The Fuzzy Border between History and Journalism
In 1963, Newsweek publisher Phil Graham traveled to London to meet with the magazine’s ranks of foreign correspondents. In a speech he prepared for the occasion that might have otherwise been almost immediately forgotten, he lauded his audience for writing “the first rough draft of history.” The reporters, knowing a good quote when they heard one, were soon repeating it to their colleagues across the Atlantic.
The phrase, often minus the “rough,” helped cement a relationship between journalism and history, two professions that have traditionally trod alongside each other, stepping in each other’s paths as they went. Jon Meacham and Robert Caro built noteworthy careers as reporters before becoming Pulitzer Prize–winning historians despite their lack of advanced degrees, while Arthur Schlesinger Jr. blamed his failure to complete his multivolume history of the New Deal on his weakness for writing political dispatches for newsmagazines.
Such blurred borders are a part of any pursuit that aspires to be a profession but can’t escape being a craft, and all in all, that’s a good thing. Journalists benefit from thinking historically, and historians benefit from learning to write for general readers. But there are risks, too, when journalists and historians fail to appreciate the strengths and limits of each other’s endeavors, and end up abusing them—and disserving the public.
The origins of Graham’s phrase are murkier than he might have admitted. Jack Shafer, writing in Slate in 2010, traced it to another journalist, Alan Barth, writing in the New Republic in 1943. Barry Popik, a linguist, found it in use as early as 1905. It seems possible that Graham, who was also publisher of the Washington Post, cribbed the phrase from one of the newspaper’s reporters, who had used a version of the phrase in an article years before Graham adopted it as his own.
Blurred borders are a part of any pursuit that aspires to be a profession but can’t escape being a craft. That’s a good thing.
The murkiness, as Shafer notes, is the point: The phrase has many parents because almost every journalist wants to believe it. We journalists hope that someday, some historian will resurrect our transitory, daily scribblings in the service of some masterpiece, perhaps even cite us in their text. Offering this small service to future scholars is our contribution to civilization—a bid for immortality cloaked in modesty, a claim by a much-derided profession on one more highly esteemed.
And just as journalists hope that historians will use our work, we also rely heavily on theirs. Many, perhaps most, journalists consider themselves amateur historians. I’ve worked in many newsrooms where potted histories outnumber potted plants. Journalists pile their desks with biographies and historical surveys and fill their prose with knowing name-checks to some obscure politician or pivotal battle. On a rare occasion, a journalist might even visit an archive. Meanwhile, many historians wait eagerly for a reporter to cite their latest book or even interview them for a quotation. If journalists fear their writing is ephemeral, at least they can enjoy knowing that many people encounter their work, if only briefly. Most historians can’t say that.
Then there are the historians who, like Schlesinger, become addicted to the sugar-rush high of daily journalism, to watching their writing fly into the world without having to slog through the peer-review swamp. Some even learn how to hack the system by packaging the past in tidy quick takes fashioned for the news of the day: what Ukraine can learn from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the lessons of Watergate for whatever happens to be the political scandal of the moment. Editors adore these sorts of articles, if only because readers do too.
There is a problem, though, with this symbiotic relationship. Too many journalists misunderstand the uses of history. They take as gospel another chestnut about history—how it doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes—which is clever and true, except for all the cases when it is neither. And too many historians are happy to oblige them, or are at least unwilling to correct them, perhaps out of fear they won’t get quoted.
Such abuse matters. Giving the past undue weight can skew the way journalists interpret the present, especially if they misunderstand the past, reduce it to simplistic bits, or fail to account for advances in historiography. And because journalism is often the only way that many readers engage with historical research, this abuse should be of concern to anyone committed to writing serious history.
Journalists too often tend toward uncritical presentism. Like most people, they figure that drawing useful lessons from the past to aid the present is what the study of history is there for. Like most people, they lack the tools to do this well. There is of course nothing wrong with looking to the past to see how it informs the present. But journalists often look to the past from the present, directly exporting their mores and assumptions to a time that in fact looks nothing like our current moment, taking superficial similarities as dispositive instead of looking under the hood to see all the differences.
Journalists too rarely ask whether the evidence fits the claim. They cherry-pick material. They accept assertions of varying levels of quality; if a historian can be found to support a claim, a journalist won’t look too far to see how other historians assess their work.
In the early 2000s, journalists who favored the invasion of Iraq drew on the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan to find comforting parallels, noting that in those earlier cases, the vanquished passed easily into peace, and that the people eagerly accepted the victors’ mandate. But these cases were not so simple, and historians have argued for decades over the details of the post–World War II occupations. Grappling with that debate, let alone recognizing all the differences between then and now, was too much to ask of journalists under pressure to offer readers relatively simple arguments and story lines.
Or consider the cottage industry that emerged in the late 2010s around comparing the Trump presidency to the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. Both historians and journalists jumped on this analogy, arguing, even on the eve of the 2022 midterms, that American democracy was a latter-day Weimar and just as likely to collapse under pressure by the Far Right. Books like Timothy Snyder’s best-selling On Tyranny fed scores of historical analyses, including in the New York Times, endorsing the notion that the darkest moment in modern history was about to repeat itself.
Too few stopped to examine all the ways such an analogy might not apply. While anything could happen, and no democracy lasts forever, after the 2022 midterms, it seems that America’s Weimar turn is a long way off, and that the easy analogies fall apart in the face of much more significant differences. The Far Right is less powerful than journalists imagined, and less attractive to mainstream voters. American voters do not, by and large, believe the conspiracy theories at the heart of Trumpism. The center was always going to hold.
Nor did many journalists consider whether telling readers that the worst is coming might obscure all the ways that something less worse, but still pretty bad, is more likely at hand. We were probably never at risk of becoming another Germany. But the slow, unprecedented erosion of democratic norms doesn’t need to end in crisis for it to be a worrying development.
Historians need to take the less alluring, less quotable road, explaining the dangerous difficulty of historical analogy.
It’s easy to excuse such malfeasance by citing deadlines. We don’t expect journalists to take deep dives in the archives when their editor is screaming for copy. Then again, we do expect them to get the details right when they’re dealing with issues like interest rates or climate science. Journalists can get away with abusing history in a way they could never do if they were covering economics or global warming.
Not all journalists are guilty of these crimes. Peter Baker, my colleague at the Times, does a noteworthy job of deploying history as a reference point without drawing analogies or causalities. And there are many admirable journalists turned historians: Meacham, Caro, Mark Bowden, Isabel Wilkerson.
But they are exceptions, and there are few incentives for others to follow them. It is up to historians to change that.
One great contribution historians can make is to engage more fully with journalists, to show how history rarely offers neat analogies, and to show how to be more careful in attempting to deploy them. In response to journalists who come looking for the easy sound bite, historians need to take the less alluring, less quotable road, explaining the dangerous difficulty of historical analogy. It might not get them cited in the New York Times, but it will go a long way toward making for better journalism.
Journalists have a role to play as well. They need to understand that history is more than just a kit of parts to add color or rhetorical oomph to an argument. They need to understand the weirdness of the past, that even recent history is a distant country, and that what happened then very rarely offers bright illumination onto the present.
Historians must show journalists how their scholarship is less useful to journalists than they might think. And journalists need to see the value in such advice, even if it means they don’t get the quote they were looking for.
Clay Risen is a reporter for the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century.
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