Publication Date

March 14, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Research & Publications, Teaching & Learning


Digital Methods, Research Methods, Teaching Methods

Journalists write the first draft of history, or so the cliché goes, and I must admit to a long-standing addiction to professional print (and now online) journalism and an allergy to television news, even the responsible sort found on PBS. Television narration moves too slowly, advertisements interrupt the story and turn everything into short clips, and the sensational supplants analysis. At best, I find television news boring. At worst, I find it irresponsible, utterly incapable of nuance, complexity, and context—the very things I love about reading good history—and producers know very well that for the next program they will need to find more “shocking” news to hook viewers who will have forgotten the car crash or store robbery from the day before.

Television’s great achievement of supplying images is its strength but also its weakness. The image can obfuscate even more effectively than the most notorious cable news personalities. By reading prose, in contrast, I am in charge—especially online. I can skim, skip, ignore, reread, take notes, follow links, look up more, and criticize, all the peculiar activities of the historian and the very skills necessary for controlling the source rather than allowing it to control me. Nevertheless, my killjoy complaints about television news are most likely passé, since now most Americans receive their news from social media, which anyone can manipulate—and many do—to serve tendentious purposes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I taught an honors thesis seminar for undergraduates on Zoom. In previous incarnations of the seminar, I had students go into archives for their research, but the closing of public archives and libraries forced the COVID generation to look for nontraditional sources. For most students, that meant old newspapers that they could find in online collections. They quickly became adept at picking up the clues to journalistic inaccuracy and bias. As fledgling historians, they already knew what happened in the end and could see how a journalist’s appreciation for significance and context was at best limited. A nifty thesis by Chayda Harding (BA, Northwestern, 2022) on the contrasting attitudes of Italian Americans and African Americans toward Mussolini’s unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia in 1935–36 had to rely on the newspapers of these two communities, demonstrating how the parochial concerns of both sides had little to do with what was actually happening in North Africa.

I can skim, skip, ignore, reread, take notes, look up more, and criticize—the very skills necessary for controlling the source rather than allowing it to control me.

As a first draft of the Italo-Abyssinian War, these newspapers were quite inadequate, especially since the absence of a free press in Italy or Ethiopia at the time left few alternatives outside government sources, which had their own biases. The Italian American newspapers split along ideological lines with the well-established ones proclaiming the glory of Fascism and the wisdom of Mussolini. In contrast, the socialist newspapers, several of which were run by exiles from Fascism, took the predictable opposite track. Although some prominent African American papers, such as the Chicago Defender, called for solidarity with the Black victims of Mussolini, most focused on the struggles closer to home.

Musing about these newspapers as sources brought me back to my own period of early modern Italian history, when the first versions of what we might call newspapers, the avvisi, appeared. Written by diplomats, travelers, and international merchants, these late 16th- and 17th-century papers printed useful information about European events, but the avvisi quickly became a source for entertainment, gossip, and political discussion. They met the demands of readers. The product of a competitive market, as is modern journalism, they found a place by the 18th century in the bourgeois public sphere. Their origins in Venice took advantage of the republic’s sophisticated diplomatic culture that produced dispatches and reports read in the Venetian Senate, which were often copied or quoted for broader distribution. When the AHA’s first honorary foreign member, Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), sought original sources close to events themselves, he packed off to Venice in the 1820s when the republic had disappeared, leaving no successor state to protect its precious diplomatic archives, and at a time when newly impoverished nobles were eager to monetize their ancestors’ private papers and collections of old avvisi by selling them to a German professor of history. As my students discovered, history cannot escape from journalism’s influence.

While historians naturally focus on the problems that beset the historical discipline, we must acknowledge that the crisis in journalism is just as bad, if not worse. Local newspapers are disappearing, and partisans push onto the internet and Twitter whatever fantasies promote their cause. As Jill Lepore noted in a recent New Yorker review of the January 6th report, many journalists and academics “appear to have so wholly given themselves over to Twitter—knowing the world through it, reporting from it, being ruled by it.” Often scandalous and sometimes mendacious, old-fashioned capitalist journalism nevertheless became a profession that tried to uphold certain standards of evidence and a commitment to truth. At my own university, the Medill School of Journalism and Media has added the designation of Integrated Marketing Communications to its name, making the selling of products companion to telling the truth. Can the two ever be reconciled? Can the necessary ambiguity of good journalism or good history be subservient to convincing consumers how to spend their money? In other countries, political parties have subsidized friendly newspapers, which does not seem a desirable alternative means for telling the truth.

As the Medill report on “The State of Local News in 2022” noted, two newspapers disappear in the United States every week and are seldom replaced in either print or digital form, creating news deserts and a crisis for democracy. Since 2005, America has lost one-fourth of its newspapers, leaving seven percent of US counties without a single local paper. In communities without local journalism, corruption thrives, voter participation thins, and misinformation spreads like COVID. The gaps in local news coverage help explain some of our deep social and political cleavages, and those holes could create a lasting loss for historical researchers.

Good evocative prose still survives, especially in those sections where the end of the story is clear.

That is not to say that journalism is a lost cause. Because of the internet, I can skim four or five newspapers a day and read several weeklies and monthlies without cutting down any trees. In at least a few distinguished newspapers, good evocative prose survives, especially in those sections where the end of the story is clear—the sports pages and obituaries. Games played and lives lived have a narrative structure that invites historical comparison, contemplation, and consequence. But even in the cosmopolitan region of Chicago, our best investigative and iconoclastic local, the Chicago Reader, has suffered bankruptcy and a 90 percent decline in advertising revenue. The newsroom of the grand old Chicago Tribune, once so powerful that it practically invented the Republican Party and put Abraham Lincoln in the White House, no longer braves large-scale investigations and manages to make even the sports pages dull—though my local teams could perhaps be more exciting.

Where does all this leave future historians of our era? As Gerhard Weinberg warned us decades ago, the digital revolution will leave future historians of our present thirsty for information in a historical desert, as fragile media such as computer tapes and floppy disks (remember those?) degenerate and as computer programs become obsolete and unreadable. As a historian of medieval and Renaissance Europe, I began to suffer from the thirst of a historical desert early in my career. Reading the faded handwriting on vellum and early cloth paper was hard enough, but when I turned to 19th-century editions of old texts, the industrial paper on which they were printed disintegrated in my hands, leaving me with flecks rather than pages. There seems a certain historical law at play here: the more records we generate, the less likely we will be able to read them in the future. The decline in local newspapers just magnifies this problem. Even as these inadequate first drafts of history disappear, future historians will be left with a few random tweets that someone managed to preserve. Both text and context will be gone. Historians need that first draft.

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Edward Muir
Edward Muir

Northwestern University