy or it could be dark and scary, it could be the most fantastic, improvisational hodge-podge you could imagine.

Johnny’s in the basement,

mixin’ up the medicine,

I’m on the pavement,

thinking ‘bout the government…[vi]


(Who’s Johnny? What’s the government up to? Who knows? Who cares?) The thing was to open your mind, to seek, and to question everything. Music led the way.

In 1968, this music got a major new partner, in the form of a new magazine called Rolling Stone. It had been founded the year before in San Francisco, by a Berkeley dropout named Jann Wenner, but in 1968, it really began to take off, gaining national circulation – in part on the strength of young vagabonds who criss-crossed the country, following rock bands, going to concerts, always heading further down those long, long roads. They carried Rolling Stone with them, from Berkeley to Boston and from Austin to Madison, sharing it with friends, turning them on to a new voice that was right on their wavelength. Rolling Stone had caught the wave of hip culture, youth culture, and rock’n’roll. It was not the first “alternative” paper, and it was far from the only one; it was not even the only one covering the music scene, but Rolling Stone was one of a kind. It was not spying on the scene like Time or Newsweek, it was part of the scene. Like the music itself, each new issue of Rolling Stone was something of an adventure. Who would be on the cover? What taboo might fall? Whose weird new writing style might emerge from those acres of prose?

Out with the old.




[i] When a reporter goes into analysis mode – as for a Sunday “think piece” or a year-end summing-up piece – the writer is said to be preparing a “thumb-sucker.”

[ii] See Kerner Commission report, chapter 15, “The News Media and the Disorders.” Quote appears on page 366 in the New York Times edition, which includes an Introduction by Tom Wicker.

[iii] Arthur Gelb, City Room, pg. 480.

[iv] Quoted in Perlstein, pg. 291. To “abandon the creeping meatball” is, of course, nonsense, but it has a nice ring to it.

[v] Lennon/McCartney, Revolution 1, The Beatles (“The White Album”), 1968.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965.

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CNN: the “E.R.” of TV news?

By Chris Daly

Insightful piece today by Brian Stelter in the Times. It raises the question: Is CNN like the emergency room of a hospital that cannot fill its inpatient beds? CNN is very busy during crises, but it becomes a lonely place during periods of routine news. That certainly rings true in my experience: on an election night, I’m a visitor of CNN for sure. If I hear a snatch of something startling on the radio and want to hear/see more right away, I will snap on CNN. If all hell is breaking loose somewhere, it’s usually my top choice (certainly far ahead of cable-news leader Fox News, which has so few correspondents who can jump on breaking news).

Fundamentally, this problem has been with CNN almost from the get-go. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Covering America, about the founding of CNN and its basic business problem. 

. . .By approaching cable news this way, [CNN founder Ted] Turner was coincidentally creating a new business model for TV journalism. Unlike the networks, CNN did not plan to build a huge entertainment division that would have to create or bid for programs. And unlike public television, CNN was not dependent on public subsidies, foundation grants, or donations from the audience. Instead, Turner was adapting an older business model from newspapers. In the CNN approach, TV news would be paid for through a “dual revenue stream.” Just as newspapers made money from two sources—advertising and subscriptions—so would CNN. The company would sell ads, and it would also have a steady stream of revenue coming in from the cable operators, who had to pay CNN a few pennies per customer per month, reflecting CNN’s share of the monthly cable TV bills that Americans were getting used to paying. With low costs and two fairly reliable streams of revenue, news on cable just might work.

Ready or not, on June 1, 1980, CNN made its debut. There were the inevitable mishaps (the cleaning lady who walked across the set behind the anchor while the cameras were rolling), but the impressive thing was that it worked. CNN started covering the news that day and has done so continuously ever since—days, nights, weekends, holidays. Only the AP could make a similar claim, (though it supplies news to the industry rather than directly to the public). Soon, Turner was showing the skeptics that it was in fact possible to put news on television round the clock. Yes, it was sometimes raggedy. And yes, there was a lot still to accomplish—including hammering out reciprocal video-sharing agreements with affiliates, hiring more and more staff, opening bureaus around the world. But it worked.

By the end of 1981, CNN was getting established. It was reaching 10 million households and was clawing its way to journalistic parity with the network news divisions.18 One key issue was what is known as “pool coverage.” This occurs in many settings when there is not enough room to accommodate all the media people who wish to cover some location or event, such as a courtroom, a presidential appearance with limited access, or the like. In those cases, the answer is a pool, in which all the journalists in each medium agree to cooperate. Typically, each medium gets to put one representative at the scene. In return for that access, the chosen journalist agrees to share the results with all the other members of the pool in the same medium. In addition, each member of the pool agrees to take a turn in providing the feed. This arrangement assumes, of course, that anyone participating in the pool will produce work of high enough quality to satisfy all the others. CNN was originally scorned by the networks, which refused to let CNN crews participate in the White House television pool coverage. It took a lawsuit (which cost Turner another $1 million), but eventually CNN was allowed in.

One of the early tests of CNN as a news organization came on March 30, 1981. President Reagan gave a speech that day to the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton. CNN covered the speech live and then, when it was over, switched to some filler material, about sewing in China. While that was airing, the police scanner in CNN’s Washington bureau barked: “Shots fired . . . Hilton Hotel.” Almost immediately, the veteran newscaster Bernard Shaw sat down in the anchor chair in the CNN Washington bureau and began reporting that shots had been fired at the president—a full four minutes before the networks. Shaw stayed in the chair for more than seven hours, and, with help from Dan Schorr, proved that the fledgling news service could keep up with the established networks. Through the evening, CNN kept breaking in with new details: a picture of the shooter’s home, a report on his motive, pictures of the vice president in Texas heading to Washington. According to one account of that day: “Such details were hitting the air in no particular sequence. CNN’s viewers got the story in the jumbled way a journalist receives fragments of information before transforming them into an orderly, polished report. The ‘process’ of gathering news determined the form in which that news was delivered.” Before CNN, viewers had received their news in measured doses at fixed times; now they were drinking straight from the fire hose.

For years, CNN cost more to produce than it brought in through the combined revenues of cable subscriptions and advertising. The network was burning through Ted Turner’s personal wealth at an unsustainable rate. The early years were a desperate race to get CNN included in enough viewers’ basic cable packages to pay for itself. Most of the costs of gathering and disseminating the news by cable were fixed; the great variable was the size of the audience. Beginning in 1978, from the pre-launch investments in people, property, satellite time, and equipment, CNN lost an estimated $77 million through 1984.20 But then in 1985, CNN began posting profits: $20 million that year and more in the coming years. In the grow-or-die spirit of modern capitalism, Turner soon started thinking about acquiring other businesses. At the same time, a profitable CNN was looking more attractive to other investors, who might try to take it over. By the end of the decade, CNN was earning almost $90 million a year and had an estimated value of $1.5 billion. At the decade mark, on June 1, 1990, it could be seen in 53 million homes in the United States and in eighty-four countries worldwide. CNN had nine U.S. bureaus and another eighteen overseas, with a global total of some 1,800 employees. CNN had arrived. . .


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“Covering America” reviewed

By Chris Daly

Delighted to see this review just out from Publisher’s Weekly.

Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.
Christopher B. Daly. Univ. of Massachusetts, $49.95 (544 p) ISBN 978-1-55849-911-9

In this scholarly yet readable volume, Daly (Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World), a professor of history and journalism at Boston University, presents a surprisingly spirited and detailed account of American journalism and the many ways in which the press has impacted the trajectory of American history, and vice versa. Beginning in the early 1700s with the institution of a postal service and continuing through the advent of the Internet and its implications for the “dinosaurs” of big media, the book is full of colorful portraits of American media icons such as Benjamin Franklin and late New York Times reporter David Halberstam. Any history book runs the risk of being bland, but Daly peppers the text with amusing anecdotes and intriguing facts (e.g., the idea for the first journalism courses, offered at Washington & Lee University, came from defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee). Daly divides the major time periods in American journalism into five categories: politicization (1704-1832), commercialization (1833-1900), professionalization (1900-1974), conglomeration (1965-1995), and digitization (1995-present). These divisions make the narrative easy to follow for both students of journalism and casual enthusiasts. In addition to the interesting stories, Daly makes many cogent arguments about what the press has meant to the country’s shared history and identity. Illus.

Reviewed on: 04/09/2012
If you’ve read it, please leave a comment of your own. If you haven’t, get off-line, pick it up, and read!


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Hub Man Dies in L.A.

By Chris Daly

Norman Corwin, a Boston native who was not as well known here as he deserved to be, has died at the age of 101 after a long career in radio. Corwin, whose life spanned the birth, rise and decline of radio as a medium for serious popular drama, was a writer, producer, and director.

Erwin Corwin (photo by Carl Nesensohn/AP, via Washington Post)

You can read about him in these places:

The L.A. Times, which has the longest version (typical). Includes a photo gallery.

The New York Times, which includes some useful links.

The Washington Post, which also includes a photo gallery.

And NPR, which carries on the best traditions of American radio more or less alone, also has several sound galleries where you can hear Corwin or his works.


(Note to my students: we are going to see Corwin in a video next week in class. He appears in the Ken Burns film “Empire of the Air” about the history of radio.)


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Are Journalists Always Wrong?

That’s a question I raised in the following article, which was published today in a British academic journal called Journalism Practice. I am posting it here so you don’t have to pay $35 to read it. I had to reformat in in Word, so I apologize if I missed anything:




And are historians always right?


Christopher B. Daly


[This piece focuses on a seminar which is currently taught at Boston University which draws on the insights of a conference held at the same university in autumn 2009. The conference brought together leading historians and journalists to explore the ground shared by the disciplines and, it is fair to say, sometimes divides them. The article argues that there is much need for an approach which draws on the strengths of both traditions while remaining aware of the shortcomings of each discipline. Drawing on debates within the historiography of both journalism history and mainstream history, it demonstrates the intellectual underpinning of the seminar which aims to point students to a wider array of the challenges, successes and reversals experienced by journalists and historians. It hopes to provide a method of investigating core questions about the journalism of the past in order to better inform the practice of journalism in the future. Furthermore, it extends this ambition to providing a collegial model for the exploration of other societies or periods of time which can be adapted at other universities.]


KEYWORDSerror; historiography; history; interdisciplinarity; journalism history



Introduction: Are Journalists Always Wrong?

That is a question that I raise, only half in jest, in a new seminar being offered at Boston University. The seminar represents the fruits of a conference held on our campus in the fall of 2009 in which we brought together panels of accomplished journalists and historians to explore common ground. Much of the discussion focused on shared concerns involving research and writing, since both fields involve the creation of non-fiction texts for an audience of some size.

Part of our discussion extended to teaching. I pursued that discussion with my colleague Bruce Schulman, who is a historian, an Americanist, and chair of the Boston University History Department. The two of us*one a former journalist and current professor of journalism, the other a prominent historian*began to zero in on the question of what happens when journalists ‘‘cover’’ an event or issue, then move on, leaving the field to later waves or generations of historians. We wanted to know what drove the process of historical revision. (We also wanted to know whether any students shared our interests, and we were not sure through the many months of planning.) Eventually, we decided to examine about a dozen major events in US history. First, we looked at each one through the lens of the journalists of the period, those reporters who wrote what has been called ‘‘the first rough draft of history’’ (Shafer, 2010). Next, we looked at those same events through the lenses of the historians who followed and wrote the subsequent drafts.

We decided that this might make for a lively course.


The Institutional Context

At Boston University, the president and provost have embarked on a campaign to encourage interdisciplinary efforts of all kinds. So, based on our joint interest in the issues and on our school’s manifest support for inter-disciplinary work, we launched the course for the Fall semester of 2010. Hoping to encourage discussion, we organized it as a seminar, with a target enrollment of 20 students. We allocated 10 seats to the Journalism Department and 10 to the History Department, and we hoped to get a mix of graduate students and advanced undergraduates. In the end, we came very close to those targets.

In the readings we have used and in the discussions in class, we have found a familiar dynamic: journalists report some version of the facts, and then after a few years, historians take charge and set about working over the ground already covered by journalists. Often, after the passage of decades, the original version is hardly recognizable.


A Version of History in the Press

One case in point, among several, involved the war fought in 1898 between the United States and Spain. The first version of this historical episode, now largely discredited by scholars, was written by the newspapers themselves. The headliners in this tale were Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, his arch- rival and publisher of the New York Journal. Their newspapers were initially credited–and blamed–for fomenting the war. By the late 1890s, the two publishers were locked in a furious circulation war, throwing all their ingenuity and resources into devising more and more dramatic, shocking, and scandalous headlines, culminating in a set of practices known as ‘‘Yellow Journalism’’ (Campbell, 2001; Hamilton, 2009).

The publishers’ eagerness for war is best illustrated in the year or two preceding the official declaration of war by the United States. Hearst and Pulitzer both sent correspondents to Cuba, literally looking for trouble, which they readily found (Lubow, 1992). Correspondents described the brutal treatment of Cubans by their colonial occupiers, including the use of ‘‘concentration camps’’ to round up and subdue Cubans.

In the summer of 1897, a story unfolded that met the publishers’ needs exactly. A young woman named Evangelina Cisneros (invariably described as ‘‘raven-haired’’), the daughter of a jailed Cuban rebel, was thrown into prison in Havana, on the grounds that she had dared to defend her honor against a rapacious Spanish colonel. Hearst’s Journal editorially demanded her release–in headlines, news stories, line drawings, and editorials. Hearst personally led a campaign for her release, ordering his correspondents around the United States to call on prominent women to sign a petition to be sent to the Queen Regent of Spain.

From Hearst’s point of view, the Cisneros story became more appealing when the Spanish refused to release the young woman. The editor dispatched a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, equipped with bribe money, and Decker managed to help the damsel escape to New York, where she could be feted and displayed. That allowed the Journal to crow, in decks of headlines arrayed as an inverted pyramid:



An American Newspaper Accomplishes at a Single

Stroke What the Best Efforts of Diplomacy

Failed Utterly to Bring About in

Many Months.


Similarly, when a ‘‘visiting’’ US battleship, the USS Maine, blew up in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, both of the Yellow papers jumped to the conclusion that the deed was the fault of Spanish saboteurs. Even over the objections of the ship’s captain, Pulitzer and Hearst presented the sinking of the Maine as a work of Spanish perfidy and called for the United States to retaliate. Just over two months later, the United States declared war on Spain.

According to the newspapers themselves, the cause of the war was their own coverage of Spanish abuses. In the first draft of this history, the Yellow papers rushed to take credit. A few days after the declaration of war, Hearst’s paper even ran the following gloating headline:



(New York Journal, May 1, 1989, p. 1)


For decades, that view prevailed. As late as 1947, it was at the heart of the analysis of the war presented by Stanford University historian Thomas A. Bailey in the chapter about 1898 in his book, A Diplomatic History of the American People, long a standard work. But by the 1960s, that interpretation was coming under attack. One milestone was the publication of the work of the Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber, who argued for an economic interpretation of the motives of US policy-makers in his 1963 study, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898. Yet another approach emerged in the 1990s from the ‘‘culture studies’’ movement when Kristin L. Hoganson published her study of the war of 1898 titled Fighting for American Manhood: how gender politics provoked the Spanish􏰀American and Philippine􏰀American wars. She attributed the war mainly to the perception among that generation of American men of a need to assert their masculinity by going to war. In the later tellings, the activities of the Yellow Press fade or disappear altogether. In this episode, as in many others, the pattern is clear: journalists present one version of events, only to see that draft corrected, revised, or reinterpreted by historians.

Thus, the question persists: Are journalists always wrong?


Are Journalists Always Wrong?

In one, perhaps trivial, sense, the answer is obviously, No. Collectively, journalists gather, check, and disseminate vast amounts of information, ranging from the week’s menu in the local school cafeteria, to the closing price of a share of stock, to the outcome of a football game, and on to topics that are more complicated and even interpretive. If one measure of the ‘‘rightness’’ of journalists is factual accuracy, then it must be acknowledged that most of the material in most news stories is right, at least in the sense that it is ‘‘not wrong.’’ Most stories, after all, are never corrected because the factual material contained in them was accurate to begin with. They stand un-corrected.

Moreover, there is another sense in which journalists are ‘‘not wrong.’’ That is, an old newspaper or news broadcast (like almost any text) can be used by a skillful historian as a source of inadvertent testimony about all sorts of things. Most journalists do not set out to provide a window into the workings of their society for the benefit of historians who will come along hundreds of years later. Yet, their work can serve that very purpose. For example, any historian who reads newspapers from the eighteenth or nineteenth century quickly realizes that even if the newspapers are inaccurate about this or that detail, they are unerring in their power to reflect the zeitgeist of their era.


Historians of the Press

As several leading historians have emphasized, newspapers reflect their societies even as they shape them. David Paul Nord (2001) has argued that early newspapers played a key role in building communities by giving readers common materials to reflect on. Michael Schudson has shown how newspapers embodied the competitive, commercial spirit of the nineteenth century, until a cultural shift sent many editors in search of a more professional mode in the twentieth century (Schudson, 1978). And James Carey, in defining the social role of newspapers in history, identified them as carriers of ‘‘consciousness in the past’’*as opposed to contemporary historians, who one would expect to have a consciousness of the past (1974, emphasis added). ‘‘When we study changes in journalism over time, we are grasping a significant portion of the changes that have taken place in modern consciousness since the Enlightenment,’’ Carey wrote in a landmark essay.

Indeed, in this sense, journalists cannot be wrong. Readers who skim just a few old stories can quickly see answers not only to the question of what happened on a given day but also to questions the journalist was not asking himself or herself:


  • .What does this society consider important enough to write about and pay for? In the early eighteenth-century newspapers, there is evidence that the topics people would pay to read about included piracy in the Atlantic trading world and legislative proclamations. A century later, news of the captures of runaway slaves swelled in frequency and in poignancy.
  • .How does the journalist conceive of the basic work product called a story? Early newspapers in America were often discursive, and even epistolary. Later, they became more partisan and eventually more dispassionate and ‘‘professional.’’
  • .What attitudes are prevalent about topics like race, class, gender? Some subjects, of course, remain so taboo that they never appear in the ‘‘public prints.’’
  • .What is the quality of the ‘‘public sphere’’ created by the uncoordinated actions of hundreds or thousands of journalists, each following his or her own lights?


These are subjects that every journalist ‘‘testifies’’ about through the work itself, even if the journalist never self-consciously tries to penetrate or analyze the surrounding society. This is one reason why many historians, especially social historians, are so intent on finding newspapers from the era they are studying and so happy when they find them. Wittingly or not, journalists always provide material that reflects something about their era.

More common, though, are those instances where journalists are wrong in a significant sense. One category of significant journalistic error involves information that has been suppressed. The history of the Cold War, for example, is rife with instances where one or more governments deliberately withheld information for years. The gradual release of Soviet archives and the sporadic revelations of programs like the Venona Project (Haynes and Klehr, 2000) have given historians access to documents that while sometimes problematic, were not even available to journalists of the 1940s and 1950s. Journalists cannot be blamed for failing to report secrets, but their work in such an area is still incomplete and therefore misleading.


The Russian Revolution: Reassessment of Journalism’s Role

Another category of journalistic error involves a more serious failure by journalists themselves–the sin of omission. A dramatic case that we examine in our course involves coverage of the Allied invasion of the new Soviet Union almost 100 years ago. In a little- known but far-reaching episode, US and British leaders decided to invade Russia–their recent ally in the Great War–in 1918 and stayed for almost two years (Knightley, 2004 [1975]). Few Americans ever heard of this mission, nor did they ever find much useful information about Russia in their newspapers during the war and for many years afterward. During the fateful convulsions of the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath, American journalists failed their readers–with few exceptions, miserably. Most simply failed to show up; most of the rest willfully misinterpreted the things they saw and heard.

Initially, czarist Russia had been a participant in the Great War, fighting against Germany from the start in 1914. As the war dragged on, however, Russian sentiment turned against the Czar, the entire Romanov family, and the war. In the spring of 1917, the Czar was overthrown, and that fall the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin and Trotsky) toppled the new government and began installing the Communist dictatorship. In the spring of 1918, the new Soviet government in Moscow negotiated a separate peace with Germany, based on the communist view that the war was a brawl among capitalist powers.

American publishers–successful capitalists themselves, for the most part–did not generally consider the Russian Revolution a big enough story to bother covering. As a result, their papers did little to inform Americans about the new society forming in the old Russia–neither the idealism of some of its followers nor the brutality of most of its leaders. The coverage only worsened in the following months. When the Soviets dropped out of the war on February 12, 1918, American newspapers denounced the move as a double-cross to the Allies (who would now have to bear the full brunt of the German military machine on the Western Front), and some went so far as to suspect that the Bolsheviki were really German agents. Aside from the young American John Reed, the correspondent for the socialist magazine The Masses and author of the classic book Ten Days that Shook the World, there were almost no American correspondents present in Russia to do any first-hand reporting (Reed, 1919). In their absence, American papers felt free to run stories predicting the Communists’ imminent demise.

On the whole, the reporting in America about the Russian Revolution and the Allied expedition was so deplorable that it prompted a remarkable study by two young journalists the following year. They epitomized the drive to professionalize American journalism that was then gaining ground in the United States in the new university-level journalism programs at Missouri and Columbia, in the fledgling professional organizations like Sigma Delta Chi (which became the Society of Professional Journalists), and in the emerging trade press. The leaders of this movement, usually well-educated and ambitious young journalists, were dissatisfied with the field’s raffish and blue-collar milieu; they wanted to set standards and measure performance. Among them were two of the most ambitious of the new professional journalists, both working at a remarkable young magazine of progressive outlook called The New Republic. One of the authors was Charles Merz, a Yale University graduate who later worked as a reporter at the New York World, then became the influential editor of the New York Times editorial page during World War II and the Cold War. The other author was Walter Lippmann, a Harvard University graduate who went on to become the most prominent and respected US journalist of the middle twentieth century, the country’s unofficial foreign minister, a prolific author, and a syndicated whirlwind (Daly, forthcoming, chap 8). In August 1920, they teamed up on an impressive pioneering work of journalism criticism, which appeared as a supplement to The New Republic headlined ‘‘A Test of the News’’ (The New Republic, August 4, 1920).1

Lippmann and Merz conducted a comprehensive analysis of the coverage of Russia from the news pages of the New York Times, looking at more than 3000 news stories from March 1917 to March 1920. By design, they ignored the newspaper’s editorials and focused exclusively on what should have been factual news accounts. They asked a very simple question: in light of the already known facts, how reliable had the reporting been just a few years earlier? From a reader’s point of view, how factual and useful was it? In their judgment, the coverage was almost ludicrously bad.

To illustrate their point, the authors cited case after case where the Times correspondents were fanciful at best or deluded at worst. ‘‘News reports in 1917, 1918, 1919, and early 1920 that the Soviets are about to collapse, or have collapsed, or will collapse within a few weeks is false news,’’ they pointed out, at a time when the regime was consolidating the power that would endure for most of the century. In the 24 months between November 1917 and November 1919, Lippmann and Merz documented 91 occasions when the Times news pages ‘‘stated that the Soviets were nearing their rope’s end, or had actually reached it’’ (The New Republic, August 4, 1920, p. 10).

Four times Lenin and Trotzky were planning flight. Three times they had already fled. Five times the Soviets were ‘‘tottering.’’ Three times their fall was ‘‘imminent.’’ Once, desertions in the Red army had reached proportions alarming to the government. Twice Lenin planned retirement; once he had been killed; and three times he was thrown in prison (The New Republic, August 4, 1920, pp. 10􏰀11).

Such coverage, which borders on farce, would have been hilariously bad but for one fact: the treatment of Russia by the Wilson administration during this period and the coverage of Russia by American newspapers affected relations between both peoples and their governments for the next 75 years or so. Again and again, the coverage in the Times featured wild speculation, blatant wishful thinking, and unsourced diplo-military mumbo- jumbo. In the end, Lippman and Merz concluded the typical US correspondent in Russia was about as useful as ‘‘an astrologer or an alchemist’’ (The New Republic, August 4, 1920, p. 42).

At root, Lippmann and Merz found that US reporters were too credulous, too tied to official sources, and too willing to write what they hoped rather than what they saw. ‘‘From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions, the net effect was almost always misleading,’’ they wrote (The New Republic, August 4, 1920, p. 3). In the period in 1917 between the overthrow of the Czar in March and the success of the Bolsheviks in November, Lippmann and Merz found a cheerleading quality in the coverage: the new Russian government would stand firm with the Allies against Germany and never seek a separate peace. Even after Lenin and Trotsky came to power in the fall, the optimism kept up–not just in isolated mistakes but in dozens of front-page stories:



(New York Times, August 9, 1917, p. 1)



(New York Times, August 15, 1917, p. 1)



In the months following the Bolshevik victory, the collapse of the new regime was likewise predicted, regularly and confidently. Thus, it came as a substantial surprise to American readers when the Bolshevik regime survived and signed a peace treaty with Germany in February 1918.

Allied leaders suddenly sensed a new threat, and the coverage nimbly changed direction. Following the separate peace signed by the Bolsheviks, the dominant theme in the US coverage turned to the German Peril. Germany no longer faced an army in the East, so the path was clear for German expansion as far as India or even Japan; besides, without having to fight the Russians any more in the East, Germany could now throw its full might against the British, French and US troops on the Western Front. Logic dictated that the Allies open an Eastern Front themselves, by invading Russia. They did so, in several places. Then came the armistice, and with it any further rationale for positioning foreign troops on Russian soil expired. Just at that moment, however, the coverage revealed a new menace: the Red Peril. Three days after the armistice, the Times offered these headlines:






(New York Times, November 14, 1919)


What had been described not much earlier as a bankrupt system on the verge of collapse was suddenly rampant. With the new threat came a new rationale for the Allied invasion. From three directions, British, American and other troops, linking up with leaders of various White Russian military units, attempted in 1919 and 1920 to march to Moscow and depose Lenin. In each case, the Times correspondents foresaw ultimate victory–right up until the moment of defeat.

Part of the reason that the Times’ correspondents may have been able to sustain such high morale is due to the fact that they were not slogging through Siberia with the counter-revolutionary armies. Far from being ‘‘embedded’’ with the expeditionary forces, most of the correspondents were hundreds, or thousands of miles away. Judging by the datelines on their dispatches, they were quite toasty and safe in Moscow, Paris, and London. For example, Lippmann and Merz cite this story from the spring 1919 offensive, touting the progress of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak (who, although a Navy man, was not leading the White forces in a land campaign):



London, March 26 (via Montreal)–The troops of

the Kolchak government who pierced the Bolshevist

front on a thirty-mile sector on March 11, continue

their progress and the position of the Bolsheviki is precarious . . .


Within months, the admiral had fallen back a distance of some 2000 miles. (In fact, there was also a fourth invasion of the Soviet Union–heading south from Archangel—but Lippmann and Merz simply threw up their hands on that one. The news blackout was so effective about the US Russian Expedition that there simply were not enough stories to analyze.)

Part of the problem, the authors wrote, involved the reporters’ methods. Time and again, the sources of the dispatches from Russia were not only unidentified, they were so vague as to be barely worth mentioning: ‘‘allied diplomatic circles,’’ ‘‘well-informed diplomats’’ or simply ‘‘It is understood . . .’’ or, perhaps the ultimate, ‘‘It is asserted . . .’’ How could anybody ever check these reports? How could these sources (if they even existed) or the reporters themselves ever be held accountable? Another shortcoming that Lippmann and Merz could have stressed more was the failure of those reporters to get out of the diplomatic swirl and go see things for themselves. A week or two of eye-witness reporting could have cured most of the worst stories. Ultimately, Lippmann and Merz concluded that ‘‘the professional standards of journalism are not high enough’’ and were not being enforced strictly enough.

If only the US correspondents had been as definite about a remedy as they were about the diagnosis. Among the results of such reporting were the chronic misleading of the American people. In the ensuing confusion, the government vacillated between a laissez-faire attitude toward Moscow and a secretive invasion. Another result was the poisoning of US􏰀Soviet relations: the Soviet leaders could see for themselves that the capitalist powers had tried to overthrow them, and they could read for themselves that the capitalist newspapers had gone right along with the program.

From this episode it is clear to see that journalists can indeed be wrong at least some of the time. Moreover, when they are wrong in ways that are not trivial, those errors or omissions can in fact be quite consequential. Such errors can distort contemporary perceptions of politics and society in significant ways, and they can put the first few squads of historians on the wrong track. These are the cases that compel the process of revisionism.

On the other hand, it must be noted that there are cases where an original work of journalism resists revision for good reason. One example we consider in our class is that of John Hersey’s classic work Hiroshima (1946). Is there anything ‘‘wrong’’ with it that must be corrected? Is it missing something important that has subsequently come to light? Has something else happened that makes us put Hiroshima (the event) in a different light? Is it no longer a singular episode of world-historical significance? The answer to all these questions appears to be no. Hersey appears to have been especially well prepared for the assignment. He had spent years working as a journalist for Time magazine and for the New Yorker, practicing the skills of interviewing and reporting. He was also an accomplished novelist, having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his wartime novel, A Bell for Adano. In Hiroshima, he combined meticulous, first-hand reporting with the novelist’s techniques of scene-setting and character development to create a masterpiece of non-fiction narrative. The book has been in print continuously for more than 60 years. In 1999, Hiroshima was judged the greatest single work of journalism in America in the twentieth century (Barringer, 1999).

Hersey did something quite innovative by the standards of American news-writing. He told the story of the Hiroshima survivors entirely from their point of view. As readers, we experience the day much as if we were standing right behind the survivors, passing through each scene in sequence. Almost never does Hersey break from that narrative perspective to pull back to the typical journalistic perspective of the distant, neutral observer. Instead, he presents a tight-focus, ultimately human answer to the question: what is it like to live through the worst violence the planet has ever known?

It was his use of such literary techniques that prompted some later critics to hail Hersey as the true inventor of the ‘‘New Journalism’’ that burst onto the American scene in the early 1960s (Weingarten, 2005). Hersey showed other journalists that it was possible to use literary techniques while sticking to matters of fact.

Historians have, of course, pursued the general topic of the atomic bombing at the end of World War II. Books have been written examining and debating the process that yielded the decision to drop the bombs and on many aspects of the world-changing event. But no significant effort has been put into revising Hersey’s coverage of the question of what the experience of being bombed felt like and meant to those who survived it.

In a few cases, we have been forced to address a variation on this theme: are there times when historical revision is counterproductive? Sometimes the answer seems to be yes. There are instances when revision distorts the journalistic record or introduces error. Consider the curious case of America’s third president.


A New Species of American Journalist: Callender

In the late 1790s, Thomas Jefferson was in the thick of the maneuvers that produced the ‘‘party system’’ of politics and governing in the United States. But at the beginning of the new nation, there were no political parties to speak of. Indeed, the founders, in writing the Constitution in 1787, had not even mentioned the word ‘‘party’’ in the document, reflecting the prevailing hope that permanent divisions–or ‘‘factions’’–would not exist.

Into that vacuum stepped newspaper editors (Pasley, 2001). As Jeffrey Pasley has shown, editors played an indispensable role in building the parties, at a time when they had no legal existence, no rolls of registered voters, no slates of candidates, no nominating conventions, no money–none of the trappings of the full-grown political party. In the absence of the machinery of partisan electioneering, newspapers were the means for letting readers know which candidates held which views. By endorsing a candidate, or simply by informing readers whether a candidate was a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist, newspaper editors began to give voting an ideological coherence that it would otherwise lack. In turn, the nascent parties enlisted newspaper editors to help spread their views and tout their candidates. In the first few decades of the United States, partisan papers even printed ballots that voters could fill out and take with them to the polling places.

Like many of the other Founders, Jefferson was working hard to promote himself and his views, sometimes using a political ally as his agent and often enlisting a newspaper editor as his cat’s paw. In one case, though, a cat’s paw turned on Jefferson and mauled him. That was Jefferson’s experience with one of the most vicious and dangerous of all the partisan writers and editors: the hard-drinking Scottish immigrant James Thomson Callender, perhaps the ultimate example of the partisan polemicist and scandal-monger, a mutant offshoot of the new species of American journalist then emerging at the dawn of the era of the Party Press.

Callender had a nose for trouble. Born in Scotland in 1758, he worked for a while as a clerk, got fired, and took up the cause of Scottish nationalism, quickly becoming a militant. In 1792, he was charged with sedition. Hunted by the Edinburgh deputy sheriff, Callender bade farewell to his wife and four children, and fled to America. He arrived in Philadelphia in May 1793–alone and nearly penniless. Within months, he was offered a job reporting on the debates in the Congress for the Philadelphia Gazette, which gave him a toe-hold. Soon, Callender’s family had crossed the Atlantic and joined him. Struggling to make ends meet, he moved his family onto Philadelphia’s docks and began drinking heavily.

Nevertheless, he managed to make himself useful to the Republican cause, writing pamphlets in support of Jefferson and his allies. In July 1797, Callender tackled one of the stars of the Federalist camp, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. In a lengthy pamphlet, Callender revealed that Hamilton had transferred money to a convicted swindler named James Reynolds, insinuating that Hamilton and Reynolds were scheming to speculate in Treasury certificates, which were under Hamilton’s supervision. The charge forced Hamilton to defend himself, but his reputation was ruined and his career, effectively, capped.

In the aftermath of his victory in the election of 1800–which featured the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties–Jefferson faced the novel issue of how many positions in the national government should be taken away from their Federalist occupants and turned over to Republicans. One of those who came calling after the election was none other than Callender, who had his eye on the plum position of postmaster in Richmond, Virginia, but Jefferson sent him away empty-handed.

Callender set out to get even. He promptly switched parties, and, in February 1802, he became a partner with a Federalist editor in running the Richmond Recorder newspaper. Callender assigned himself the job of bringing down Jefferson. Acting on the basis of rumors that he had picked up from anonymous sources, Callender let fly in print with the accusation that Jefferson had engaged in sexual relations with one of his slaves, later identified as Sally Hemings.


It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself . . .




The Federalist press had what it was looking for. The story was repeated in other newspapers, sometimes accompanied by lurid speculation about the ‘‘black Venus’’ at Monticello.

As for Callender, he was nearly finished. Having set the bar in the practice of scandal- mongering about the sex lives of the president, his own life quickly went downhill. In December, he was the victim of a public beating and again succumbed to his great thirst. The following summer, in July 1803, during another of his periods of heavy drinking, James Callender was found floating in Virginia’s James River, dead at age 45.

Callendar was highly partisan and sloppy, yet he was almost certainly correct about Jefferson. In Callender’s case, however, subsequent generations of historians revised his reporting into oblivion. He was denigrated as a scoundrel and relegated to the dustbin. It may be worth noting that he was not actually refuted (in what journalists would call a ‘‘knock-down’’) so much as he was denounced, pooh-poohed, or ignored. Captivated by their own admiration for the Founders, the eminent American historians–white men all–built Jefferson into a paragon, tailored for each subsequent period (Malone, 1948). Eventually and very gradually, the process of revisionism began to take hold. In 1974, historian Fawn Brodie published a best-selling ‘‘psycho-biography’’ of Jefferson that was the first book to take the Jefferson-Hemings liaison seriously (Brodie, 1974). Brodie, the first female scholar to tackle the controversy, made a much bigger impact on the public than she did on the historical profession. Most scholars continued to defend their conception of Jefferson’s honor by minimizing or rejecting the Hemings tale (Ellis, 1997).

In 1997, the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed took up the case. She brought a unique set of credentials: she was not only a historian but also a lawyer; she was not only female but also African-American. In her Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1999 [1997]), she presents an argument, almost like a pleading in a lawsuit, asking readers to treat the evidence in the matter more fairly than most historians had done to that point. Gordon- Reed argued, inter alia, that historians should stop granting all white witnesses more credibility than all black witnesses. Looking at all the evidence in this new light, she made a persuasive case.

Still, skeptics wanted convincing evidence. That came in the following year, when white descendants of Jefferson and black descendants of Hemings underwent DNA testing that indicated an overwhelming likelihood that Jefferson had been the father of at least two of the Hemings descendants. The new, scientific finding not only vindicated Brodie, it also vindicated Callender–the drunken, ‘‘irresponsible,’’ partisan journalist of nearly 200 years earlier. In the end, it turned out that the initial reporting was on the right track and that racial and ideological assumptions sent historians off on a lengthy detour. The truth was there all along, but historians willfully did not see it.


Are Historians Always Right?

The Jefferson-Hemings case prompted us to turn the debate around and ask another question: Are historians always right? In one sense, of course, the answer is obviously not. Some historians make errors some of the time. There is another sense in which historians are not always right. That is evident from the fact that some historians revise others. Indeed, in this sense, one might conclude that historians are never right.

Both fields have some common properties: they have a methodology for approximating truth. In journalism, the methods for approaching the truth are manifold: they begin with the process of editing and the discipline of competition with other news sources. They involve devices to insure independence and to avoid conflicts of interest. They include transparency (ideally) about methods and sources. They ultimately involve legal and even criminal sanctions. If a journalist makes a factual assertion that is both false and damaging to an individual’s reputation (and causes some measurable harm), then the journalist can be sued in civil court for libel. In rare cases, if a journalist divulges certain kinds of military or state secrets, the journalist can be tried in US criminal courts for espionage or perhaps even treason.

In the historical profession, the mechanisms for approaching the truth are somewhat different. They typically begin with a lengthy, formal apprenticeship that culminates in a doctorate degree. They extend to academic tenure, a system that is intended to guarantee the scholar’s independence. At the heart of the discipline’s practices are those associated with publication: peer review, inclusion of scholarly devices such as endnotes, and the system of reviewing new books. In the United States, historians appear in court so rarely (as defendants) that it is not really relevant to consider legal sanctions. In both cases, though, it may be that both journalists and historians face the same ultimate bench of justice: the evolving judgment about their work as expressed by their readers. In the end, readers far outnumber editors, and due to their collective wisdom, it is difficult (though not impossible) to mislead them for very long.


Common Ground or Friction?

Yet, for all that historians and journalists have in common, there is also a fair amount of skepticism and even mistrust between the two fields. Historians, in my experience, read a lot of journalism in the natural course of things. They also rejoice when they can find any kind of periodical in the era they are studying. Yet, historians often look down on journalists as a grubby, ignorant lot–hustlers who exaggerate, prevaricate, or simply scavenge randomly from what Thoreau called each day’s ‘‘froth and scum’’ (Thoreau, 1991 [April 24, 1852]).

Journalists, for their part, commonly read a lot of history, sometimes as recreation, sometimes as ‘‘background’’ for their work. Yet, many journalists feel a sense of unease about history, especially about the variety of history now practiced in universities. They feel disappointed by many academic historians, blaming them for taking perfectly good ‘‘material’’ and robbing it of its inherent color, drama, and energy in order to advance ceaseless argument or ‘‘discourse.’’

Part of the friction between journalists and historians arises from the fact that the two kinds of non-fiction inquiries are asking different questions. Almost always, the foremost question on the journalist’s mind is: what happened? At the moment when that question is first asked, no one knows the answer, so any answer–even one that is fragmentary, tendentious, or cliche ́d–can be quite compelling. Immediately after that question has been answered, however, the answer begins to lose salience. The characteristic response of the professional journalist is to move on to the next event or surprise, leaving others to mull over matters of interpretation and analysis.

Most of the time, historians are not particularly interested in the question of what happened, because it is pretty well settled by the time they begin their work. They are more interested in asking how or why something happened, or what it means for later generations. Questions of interpretation and causation are paramount. Regrettably, these concerns are often emphasized over the story-telling skills of scene-setting, character development, and textual pleasure.



Thus, we might hazard a reply to the question, Are journalists always wrong? That answer seems to be: yes, no, and it depends. At the same time, we might venture to ask, Are historians always right? In that case, the answer also seems to be yes, no, and it depends.

In our course at Boston University, we believe we have begun to explore these questions in a way that can be easily adopted to fit other universities and to study other societies or time periods. In our experience to date, the effort to examine journalism and history at the same time is both fruitful and suggestive. By putting both fields into a critical tension with each other, we can point our students toward a wider array of challenges, successes, and reversals experienced by journalists and historians. We have tried to put these two fields–each proud of itself and wary of the other–into a more productive relationship. Such a cross-disciplinary approach holds out the promise of illuminating something essential about both journalism and history.




1.At this vantage point, of course, it seems a fair question to ask: how well were Russian readers served during the same period by their own news media? Such a study remains to be done, to the best of my knowledge.



BARRINGER, FELICITY (1999) ‘‘Journalism’s Greatest Hits’’, The New York Times, 1 March.

BRODIE, FAWN (1974) Thomas Jefferson: an intimate history, New York: Norton.

CAMPBELL, W. JOSEPH (2001) Yellow Journalism: puncturing the myths, defining the legacies, Westport, CT: Praeger.

CAREY, JAMES (1974) ‘‘The Problem of Journalism History’’, in: James Carey: a critical reader, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

DALY, CHRISTOPHER B. (forthcoming) Covering America: a narrative history of a nation’s journalism, Amherst, MA: UMass Press.

ELLIS, JOSEPH (1997) American Sphinx: the character of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Knopf.

GORDON-REED, ANNETTE (1999 [1997]) Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: an American controversy, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

HAMILTON, JOHN MAXWELL (2009) Journalism’s Roving Eye: a history of American foreign reporting, Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press.

HAYNES, JOHN EARL and KLEHR, HARVEY (1999) Venona: decoding Soviet espionage in America, New Haven: Yale University Press.

HERSEY, JOHN (1946) Hiroshima, New York: Knopf.

KNIGHTLEY, PHILLIP (2004 [1975]) The First Casualty: the war correspondent as hero and myth-maker from the Crimea to Iraq,

Baltimore, MD and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

LUBOW, ARTHUR (1992) The Reporter Who Would Be King: a biography of Richard Harding Davis, New York: Scribners.

MALONE, DUMAS (1948) Jefferson and his Time, Vol. 1, Jefferson the Virginian, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

NORD, DAVID PAUL (2001) Communities of Journalism: a history of American newspapers and their readers, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

PASLEY, JEFFREY (2001) The Tyranny of Printers: newspaper politics in the early American republic, Charlotesville: University of Virginia Press.

REED, JOHN (1919) Ten Days that Shook the World, New York: The Modern Library.

SCHUDSON, MICHAEL (1978) Discovering the News: a social history of American newspapers, New York: Basic Books.

SHAFER, JACK (2010) ‘‘Who Said It First? Journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history’’’, Slate, 30 August, http://www.slate.com/id/2265540/pagenum/all/#p2, accessed 22 November


THOREAU, HENRY DAVID (1991) Journals, Vol. 4. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

WEINGARTEN, MARC (2005) The Gang that Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Capote and The New Journalism revolution,

New York: Three Rivers Press.




Christopher B. Daly, Journalism Department, Boston University, 640 Comm Ave, Boston, MA 02215, USA. E-mail: chrisdaly44@gmail.com




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Journalism Myths

Great discussion today on NPR’s show “On Point” about myths that have grown up in the history of journalism. The guest was the estimable Prof. W. Joseph Campbell, talking about his book, “Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism.”

Have a listen.

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