Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Classic Brill's Content Article Contrasts Journalists With Historians

Do journalists seek to educate the public or to attract the widest possible audience? The February 2001 issue of Brill's Content contained an article by historian David Greenberg titled "Gracious Loser? Hardly." Greenberg cautioned that journalists and historians have different methods and different objectives: "The journalist in me searches for the relevance of historians' scholarly work, trying to see how it can enrich our understanding of today's world; the historian in me shouts back that forcing history into contemporary debates can violate its integrity and that, like a well-wrought poem, history should be palpable and mute, like globed fruit. Though I frequently write about historical matters for the popular press, I often find myself warning readers against using history as a source of instruction."

Greenberg noted that during the aftermath of the tightly contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, many journalists compared Gore's reaction to Bush's narrow victory to Richard Nixon's reaction to barely losing the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy; a mythology has developed that Nixon graciously accepted defeat but Greenberg's research indicated that the opposite is true: "It turned out that far from rolling over in the wake of Kennedy's victory, as I had always believed they did, Republican officials, including some of Nixon's closest aides, waged aggressive challenges in 11 states." Greenberg did not have trouble discovering the truth: "Like the purloined letter, this information was hidden in plain view--in the pages of America's leading newspapers."

Despite the fact that any dedicated and competent researcher could determine that Nixon's allies vigorously contested Kennedy's electoral triumph, many media commentators insisted that Nixon had lost graciously and that Gore should do likewise. Greenberg wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times in an effort to explain what really happened after the 1960 election. In his Brill's Content piece, Greenberg made it clear that he had no political ax to grind: "My point wasn't to bash Nixon or to succor the Gore forces. I wanted to correct the historical record, which I believed was being twisted and wrenched from context for expedience. It seemed to me that if pundits were going to cite the 1960 election as a precedent, they ought at least to know all the facts."

After the publication of his Los Angeles Times' piece, Greenberg was invited to appear on several national TV programs, including 20/20, Inside Edition, Hardball and NBC's Nightly News. Greenberg recalled that at first he thought that his efforts to publicize the truth would be very successful: "The reaction induced some delusions of grandeur. I entertained fantasies that I was going to set the historical record straight, that other historians would start scouring the sources, forging beyond the self-serving memoirs and timeworn memories to piece together the neglected story of the 1960 election aftermath. Good information would drive out bad, and whatever would become of electoral accuracy in this affair, historical accuracy would at least claim a small victory."

It did not take long for Greenberg to realize that nothing of that sort would happen: "I was mistaken...For every pundit who corrected the record about Nixon--and several did--dozens more rehashed the canned version of events. Like a hapless gardener, I would root out one weed only to have more sprout elsewhere."

While it is easy to understand why partisan figures perpetuated the Nixon mythology--Republicans wanted to rehabilitate Nixon's reputation as much as possible while also pressuring Gore to not contest the election--it is more difficult to understand and much more disturbing to consider why so many media members did not actively seek out the truth. Greenberg speculated, "In the case of the pundits, the bias was rooted, I think, not in ideology but in how they do their job. Newspeople love a good story, and the tale of Nixon's magnanimity teems with irresistible irony...The story also lends the pundits a veneer of credibility and fair-mindedness: They can show everyone that they're neither knee-jerk Nixon haters nor congenital JFK courtiers."

As disappointed as Greenberg was in the conduct of the pundits, Greenberg found it "most troubling" that television news reporters--most notably those affiliated with 20/20--made no effort to uncover and report the truth. Greenberg's experience with 20/20 was, in his opinion, "reflective of the shoddy way in which TV news is sometimes reported." While Greenberg's Los Angeles Times' article brought his research to the attention of 20/20, Greenberg's interactions with the show's booker demonstrated to Greenberg that, as he paraphrased the perspective of 20/20's producers, "It was easier to run with a familiar story (even one demonstrably untrue) than to take time to consider new information."

Greenberg concluded that "most journalists enlist a historian not on his or her own terms but on their terms. Journalists seek not to get a lengthier, more subtle, and more complicated take on the past, but to borrow the aura of authority that emanates from a 'historian' and thus be relieved of having to make sense of history for themselves."

TV news shows often do not seek out historians or other figures who are experts in the specific subject matter being covered but rather the producers simply interview any alleged authority whose credentials make him seem impressive and well-informed. Greenberg criticized even the journalists who correctly reported the Nixon story, because many of those journalists did not in fact do their jobs any better than the journalists who incorrectly reported the story: "...I was struck by another irony. Although several commentators had reported my findings, few inquired into my sources, looked at my research, or quizzed me about how I knew what I knew. In other words, many of those who adopted my argument were as guilty as those who repeated the tales of Nixon's magnanimity. They, too, uncritically accepted what I said simply because I wear the label of historian...Constrained by the demand for sound bites, the allure of neat historical lessons, and the culture of competitive deadline journalism, most newspeople place getting a good story above honoring the richness and fullness of history. They rarely track down the right experts, or air competing points of view, or linger over wrinkles in an argument. They don't make room for the immense amounts of research, the careful sifting of evidence, and the nuanced verdicts of which history consists."

There is a cliche that anyone who knows how sausage is really made would never eat the stuff; that is how I feel about the mainstream print, internet and TV media: anyone who knows how those products are assembled would take most pundits' words for what they are worth--not much.

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