AHA Features Panels on the Indifference of Journalists to History



Rick Shenkman is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the History News Network.

Saturday January 7 started off with a robust discussion of a subject with which HNN readers have long been preoccupied:  The dreadful indifference of most journalists to history.  Four panels are addressing the issue under the rubric, "Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right."  The panels were established at the initiation of the National History Center's Roger Louis and USC's Marty Kaplan in cooperation with the Annenberg School of Communications.  Louis told HNN he's been eager to have the AHA focus on the problem since he was president of the organization.  A conversation Marty had with Annenberg led directly to the initiative, which is considered the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the AHA and Annenberg.

At today's morning panel, Kaplan asked if journalists are beholden to a simplified view of history.  Jackson Lears immediately answered in the affirmative.  He noted that journalists tend to simplify events while historians try to show how complex they are. Simplicity is inadequate because "history is essentially tragic," considering the unintended consequences that attend most events.  He got a laugh when he observed that any time a historian goes to a convention of social scientists, there's the feeling that their analyses are just too plain simple.

Rick Perlstein groused that when Rick Santorum gave his (second place) victory speech in Iowa, no one noticed that the story he told about his grandfather's escape from Mussolini's Italy led to years working in a coal mine in a company town where miners were paid in script, turning them into indentured servants. So much for the American dream.  Even E.J. Dionne, Jr. didn't notice.

This prompted laments about the absence of a grand narrative.  Perlstein noted that conservatives still have one, the story of American triumphalism.  But liberals don't, and neither do historians.  Michael Kazin observed that Howard Zinn did and sold two million books, but went on to say it was mostly bad history, which he conceded his liberal friends don't want to hear.

Is it important for the pop culture to get history right?  Perlstein said that he's less concerned when moviemakers, for example, make errors than when they wholly falsify history, as Oliver Stone did with his movie about JFK.  (Perlstein said Stone got the main story right in his film on Nixon.).

Perlstein disparaged Time magazine for lacking the moral confidence to call out Glenn Beck's bad history in a cover story.  In 1961 Time courageously mocked the John Birch Society.  Kazin said no one today cares what Time thinks.  Alan Brinkley, author of a recent book about Henry Luce, was asked if he thinks Rupert Murdoch is the Luce of our time.  Brinkley shrugged.  "Luce had a vision.  Murdoch has a company. "

C-SPAN filmed the session.  We will let you know when it broadcasts.

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