After *The New Yorker* Nixes Steve Bannon, Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Steps-In

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Court evangelical Eric Metaxas yucking-it-up with Ted Cruz

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, was going to interview former Trump adviser and Alt-right leader Steve Bannon at the magazine’s annual festival.  When other guests at the festival said they would drop-out unless Bannon was disinvited, Remnick folded and Bannon was dumped.  Learn more here.

Not everyone–even those who are not part of the Alt-right–were happy with Remnick’s decision.

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone called Remnick’s decision “a journalistic embarrassment.”

Malcolm Gladwell tweeted:

Jack Shafer of Politico described Remnick decision as a “screwup” and said:

The primary objection to the invitation coalesced around the idea that the New Yorkershould never present a bigot or a fascist or a xenophobe like Bannon to such a distinguished audience, thereby normalizing hate. Exactly how a hardball Remnick interview with Bannon would normalize anything has yet to be explained. How many New Yorkerreaders—you know who you are—attending the festival were likely to start thinking of Bannon as “normal” after Remnick cross-examined him? Too few to count, I reckon. So the Bannon ban wasn’t designed to protect New Yorker fans….

Is Bannonism so contagious and corrosive that it must be suppressed? If you really fear Bannon’s thoughts, isn’t it better to allow a mind like Remnick’s to dissect and refute them rather than trying to no-platform them into oblivion? Talking to a monster is not necessarily an endorsement of a monster’s ideas. The whole episode is enough to make you wonder whether the celebrities who bailed from the festival even read the magazine, which routinely steers its way into conflict and controversy. 

I lean toward Gladwell and Shafer here.  A fair case can be made that Steve Bannon was influential in the election of a President of the United States.  Bannon does have ideas. And those ideas have been pretty influential among a certain sector of the American population.  They need to be confronted by talented interviewers like Remnick.

Now that Bannon will not be at The New Yorker festival, author, radio host, and court evangelical Eric Metaxas has decided to enter the fray.  According to a piece by Michael Gryboski at the Christian Post, Metaxas will interview Bannon “at a future event.”

Here is a taste of Gryboski’s article:

In an episode of his podcast “The Eric Metaxas Show” that aired Tuesday, the conservative Christian author announced that he was going to interview Bannon at a future event.

Metaxas explained that he reached out to Bannon’s representatives and they agreed, though a specific date had not yet been chosen. Driving his decision, explained Metaxas, was the New Yorker’s cancellation.

“It’s very important in this country, folks, I just want to say this, that we keep our mind open and that we allow people to have their say,” stated Metaxas.

Metaxas bemoaned Remnick’s decision to cancel Bannon’s interview, noting that he “could have asked him anything,” including critical questions. This led Metaxas to believe that “I need to do something.”

I am guessing that Remnick invited Bannon because he thought it might be important to have some intellectual diversity at the New Yorker Festival.  I commend him for this decision and, like Shafer, I think he folded under pressure when his liberal friends got mad about Bannon’s appearance.

But what is Metaxas’s motive?  This seems like little more than a publicity stunt.  It is yet another attempt by a court evangelical to rally the Trump base.

And Warren Throckmorton also makes a good point in this tweet:

 

Charles Krauthammer Writes One Final Note to His Readers

Kraut

From the Washington Post:

I have been uncharacteristically silent these past ten months. I had thought that silence would soon be coming to an end, but I’m afraid I must tell you now that fate has decided on a different course for me.

In August of last year, I underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my abdomen. That operation was thought to have been a success, but it caused a cascade of secondary complications — which I have been fighting in hospital ever since. It was a long and hard fight with many setbacks, but I was steadily, if slowly, overcoming each obstacle along the way and gradually making my way back to health.

However, recent tests have revealed that the cancer has returned. There was no sign of it as recently as a month ago, which means it is aggressive and spreading rapidly. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see what we have said about Krauthammer’s writing over the years.

“Fake News” is an Old Problem

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Thomas Hutchinson

Jackie Mansky, the humanities editor at Smithsonian.Com, reminds us that “fake news” has a long, long history in the American republic.  Here is a taste of her piece, “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’“:

Earlier echoes of John Adams’ frustrations can be found in laments by figures like Thomas Hutchinson, a British loyalist politician in a sea of American revolutionaries, who cried that the freedom of the press had been interpreted as the freedom to “print every Thing that is Libelous and Slanderous.”

Hutchinson’s bête noire was Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams, whose “journalism” infamously did not concern itself with facts. “It might well have been the best fiction written in the English language for the entire period between Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens,” writes media historian Eric Burns in his book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. (Burns borrows the title from the term George Washington used to refer to the media figures of the day. In a 1796 letter to Alexander Hamilton, Washington cites as a reason for leaving public office “a disinclination to be longer buffitted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”)

Hutchinson, for his part, wailed that Samuel Adams’ writing in Boston Gazette particularly slandered his name. He believed that “seven eights of the People” in New England, “read none but this infamous paper and so are never undeceived.” Among other epithets, the Gazette called Hutchinson a “smooth and subtle tyrant,” as historian Bernard Bailyn notes in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, whose purpose was to lead colonists “gently into slavery.”

In 1765, arsonists burned Hutchinson’s house to the ground over the Stamp Act though the loyalist was not even in favor of the hated tax. “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” writes Burns about those behind the fire, the scene sharing eerie parallels to the 2016 shooting of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop provoked by insidious fake news reports.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Happening at Religion News Service?

RNSI have done a lot of writing for Religion News Service over the years.  I hope to continue writing for the site.  I am also a big fan of their reporting.  When the names Yonat Shimron, Adelle Banks, Emily McFarland Miller, or Kimberly Winston come across my feeds, I take notice.

But it appears that the syndicated news service has been facing some difficult challenges of late.  It’s a complicated story and Julia Duin’s piece at Get Religion unpacks it well.  I was most interested in the part of the story dealing Richard Mouw, the evangelical theologian and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary.  Here is a taste:

Last summer, Mouw was growing increasingly disenchanted with President Trump and wondered how he should confront his fellow evangelicals about the unqualified support many were still offering the chief executive. The most obvious editorial vehicle he could use was “Civil Evangelicalism,” Mouw’s regular column for RNS. But how to do so?

Mouw remembered a time back in 1980 when the senior Falwell had echoed the words of Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith, who said that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Falwell later said he agreed with Smith (Read this Washington Post story for details of who said exactly what) but seemed to modify his tune after a trip to New York, where he met with Jewish leaders.

However, it’s important to note that Mouw’s column said the following, concerning Falwell’s actions (without mentioning Smith):

… Then there was the time when [Falwell] said in a speech that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. This comment provoked an outcry from Jewish leaders. Your father’s immediate response was to call the folks who had criticized him and ask for a meeting. He flew to New York and spent several hours in discussion with these religious leaders. A rabbi friend who was present told me that your father was sincerely humble in his apologies. And when the meeting was over, your dad issued a statement asking Jews for forgiveness for what he had said.

Recalling this incident nearly 40 years later, Mouw, decided to post an open letter to Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the most visible evangelical supporters of the president.

“I said, ‘Look, isn’t it time to admit you were wrong about Trump?’ ” Mouw told me Wednesday. “I said, ‘Look, your dad was willing to admit he made a mistake.’ ”

RNS posted Mouw’s open letter on Aug. 9. You can read it on the website of The Colorado Springs Gazette, since this opinion piece has been deleted from the RNS home page.

It didn’t take long for Mouw to hear back from the younger Falwell.

“Within a day,” he said, “I get an email from the legal department of Liberty University saying I had defamed the character of Jerry Falwell, Sr.; that he’d never said that and I had to publish a retraction or they’d take legal proceedings against me.

Read the rest here.

 

Historians and Journalists

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I get a lot of calls from journalists.  They have increased significantly since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency.   When journalists call I am happy to oblige.  I see this as an important part of my identity as a public scholar.  It is always nice to get acknowledged in an article, but sometimes a reporter wants to talk to a historian for background information that may or may not make it into the story.  Other times I just don’t say anything profound enough to make the final cut.

Over the years I have had my work–books, articles (scholarly and popular), and blog posts–used without citation.  It comes with the territory.  I have been noticing this of late with my use of the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.  (I am grateful for journalists such as Nancy LeTourneau who always gives me credit for coining the term.  Michael Gerson–not so much).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes about the relationship between historical scholarship and the media.  Here is a taste:

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 bookAt the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. “I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way,” she said.

McGuire had just returned from Taylor’s funeral. She spent time with Taylor’s family, and helped The New York Times write her obituary. To hear Winfrey tell the story was an extraordinary moment, she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better bookend to somebody’s home-going than have Oprah Winfrey tell your story in front of millions of people and praise your courage,” McGuire said. “And single you out as first, right, a leader. And so it was amazing. I was so grateful.”

She held out hope that Winfrey would mention her book in the speech, but that night she could do without it. “I mean, look, it’s Oprah Winfrey.”

Read the rest here.

Writer Ruth Graham on “Being Ruth Graham”

graham-head-2Slate contributor Ruth Graham, who is not directly related to the recently deceased evangelist, says that “Billy Graham has hovered over me my whole life, and not just because I share a name with his wife and daughter.”  Read her recent piece at Slate:

Ruth Graham died in 2007 when I was about to embark on a daylong hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. Browsing a rack of newspapers on a coffee run before heading into the woods, I was jarred to see my own name in the headlines. Feeling uncharacteristically superstitious, I called my dad to let him know where I was going and what time I’d be back.

I felt a similar shiver of affinity on Wednesday morning when I read that Ruth’s husband, the legendary 20th-century evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, had died at age 99. I’m not related to that Graham family, but they have hovered over my whole life in more ways than our not-uncommon last name suggests. I am the granddaughter of a theologically conservative Protestant pastor and a woman named Ruth Graham. My childhood bedroom overlooked the cupola of the Billy Graham Center, a large building that opened the year after I was born. When I was 18, I moved a half-mile across the tracks to that same campus, Wheaton College, Billy and Ruth Graham’s alma mater. And I’ve spent much of my career reporting on evangelical culture, where Graham is revered as a lion of the faith.

She concludes:

When President Obama tweeted his respects on Wednesday, his mentions lit up with rebukes for honoring a “monster” like Graham. Decency, respectability, civility—lately it feels like these qualities are sometimes read as code words for a failure to speak truth to power. Indeed, it’s tempting to daydream about what theologically conservative Christianity might look like in 2018 if Graham had been just slightly more willing to afflict the comfortable. Instead, he was a natural moderate who had the misfortune to die in a moment in which fence-sitting has fallen out of favor. Perhaps that’s for the best, at least for this moment in history. But I believe something will be lost if Graham is remembered warmly only by his fellow theological conservatives. Call it self-interest, but I hope his good name endures. 

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going at *Newsweek*

Newsweek

This is a strange story, but apparently Newsweek has a rather shady connection with a Bible school in California.  Below is a taste of an actual Newsweek story titled “Why is the Manhattan DA Looking at Newsweek’s Ties to a Christian University?”  The reporters nearly got fired for the story.

In the summer of 2016, Olivet University, a small, California-based Bible college, was preparing to build a satellite campus in Dover, a town in upstate New York. As the school’s development arm sought tax breaks and construction permits from the town, it made a surprising offer to county officials: Would they like free advertising in Newsweek?

The officials were skeptical, but they soon received emails from the magazine’s ad department with details. “We thought it was awfully odd that someone would say, ‘We would like to provide you with full-page ads,’” Assistant County Executive Ron Hicks recalled in an interview.

County leaders accepted the offer. And over the course of three months last year, Newsweek ran 10 full-page spots—worth about $149,000, according to the publication’s ad rates—promoting Hudson Valley Regional Airport and Dutchess County tourism, all free of charge at a time when the magazine’s parent company was in financial distress.

The previously unreported arrangement provides a window into the relationship between Olivet and Newsweek Media Group, the financial ties of which the Manhattan district attorney’s office is now scrutinizing as part of a long-running fraud probe, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

In January, investigators raided the media company’s lower Manhattan headquarters and removed 18 computer servers. The probe, which started more than a year ago, is focused, in part, on loans that the company took out to purchase the computer equipment.

Read the rest here.  Thanks to John Hawthorne for bringing this to my attention. As Hawthorne notes on his Facebook page, this is not Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois or Olivet College in Michigan.

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

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Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.

Religion Writer: “Frank Deford was the “best of the best.”

DefordFrank Deford did not write about religion, but his contribution to the field of journalism recently got the attention of Terry Mattingly, one of the country’s premier religion reporters.

Here is a taste of Mattingly’s post at Get Religion: “Frank Deford: A ‘Roaring Lamb’ who was among the best of the best in journalism–period.

No one, during his career, would have dared call Deford a “Christian” journalist, because that label was way to narrow to describe what he did as a journalist.

{Sport executive Bob] Briner told me that Deford would never try to wear his beliefs on his sleeve. They were simply part of what he did. They helped inform the questions that he asked. What happened on a kneeler at church (Deford was a layperson chosen to read scripture from the pulpit at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Westport, Conn.) was part of his life and went into the mix when he took pen and reporter’s notepad in hand.

In other words, Deford was a reporter who dug into the finest of fine details of what made athletes and public figures tick and, if faith was part of that equation, then Deford gracefully included that in his feature stories. He asked questions. He listened.

Read the entire post here.

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

Donald Trump is “Making Journalism Great Again”

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It’s times like this that I wish I had followed my childhood love of journalism. I am doing my best to bring historically-informed analysis here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I also have a day job that includes, in addition to teaching (which I see as my primary vocation), a lot of paperwork, meetings, and, occasionally breaking bad news to colleagues.

Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinart reports on the way traditional American “institutions”–the press, the judiciary, and the people–have been resisting and restraining the Trump administration.  His thoughts on the press and journalism caught my attention:

But no president faced with a dissatisfied bureaucracy and a vigorous press has been able to keep the internal workings of government secret. And Trump is facing the most energized American press corps in decades. America’s prestige newspapers have seen dramatic increases in circulation over the last year. The Post alone recently announced that it was hiring sixty new journalists.  Trump, in Jack Shafer’s words, “is making journalism great again,” and great journalism is, to some degree, restraining his power.

I am hoping that Trump might do the same for history and the humanities.

That Time I Scooped *The New York Times*…

…and got no credit for it.  (OK–that  sounded pretty whiny, but I think I am going to stick with it).

Yesterday I broke the Donald Trump “conversion” story here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  (Actually, the pastor Michael Anthony broke it and Charisma magazine may have posted the story around the same time that I did).

One of the people who retweeted my post was New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel:

Gabriel took the news to the pages of The New York Times here.  My post is now, with the exception of my commentary, no longer relevant.

Of course there are no footnotes in journalism, but perhaps Gabriel could have thrown a bone (in the forms of a link or reference in the piece) to a small, hard-working blogger! 🙂

Keith Harris: "Entertaining Stories and History Are Not Necessarily The Same Thing"

What makes good history?   Should journalists be writing history?  Keith Harris explores these questions at his blog. aptly named “Keith Harris History.”  Here is a taste:

I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.
Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.
Harris also has some good things to say about historians and social media in this post.  Check out his very informative blog.

Liz Covart on "The Art of the Obituary"

I am so glad to have Liz Covart on our team for the 2014 AHA.  Liz’s blog Uncommonplace Book is must reading for independent historians or any historian who wants to develop a writing platform and speak to public audiences.  Yesterday Liz attended a session entitled “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary.”  Here is her report:

On Thursday January 2, 2014, I attended “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting it Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary.” Sponsored by the National History Center, this roundtable panel included Journalism professor Janice R. Hume (University of Georgia), Adam Bernstein, Editor at The Washington Post, New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and panel chair, Martin H. Kaplan (University of Southern California). Kaplan posed questions to each panelist and allowed the other panelists to chime in with their thoughts afterwards.

The panel imparted fun and informative information about obituaries, their history, and the ethics involved in writing them.

Janet R. Hume provided historical information and contextualized the panelists’ discussion. Hume wrote the book on early obituaries. Obituaries in American Culture surveys more than 8,000 newspaper obituaries between 1818 and 1930.

According to Hume, obituaries in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America reported on the qualities that people admired about the deceased. They tended to be sentimental pieces written by editors who used familial accounts as source information. (Prior to the Civil War newspapers did not have reporters to conduct interviews with people who knew the deceased.) As a result of this source material and a strong Christian influence, early obituaries tended to be overly polite; they tried to fit people into categories that they did not fit into because they wanted to highlight the deceased’s moral goodness.

Hume also remarked on how early American obituaries discussed dying in metaphorical and poetic terms. People did not die. Instead, they were “scathed by the wing of the angel of death.”

Finally, Hume discussed the obituary as a historical source. Early obituaries reflect the cultural resonance of death stories with nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. Hume cautioned historians to be careful with how they use obituaries as obituary writers have a cultural filter that they impose on their writing. She also stated that online obituary message boards and comment threads offer scholars a new view on how our contemporaries participate in the bereavement process by interacting with obituaries.

Adam Bernstein discussed the logistics of being a modern-day obituary writer. First and foremost, obituaries are news stories. They impart the news that someone has died and function as an “accountability” story for the life and accomplishments of the deceased.

The Washington Post publishes approximately 2,000 obituaries a year and has about 400 advance obituaries on file. Newspapers keep obituaries on file for the President and other famous and important national and world leaders in case something happens. These advance copies give the obituary reporter a draft that they can quickly update, which in turn helps the writers keep their publications on top of the news cycle.

Bernstein also noted that modern-day newspapers are more egalitarian about who gets an obituary. Prior to the 1980s, a person who read obituaries may have thought that few women and African-Americans died. Newspapers often printed obituaries for white men, but rarely for women and African-Americans.

In contrast with The Washington Post, Adam Clymer noted that The New York Times does not print obituaries for local people and the NYT has approximately 1500 advance obituaries on file. Clymer also discussed the art of interviewing people for an advance obituary. Clymer calls the person and tells them that he is a reporter with The New York Times and that he would like to interview them about the story of their political career. Often his subjects do not realize who he is or what he is writing. Most assume that “it is about time” that The New York Times has called for their story. Some of his interviewees figure out his purpose, but most do not know that they are recording their thoughts and achievements for posterity.

The audience question and answer session started several interesting, brief discussions about the differences between American obituaries and their British counterparts, how obituary writers need to stick to the “public” facts of a person’s life while historians remain free to probe into the personal details of a deceased person’s life, and recognized that poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman wrote some of the most interesting early obituaries in verse.

Thanks, Liz.  Stay tuned for Liz’s next post on a session on writing history for public audiences.

Winston: There Was No Golden Age of Religion Reporting

H.L. Mencken

I like Diane Winston‘s historical chops in this piece.  Those who want to return to some kind of golden age in which journalists gave sophisticated treatment to American religion must come to grips with the fact that such a golden era probably never existed.

Winston writes:

Carl M. Cannon bemoans the current state of religion reporting as if there was a time when the press provided smart, in-depth, contextualized coverage of religious leaders, issues, ideas, and communities.

How did I miss that?

That Golden Era wasn’t in the 1980s when reporters treated evangelicals as bumblers and missed the significance of the conservatives’ takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. And it surely wasn’t during the late 1940s and 1950s when, according to Debra Mason, “the abundance of syndicated religion content says more about demand for such content than it does about the quality of religion beat reporting, given its lack of originality and its low level of journalistic skill.”

Maybe reporters did a better job in the 1920s? Well, yes, if you agree with H.L. Menken’s characterization of Dayton, Ohio’s religious populace as “yokels,” “morons,” or “hillbillies.” Or if you’re fine with the anti-Semitic undertones in the coverage of the Leo Frank trial and the anti-Hindu coverage that ran through Western newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s.

Read the rest to see how Winston connects this historical overview to the current state of religion journalism and the coverage of the Kermit Gosnell story.

Jill Lepore: Microhistorian

Over at Dissent, Francesca Mari (associate editor of Texas Monthly) reviews two collections of essays by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death and The Story of America: Essays on Origins.  (The essays in these volumes originally appeared in The New Yorker). Mari uses the review to reflect on the genre of microhistory, a style of history writing that Lepore has raised to an art form. 

Here is a taste:

In The Story of America’s introduction, Lepore says that she joined The New Yorker because she “wanted to learn how to tell stories better,” which is sort of like saying one wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro to learn how to walk. But, indeed, the success of a microhistory is very much about storytelling, and rests on strengths not always prioritized in academia—a sensitivity to character and idiosyncratic detail, an ability to amplify the plot turns in a life or an idea while letting go of those that are unimportant. To wit, Lepore writes a whole essay about Samuel Eliot Morison, “the last Harvard historian to ride a horse to work,” who, “once interrupted at his desk by the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, went outside and shot it.” While some academics might think such a detail a barking distraction from their larger argument, Lepore recognizes that it is often the detail that pegs a person’s character but also that triggers an epiphany.

On Blogging, "The New York Times" Op-Ed Page, and My Early Career in Sports Journalism

As my regular readers know, I like to keep things moving here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

My blogging philosophy has definitely evolved over the last three years.  I used to do one post a day.  At some point in late 2011 I switched to a model perfected by Andrew Sullivan at “The Dish.”  Sullivan is constantly firing off posts to keep his readers engaged and coming back.

Of course I am not as smart as Sullivan, do not cover as many topics, will never have as many readers, do not have a team of interns (although I am open to the possibility–let’s talk), and do not blog full-time.  But Sullivan’s general philosophy works well for me.  I view my blogging as a form of historical (or even scholarly) journalism–a type of public history.  Sullivan posts every 20 minutes or so.  I have been trying to post every 90 to 120 minutes.  I do not always succeed.

I think I am attracted to this kind of blogging because it satisfies (at least for the moment) a childhood desire to be a journalist.  Let me explain.

When I was ten-years old I wrote a two-page rag called “The Taylortown Chronicle” (It was named after the main road that ran through my North Jersey neighborhood). I typed the entire issue each week, took it to the local stationary store to make copies, and then placed it in the mailboxes of all of my neighbors.  It included headlines such as “Gas Station Now Selling Good-Humor Ice Cream,” “Several Kids Get New Dirt Bikes,” and “Fea’s Team Wins Whiffle Ball Game.” It even had ads.  I advertized the snow-shoveling and leaf-raking “business” I started with my brothers and ran a regular ad for my father’s construction business.  One summer I opened a lemonade stand so I could sell more copies of the paper.

I covered high school lacrosse for my high school newspaper.  The fact that I was on the team (upper left) did not seem to matter


In middle school I got together with three friends and produced a 6-8 page paper which we called “Sports Journal.”  My friend Steve, an incredible artist, did the cover art. (It was usually a sketch drawn from a photo in Sports Illustrated–a magazine I started receiving weekly at the age of six).  Our first issue featured the UCLA-Louisville college basketball national final and it had Pervis Ellison on the cover.  We sold it for 25 cents and actually convinced some classmates to buy copies.  We were known best for our coverage of professional wrestling.  (This was the age of Bob Backlund, Superstar Billy Graham, Bruno Sammartino, Chief Jay Strongbow, Ivan Putski, Tito Santana, Haystacks Calhoun, and Andre the Giant).  I think there are still copies of “Sports Journal” laying around somewhere in my parents house.  I also seem to remember Roger Staubach appearing on one of the covers.


All of this led to a high school freelance job  for my hometown newspaper, the now-defunct Montville Herald   I covered middle-school football and basketball.  One of my younger brothers was on the basketball team so I would catch rides to away games with the parents of one his teammates. I eventually parlayed this experience into the sports editorship of my high school newspaper, The Podium.

Yes, it looked like journalism was in my future.  But other things intervened in my life and, to make a long story short, I became a historian.  Maybe that will be the next autobiographical story that I tell.

But I am now rambling.  What I actually wanted to do was call your attention to a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates on how difficult it must be for writers like David Brooks and Gail Collins to say something original on a twice-a-week schedule at The New York Times op-ed page.  Coates writes:

Here is an exercise: Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words. Perhaps you’d be very successful at this. Now try to do it for four weeks. Then two months, then six, then a year, then five years. Add on to that all other ambitions you might have — teaching, blogging, writing long-form articles, speaking, writing books. etc. How do you think you’d fare? I won’t go so far as to say I’d fail. But I strongly suspect that the some of the same people who were convinced this would be a perfect marriage, would — inside of a year — be tweeting, “Remember when that dude could actually write? Oh that’s right, he never could write. #lulz”

I end up recycling ideas in my own blogging, and blogging is a much more forgiving form. I can’t imagine how’d cope with the demands of staying fresh for a regular column. The point I’m making isn’t that you shouldn’t criticize columnists at the Times (I’ve done my share of criticizing), but that you should have some sense of the built-in structural limitations of the form. They are formidable.

Those columns generally take me three to five days to pull together. They are a good bit of work. And then there’s the fact-check the night before they’re published. So while I appreciate the compliments, and I really do, I’m actually left with a grudging respect for the job of columnists. It really is a lot harder than it looks.

I am beginning to see The Way of Improvement Leads Home as a sort of newspaper.  I do a lot of reporting here, some commentating, post a few “classifieds” (such  as call for papers and fellowship opportunities), and when the spirit moves I might even offer up an original piece or two. Though I am glad that my original musings do not have to come as regularly as a full-time op-ed writer,



Thanks for reading.



"Why History Doesn’t Matter"

This will apparently be the title of Professor Grumpy’s new book.  His recent post at Historian on the Edge explores the difference between a trained historian and someone with basic literacy skills who writes and tells stories about the past.  Here is a taste of a post he calls “The Siege”:

… [W]hile the discipline has been bogged down in post-empiricist soul-searching, history itself has been, to a considerable degree, taken over by non-specialists.  It is a platitude that ‘the past’ has become public and that academic historians do not have sole access to or control over it.  Most of the volumes shelved in the history sections of bookshops are not written by what I consider to be historians.  The history that appears on television is similarly dominated by non-specialists.  Usually styling themselves ‘writer and historian’, ‘journalist and historian’, ‘broadcaster and historian’ or whatever … ‘and historian’, they are in most cases, in fact, writers, journalists, broadcasters or whatever who have written books about history.  Having written a book about history does not make you a historian.  This does not mean that these books and broadcasts represent ‘bad history’ (though frequently they do), that they do not present factually accurate accounts, that they do not contain valid and valuable ideas and interpretations or – most importantly of all – that they do not play a huge part in getting people interested in the past.  The problem for history is in important regards the opposite.  What they do, they do very well.  That leaves the academic discipline of history in a very difficult position.  What exactly do proper, qualified, university historians have to offer?  In the current political climate the surfeit, ubiquity and (by its own lights) quality of popular history places the discipline very much under siege.


The implication of the situation just described is that anyone with basic literacy can write history and call themselves a historian.  When you think about it, there are not many intellectual disciplines where anything like this is the case.  I cannot, for instance, buy a chemistry set and a subscription to New Scientist, come up with some cranky idea about ‘bad egg gas’, and go on television as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and chemist’.  If I didn’t have a degree in the subject, I could not dig up my back garden and appear on documentaries as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and archaeologist’.  At the very least, the word ‘amateur’ would have to be appended.  The purveyors of television and ‘bookshop history’ do not (with notable but fairly rare exceptions) carry out actual historical research but are still called historians; they are not academically qualified beyond, on occasion, a first degree and have no university post but are nevertheless referred to as ‘media dons’.  They work from the published research of academic historians.  Sometimes (especially in the case of the presenters of television history) they don’t even do that; they have researchers to do it for them.  Parasitically, they make money from other people’s labours.  Any university historian who works on any subject even remotely interesting to the wider public will be able to tell you how she has been contacted by a TV or radio researcher expecting them to spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work so that a broadcaster can make money out of it through a television or radio broadcast and spin-off volume.  I am surely not the only one who, in refusing to do someone else’s job for free, has been accused of ‘not being interested in communicating’.  It is difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.  If we take the most successful purveyors of popular science, almost all are academically qualified (well beyond first degree level) in the subject about which they talk.

Read the rest here.