John Dickerson: Googling My Mother (writing biography in the digital age)

Roundup: Talking About History

ne morning, my mother's grave appeared in my inbox. The grass had grown back around it after the burial. The stone looked pinker than I remembered. The "Beloved Wife and Mother" written on it struck me as odd. Was that inscription always there? It seemed antiquated, like something you'd see in a small town cemetery, and, in my mother's case, also a little limiting. These are the details you seize on when you're suddenly confronted by Section 3, Grave 1316-A-LH before your first cup of coffee.

I had asked for it. I was writing On Her Trail, a book about my mother, Nancy Dickerson, which was published this week. Early in the process, I instructed a few Internet search engines to make a daily pass of the Web and to e-mail me whenever they found something. Mom had been a famous reporter, so I knew I'd get some responses. That day, she was discovered on a Web site dedicated to those buried at Arlington Cemetery. (My stepfather, John Whitehead, was a commander in the Navy.)
I was writing the book to figure out who my mother was, which might have seemed like a silly enterprise, since when I was growing up it seemed like everyone knew who my mother was. She was the first female network correspondent for CBS and the first woman star of the Washington TV-news corps. But I missed most of my mother's career. I was born when Mom was 41, and by the time I was old enough to know what the news was, she had left the network and her stardom had faded. There were no videotapes of her newscasts during the '60s and '70s, just pictures of her with Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon on the piano. (Now, in the age of TiVo, my children can't miss my appearances on even the lowest-rated cable show. Plus, I give them candy to watch)....

he initial basket of Internet search results brought back a host of items I'd never seen—footage of Mom narrating the return of John Kennedy's body as it was brought back to Andrews Air Force Base and an account of a Nixon interview. The eBay alert found copies of her autobiography, her NBC portrait, and a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article published four years before I was born. (Her Supersister trading card I did recognize. As a 10-year-old, I found it disappointing because it didn't come with bubble gum and I couldn't trade it for Pete Rose's rookie card.)...

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