Sunday, June 13, 2004

Reagan and "the first draft of history" 

Cassandra of I Love Jet Noise points to a telling exchange among CNN's anchors, picked up by another blogger:
Right after the funeral, Bernie Shaw admitted on CNN that the newsmedia failed the american people by not recognizing Reagan during his presidency--and Wolf Blitzer and Paula Zahn agreed:

Bernie Shaw: “I’d just like to say something…We failed the American people with our coverage…I certainly missed a lot.”

Wolf Blitzer: “We’ve learned a lot about this presidency since his two terms in office.”

Paula Zahn: “I just wanted to add, Wolf, I do think there is new material coming out now about Ronald Reagan. With the distance of years we have the ability to get information…When there is a death, I think there is a respectful difference. I’ve heard people say the media is going overboard. In fact, it is entirely appropriate to go back and find what this man meant in the news media, to the world.”

Blitzer and Zahn are correct, and Shaw misses the point.

Shaw, in suggesting that the news media "failed the American people" with its coverage of Ronald Reagan, betrays the great conceit of his profession, that journalists write "the first draft of history." This notion, attributed to Philip Graham, the famous publisher of the Washington Post, is at the root of the breathtaking arrogance of the national press corps. Journalism and history are profoundly different disciplines, which fact historians understand but journalists -- who pretend that they write the "first draft of history" -- do not. Journalism is not the first draft of history, it is the raw material of history, just as speeches, letters, pictures, diaries, note pads, bureaucratic documents, and blog posts are also raw material. Journalism is the contemporary regurgitation of facts and opinion, edited to sell papers, attract viewers or achieve a political or policy purpose, and is therefore both useful and entertaining. However, journalistic writing no more reflects the ultimate verdict of history than a staged White House press conference.

This conceit of journalists -- that they have something profound to say to posterity -- damages the quality of our discourse today, because it infuses this fundamentally industrial exercise with fraudulent significance. There are people who actually believe that the version of the facts as presented by Bernard Shaw will be the timeless version of such facts. Living in a democracy as we do, that belief, fueled by the conceit of the media, erodes our ability to implement any long-term policy. This is as true for policies that the left might propose -- massive reductions in carbon emissions, for example -- as it is for the Bush administration's efforts to change the dynamic in the Middle East.

In the case of Reagan, we are only now understanding the depth of the man. After twenty years, historians are today preparing the actual first draft of history, and we can be sure there will be more to come. My father, who was a historian, said that it took about 50 years for the historiography of a presidency to stabilize. You need people to die so diaries and correspondance emerge, documents to be declassified and, above all, skilled historians who did not live through era in question. This last point is crucial -- it is almost impossible for people who live through an era to settle the history of that era.

And that is why journalists, who are more obsessed with the gestalt of their time than the average person, are in some ways the least able to write its history.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jun 13, 08:34:00 PM:

Excellent post.

I think it's somehow related to what Wretchard was getting at in his latest post.

If I weren't hungover from an afternoon wedding, I'd try to figure out how myself, but alas, my head ain't working tonight.

Rob A.  

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