David A. Andelman: A riposte to historians who disrespect journalism

Roundup: Talking About History

If there’s a choice between historians and journalists as chroniclers of contemporary history, historians win hands down—at least at the Harvard University Library.

Earlier this month, there appeared in my mailbox in New York City what seemed like an interesting white paper, “The Research Library in the Digital Age.” It was written by Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer university professor and director of the Harvard University Library, and was forwarded to me by Frances D. Ferguson, chair of the Overseas Committee to Visit the University Library.

It seemed to hit all the points that have so excited me about the transformations underway at the Harvard libraries and in many of America’s great research libraries—indeed those that enabled me to write my latest book.

At least until I arrived at this passage where Professor Darnton describes his early career as a newsman in Newark, New Jersey:

“Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as primary sources for knowing what really happened. I think newspapers should be read for information about how contemporaries construed events, rather than for reliable knowledge of the events themselves.”

I was stunned. With one stroke, Professor Darnton arrogantly and ignorantly attempts to destroy the reputation of the entire Fourth Estate of the United States—indeed one of the great pillars of our democratic system. Moreover, he clearly has little respect for his distinguished brother, John Darnton, who succeeded me as East European Bureau Chief for The New York Times, and who has spent 40 years as a journalist for that eminent institution where he won the Pulitzer Prize for describing the rise of Solidarity and the strikes at the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland.

Frankly, as a history major and lifelong admirer of such eminent Harvard historians as Ernest R. May, I have enormous respect for this profession. As I was leaving Harvard more than four decades ago, I had two paths open to me—one toward life as an academic historian, another toward life as a journalist. I chose the latter, in the belief that a fine journalist does indeed bring so many of the same skills to the service of his public as an historian—chronicling events as they happen, using all the various sources open to journalist and historian alike to bring the truth to his or her readers.

In a free nation, this is entirely possible. Professor Darnton should consider what this country would be like without a liberated, vigorous press drawing on the talents of close observers of enormous skill and perception. I have worked in nations where the press was not free—where it served as a mouthpiece of the state or special interests under Soviet communism, for instance, or a host of Middle Eastern and Asian dictatorships. Their nations, their people were far the worse for this lack of an unfettered press.

By contrast, I have been brought into contact with any number of historians, in America and abroad, who have twisted the facts of history to suit their own particular political or social views or prejudices. Mainstream German history textbooks today routinely ignore or treat merely as footnotes such events as Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and German guilt, while the more extreme deny their existence entirely. At various points in the past century, entirely reputable historians came down on all sides of the Vietnam War, the Armenian massacres by Turks, the humanity of Soviet communism and, today, American policies across the Middle East. ...

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