Rick Perlstein response to Sam Tanenhaus's complaint that he's an aggregator

Historians in the News
tags: Rick Perlstein

Re:  Sam Tanenhaus's review in the Atlantic of The Invisible Bridge:

I hate criticizing reviews. I’m just honored people are paying attention. Then Sam Tanenhaus wrote this about a book, The Invisible Bridge, that I worked on for six years: “His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism.” One half of that is made up. The other half is simply stupid. A friend thinks I should sue for libel. Instead, I’m just happy to correct the record.

I traveled thousands of miles to put in hundreds of hours viewing “TV shows” he says I “digitally accessed”—as my source notes make plain. At the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, I reviewed every national newscast that mentioned Ronald Reagan between 1967 and 1975. (The sentence on page 88, “Of the sixty-seven times Reagan was featured on the three network newscasts between 1967 and 1970, more than half concerned his stance on campus militancy,” wasn’t conjured up by magic.) Also at Vanderbilt, I studied the entire visual record of the network-news coverage of the return of the Vietnam prisoners of war. “Intellectually lazy”? That was but a fraction of the six months of research it took to compose chapters one and four of the book (one sentence on page 66 represents two weeks at the National Archives alone). Those chapters make an entirely original argument: that the return of the POWs and the debate over that event’s meaning are crucial to understanding the political culture of the period. By ignoring this, Tanenhaus fails in the first task of any reviewer of a work of history: identifying and evaluating what new contribution it makes.

There’s more, much more; for instance, I’m surely one of the only humans alive to have listened to every single broadcast from Ronald Reagan’s radio show in 1975, housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford (where I also reviewed hundreds of pages from the papers of Michael Deaver and Peter Hannaford). But enough. We’re historians, not jocks; it’s not a contest. What seems to irk Tanenhaus most, and I honestly have no idea why, is my most massive project of primary research: a methodical exploration of thousands of the same newspaper and magazine articles that ordinary Americans read. Why did I spend so much time on that, rather than traveling to a dozen more archives? Because research serves the scholarship, not the other way around—and when your subject is how the political consciousness of ordinary Americans changed, the media they consumed are the best archive.

And, yes, I’m proud that I availed myself in this work whenever possible of the monumental efforts of Google to put millions of newspaper editions online (news.google .com/newspapers), linking to the articles I cite in my online source notes. That was so my readers might consult them too. Is this what Tanenhaus means by “Googl[ing] in the name of grass-roots activism”? Because I call it history.

Rick Perlstein
Chicago, Ill.

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