Horror Stories: When Journalists Mangle History


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Do you have a horror story to tell about an encounter with a journalist obtuse about history? If so, we'd like to hear about it. Please tell us your story by posting a comment below. Your answers will be helpful as we prepare for a panel hosted by HNN at the upcoming meeting of the Organization of American Historians concerning the love-hate relationship between journalists and historians. (The panel will meet Thursday April 3, between 1 and 3 pm.)

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John Gillette - 3/31/2003

I don't want to denigrate teachers of History at any level, but wouldn't it be easier to find instances where the Journalist wasn't obtuse about History?

Anonymous Coward - 3/27/2003

Joanne Meyerowitz leaves the helm of the Organization of American Historians' JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY for a position at Yale.

While not even able to finish her five year appointment (her first year was taken as sabbatical?!), the editorship is wide open yet again. Thelen left in disgust (after awarding Bellesiles a prize for his work), what skeletons will be left in JM's wake?

jeff lalande - 3/19/2003

A very minor blooper, certainly, but still a surprising one to me:

A Washington Post by-lined story appearing within the past few months (about the approaching war with Iraq) included a few historical flourishes. One of them referred to "Andrew Jackson, after having kicked French butt in New Orleans,..."

I assumed that the Battle of New Orleans was still fairly well recognized by the citizenry as a fight between the Americans and the British (especially among the Boomer generation who grew up listening to Rock-n-Roll singer Freddy "Boom-Boom" Cannon's unforgetable rendition of the song of that name).
Perhaps, though, Old Hickery and Jean Lafite had a duel of fisticuffs before the battle.

Bob Greene - 3/12/2003

This is a joke, right. Defending mercantilism in the 21st century would be the equivalent of defending Lamarkianism in a biology class or the phlogestin theory in a chemistry course. Mercantilism with its notion of trade as a zero sum game and the goal of a nation is to accumulate gold may have made a few kings rich in the short term but impoverished millions in the process.
Free markets and unfettered trade increases the overall wealth of an economy. Some will loose in the short term but the nation as a whole will invariably benefit.

Douglas Bisson - 3/10/2003

My favorite is when a CNN reporter confused Henry II of England with Henry IV (the Holy Roman Emperor who opposed Gregory VII during the Investiture struggle). Thus the errant reporter offered up a scenario in which Henry II did penance at Canossa for the murder of Thomas Becket!!

glenn mesaros - 3/6/2003

THIS MORON WRITES A COLUMN FOR THE PIONEER PRESS, ENTITLED, "REAL WORLD ECONOMICS". Inexplicably, I am still amazed at the level of just, plain, lying ignorance emanating from the typical American economist.

Here, on the day, when the GREAT NATION OF FRANCE HAS POTENTIALLY SAVED CIVILIZATION FROM A NEW DARK AGES WAR, this moron writes that Colbert ruined France with his "mercantilist policies". A simple truck load of statistics which compared pre Colbert France with Post Colbert France would show HOW COLBERT TRANSFORMED France to become the first, and foremost great nation of Europe, and then fostered the independence of the United States with 20,000 troops and sailors at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

Alexander Hamilton then precisely copied the policies of Colbert onto the American landscape and made America the first great Republic, and Lincoln restored these policies with the Morrill Tariff in 1862, and created America as the super power it is today, WHEREIN said Lotterman rests HIS FAT BUTT and sheds enough manure to fertilize MINNESOTA.

Glenn Mesaros
Larouche Democrat
Golden Valley, Minnesota

ED LOTTERMAN: Party's principles lost for GOP leaders

Recent proposals from some Minnesota Republicans leave me with the same feeling of disappointment I felt when I met with a friend who had gone to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War.

"Suppose I had just gone in the Army and made it back from Vietnam OK," he mused. "How would my life be different?" My heart sank. I always thought he had done something noble by going to Canada for a Deep Moral Cause, and now he was revealing that fear of getting his butt blown off in Vietnam had been a factor.

His actions were understandable, but not principled. That is the same way I felt about Sen. Dick Day's (R-Owatonna) recent call for expanded gambling at Canterbury Downs.

Day's proposal is entirely understandable in a political "3P" setting (PACs, patronage and pork barrels). But it is not something that a principled modern conservative would propose. Rather, it smacks of something from 17th century France.

The economic system known as mercantilism reached its high point under Louis XIV and his great Prime Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Mercantilism called for great central control of economic activity, including where certain goods could be produced and by whom. We wear blue jeans made of "denim" because only in the town of Nimes were weavers allowed to make a coarse blue fabric; hence "de Nimes" or "denim." Under mercantilism only certain families or companies could trade in salt. Spain's trade with her colonies could move only through certain favored ports such as Cadiz. Massachusetts barrel staves to be traded for Dominican molasses had to be shipped through London.

This was economic nonsense. It made France, Spain and England poorer than they might otherwise have been. However, it seems that Sen. Day likes this mercantilist model.

If one believes that Minnesota needs more gambling facilities, which I do not, but that gambling should not be completely deregulated, then a principled modern conservative would advocate opening the business up for bids.

Why should the rent-seeking owners of Canterbury Downs get any more mercantilistic largess from the Legislature? If we are going to allow more gambling, then let any institution or group anywhere in the state put in a proposal and bid competitively. But no, not only does our own senatorial mercantilist know just where we should expand gambling, he knows exactly what percentage each possible group should get. The benefits of competition and of markets apparently have not yet penetrated the thinking of his wing of the Republican Party.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, seems to take his political cues from Rev. Jesse Jackson. In announcing his ideas on developing a new high-tech, biotech corridor last week, our Republican governor called for instructing the State Board of Investment to put Minnesota pension funds into local biotech businesses.

The idea that a governor or Legislature can give instructions to a non-partisan agency with a fiduciary responsibility exactly mimics perennial presidential candidate Jackson's repeated calls for Social Security trust funds to be diverted from U.S. Treasury bonds into entrepreneurial ventures in inner cities. Encouraging new technology firms may be a valid use of public funds, as may be encouraging inner city small-business development. But be honest: tap the state or federal Treasuries.

I disagreed with my friend's decision to go to Canada rather than serve the United States, but I could respect it as long as it seemed based on moral principle rather than on avoiding personal risk. I disagree with many of the economic ideas of Gov. Pawlenty and Minority Leader Day, but I could respect their proposals if they followed some coherent set of economic or social principles. It is increasingly apparent that they don't.

Thoughtful Republicans need to be wary of the kinds of proposals that party members Day and Pawlenty laid out last week. Democratic muddle-headedness handed the Republican party a superior reputation among the general public on economic issues. Unprincipled silliness, such as further extending an already abusive monopoly at Canterbury Downs or political meddling in a public pension plan's portfolio decisions, could easily move the economic prudence baton back to the Democrats.

Republicans will persist in this folly at their own risk.

Lisa Kazmier - 3/6/2003

This is not so much a mangling of history as a taught subject but relates to a mangling of my AHA panel for the purposes of ridiculing history conferences, if not historians as professionals.

The Chicago Tribune piece covering the recent AHA conference featured a quote of mine, but this did not quite fully represent the answer to the question cited in the story. I did explain the purpose of offering "new(er)" topics at such conferences but the reporter opted to make the piece about ridiculing what we do, as if we are not trained and expert at what we do. I suspect the reporter, if degreed, has an undergraduate degree and thinks he learned enough history to sneer at something he thinks bore no relevance or importance.

I am not even sure he attended any of my AHA panel session. One of my co-panelists later said to me that he thought the reporter miscounted (undercounted) the panel's attendance, a way obviously of further ridiculing historians.

Lisa Kazmier

Ph.D. Candidate, History
Rutgers University