James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Journalists & historians: dueling irrelevancies?

Posted by James McPherson on May 23, 2008

As a journalist I regularly was frustrated with the lack of historical context in most political writing, including my own. Despite the arrival of more cable news stations and the Internet, for most media users the situation has not improved. Partly that’s because most people focus on too few media sources in generally, and especially on television, for news. In addition, time constraints or ignorance often make journalists neglect context, and journalists spend far too much time and energy chasing three C’s: controversy, crashes and celebrities. That’s old news. Yet I think it worth noting that journalism–supposedly “the first draft of history”–and history itself have become increasingly similar in their lack of usefulness to the public.

Journalists and historians have much in common, some of which I discussed in a bibliographic essay that concludes my first book (a book so expensive that it will likely never be owned by anyone other than libraries and people related to me). I sometimes tell people I became a historian after leaving the newsroom because historical research was a lot like journalism, except that most of your sources are dead so they don’t complain about being misquoted.

Actually few of the complaints about my journalism involved misquotes, and in most of those cases I remained convinced that I had quoted the person accurately. People sometimes say things they shouldn’t, or that prompt readers to react in ways a source didn’t expect. Far more common in my case than inaccurate or misleading quotes were cases of confusing grammar, typos, misspelled names or misplaced decimals. Despite good editors–and the biggest problem with blogs, including this one, may be the lack of editors–mistakes are far too common in both journalism and history. A page that looks perfect on a computer screen and a proof sheet can seem to inexplicably develop errors as it is being printed. Even the aforementioned very pricy book has at least one error in it, so if you happen to be one of the few hundred people or libraries who own a copy, let me know and I’ll tell you the mistake.

Another thing journalism and history have in common is that both have undergone massive changes in recent years. Though critics may disagree, both have improved significantly in many respects. Technology, changing politics, shifting audiences and the inclusion of a much wider range of people (both as subjects and as researchers) have brought dramatic shifts. My students now take it for granted that journalism and history alike include women and people of color. Some of my undergraduate professors apparently did not take that for granted, though by then (the 1970s) the shift was well underway.

Increasing complexity–or more accurately, the increasing recognition that the world is complex–caused new problems, especially as storytellers felt more obligated to interpret the meaning of events for readers or listeners. “Faced with complex issues when researching and telling their stories, both historians and journalists sometimes fall back on customary articifical structures such as story ‘frames’ or academic theories,” I noted previously.

At the same time, both journalists and historians often tend to focus on small, narrow, and ultimately relatively unimportant stories. Too many historians research minor events or personalities that virtually no one cares about. They then share their findings in conference presentations that few people (and no non-academics) hear and through journal articles that few read. The historians adds a line to his or her vita, then engages in another round of what my wife calls mental masturbation, secure in the knowledge that s/he is going historically where no one has gone before. Far too often, however, there’s a good reason no one else has bothered to go. Yet few of the most skilled historians actually produce work designed for a mass audience (most of the rare exceptions pop up fairly regularly on PBS), the people who have the most to gain–a knowledge of and appreciation for how we got to where we are, and an enhanced knowledge of how self-government might work.

Those people also don’t learn much about the most important events from history’s first-drafters, the news media. Journalists cannot share what they don’t know. As I noted in in my more recent book, throughout most of the second half of the 20th century the mainstream media were largely unaware of a huge political shift taking place in America, the shift toward conservatism, in part because they focus on fairly obvious day-to-day events. Chances are, they’re missing something equally important today. Unfortunately, we likely won’t know what until after the next election or later. Maybe someday a historian will tell us what it was.

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2 Responses to “Journalists & historians: dueling irrelevancies?”

  1. Chris said

    Very informative and helpful, thank you, much appreciated. I have a gret love and understanding for your work and i appreciate the time you have taken to share it.

  2. […] died, and one of many areas in which the media have fallen short. Still, I also have to admit that journalism isn’t all about grim news, even if far less of it should be about celebrity journalism (or, […]

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