The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

reading-and-learning-481x230

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”

white-house-press-room

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.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Was Rejected by the "New York Times"

It is a staple reading in most United States history survey courses.  At Messiah College, first-year students read it as part of a required course called “Created and Called for Community.” But did you know that the original “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which first appeared in print in the Atlantic, was rejected by the New York Times Magazine?

Timothy Noah explains at The New Republic:

Harvey Shapiro would have likely preferred to be remembered as a poet, and perhaps also as one of the better editors of the New York Times Book Review. But his Jan. 7 Times obituary plays up another aspect of his life of which I was previously unaware. It was Shapiro, then an editor at the New York Times Magazine, who assigned Martin Luther King Jr. to write his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which today ranks as one of the preeminent literary-historical documents of the 20th century.

The assignment would have assured Shapiro a place in magazine-editor heaven if the Times Magazine had published the result. But it didn’t. Rejected, the letter ended up (under the headline, “The Negro Is Your Brother”) in the Atlantic. The Times Magazine’s role here ranks well above William Styron’s rejection, as a reader at McGraw-Hill, of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki as one of the great busted plays in American publishing.

Read the rest here.

Silbey Grades Burstein and Isenberg

You may recall our recent post on Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s Salon piece on why journalists should not write history.  Borrowing from Kevin Levin’s critique of the piece, I entitled my post “This is So Incredibly Bitter.”

David Silbey of The Edge of the American West and Cornell University has also responded to Burstein and Isenberg’s essay.  In a post entitled “Seven Questions and Comments I Might Write If This Salon Article On ‘America’s Worst Historians’ Was A Student Paper And I Was Grading It,” Silbey writes:

1. Why do you assert that journalists aren’t able “to investigate in depth”? Whether they do it well or badly, isn’t that exactly what they’re trained to do?

2. You claim to be talking about journalists, but, as you note, your two lead examples (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria) are both political science Ph.Ds. Are you critiquing journalism or political science?

3. You cite Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwin. How does Hoffer’s discussion of Joseph Ellis in the same book affect your argument? How does Jon Wiener’s approach in Historians in Trouble differ from Hoffer’s?

4. In your comment “David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated,” what is the connection to SI intended to evoke?

Read the rest here.  HT: Jacksonian America

"This is So Incredibly Bitter"

I have to agree with Kevin Levin’s critique of Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s smackdown of Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission to plagiarism. 

What Zakaria did was wrong.  Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were also guilty of historical malpractice.  But Burstein and Isenberg’s argument that journalists should not write history sounds a bit like sour grapes to me.

Here is a taste of Levin’s piece:

...they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:

Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?

What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.

Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.

This is so incredibly bitter.  I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.”  Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:

Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.

So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.

I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology.  And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project?  The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.

I think Levin has hit the nail on the head here, but I would say that any journalist who wants to practice history must still abide by historical rules of evidence and interpretation.

Historically Corrected

In anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, The New York Times is running a new web series called “Historically Corrected.”  The columns will be written by Adam Goodheart, the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College and Peter Manseau, a writer who is currently a scholar in residence at the Center.

Goodheart, Manseau, and a team of student researchers at Washington College will be analyzing the historical references made by the candidates over the course of the next few months.

In the first installment in the series, Goodheart and Manseau remind us that many of the nation’s greatest achievements–the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge–“were often products of bitter partisan struggles than of national togetherness.”

Here is a taste:

In fact, history is often the lingua franca of our national politics. And the heroic rhetoric goes beyond just the 18th-century founders. In his campaign addresses, Mr. Obama has deployed a litany of 19th- and 20th-century accomplishments to claim precedent for his own grand initiatives (and grander intentions). “We built this country together,” he said in a stump speech in Miami Beach last week. “We built railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Interstate highway system, the transcontinental railroad — we built those things together…”

It’s strange, then, that Mr. Obama, whose health care legislation was born amid similar bombastic accusations, dire predictions, and back-room dealing, should miss one of the perennial lessons of American history: our national achievements have usually been propelled forward by contention, not consensus.

Sunday Morning, Kenneth Woodward, and the New York Times

Kenneth Woodward

Over at dotCommonweal, Peter Steinfels has posted a “notice” he received recently from Kenneth Woodward, the former religion writer at Newsweek.

Woodward writes:

For the past couple of years, or for long as it has existed, I’ve been reading—religiously, you might say—a short weekly column in the Sunday New York Time’s Metro section called “Sunday Routine.” It features a tightly edited interview with a locally prominent New Yorker about how he or she spends Sunday. I read it because it is a revealing peephole into the newsroom culture of the Times.

Last week’s interview was with Dennis Walcott, chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education who lives in Queens. What makes the piece striking is that Walcott is the first person featured in this column who, in my monitoring of it, has ever acknowledged going to church. Among the three accompanying photos there is even one of a robed Walcott singing in his church choir, as if in proof of his odd Sunday habit.

To be sure I may have missed one or two other New York notables whose Sunday routine includes church. And of course a lot of the chosen are Jews who may have worshipped on the Sabbath. But the column recalls to mind an ad campaign some years back The Times ran to promote its Sunday edition. It showed a handsome couple, perhaps married, coffee in hand, lounging in bed reading different sections of the Sunday paper.

Which raises the question: are prominent New Yorkers not likely to be the kind of folks who worship God on Sunday? Or does the choice of whom to feature in “Sunday Routine” say something about the culture of the people and paper doing the selecting?  Is it the mirror or the lamp?

Check Walcott out here. It could be years before church appears as a part of another New Yorker’s “Sunday Routine.”

Steinfels, a former Times religion writer, says that he has “a different view on the matter,” but he does not say what it is.

So what do you think?  Is Woodward correct?  If he is, what does this mean, if anything?

An Age When Public Intellectuals Wrote for Time Magazine

I got caught up this morning in an interesting review of what looks to be a very interesting book.  The book is Robert Vanderlan’s Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art and Ideas inside Henry Luce’s Media Empire (U of Penn Press, 2011).  The review, which appears in The New Republic, is written by Michael Kimmage, an intellectual historian at The Catholic University in Washington D.C.

Vanderlan argues that Henry Luce, the early 20th century publisher who founded Time Magazine, Life, and Fortune, gave intellectuals a venue for reaching the “public” in the 1930s and 1940s that they did not have through their small journals and magazines such The New Criteron, Partisan Review, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books.

Luce gave public intellectuals such as Dwight McDonald, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Theodore White, and Whittaker Chambers, to name a few, the opportunity to reach thousands and thousands of people with their writing. This was obviously an age when Time did not have a section covering the latest Hollywood gossip.

Here is a taste of Kimmage’s review:

Vanderlan’s subject is “the interstitial intellectual,” neither fully autonomous nor coercively employed. Such a subject requires him to trace a historical trajectory. American intellectuals veered toward bohemian autonomy in the 1920s, decrying the pursuit of money as vulgar. Then came the Great Depression. Not only had the imperative of making money, or making a living, grown unforgiving, but the cherished autonomy of the 1920s could be experienced over time as unwanted solitude. The paradigmatic example, for Vanderlan, is the poet-intellectual Archibald Macleish, who took a job at Time in the late 1920s because it offered him a regular income, and also because he “was frustrated by his isolation.” Time and Fortune put him in the company of tens of thousands of readers.

Vanderlan demolishes the cliché that intellectuals ceased being intellectuals by writing for Time or Life or Fortune. In the 1930s and 40s, mass-media journalism and the life of the mind merged in the offices of Luce’s empire, with significant consequences for American journalism and intellectual culture. James Agee smuggled “his own vision of journalism into Luce’s magazine.” John Hersey, Theodore White, and Whittaker Chambers pioneered a new genre of “political literature” at Time. Hersey’s writing in particular can be read “as a forerunner to the ‘new journalism’ of the 1960s.” John Kenneth Galbraith gathered inside information on the corporate world in the five years that he worked at Fortune,Daniel Bell authored a respected column on labor for from 1943 to 1948; he would put it to use as an academic economist. Fortune, playing with ideas that would eventually grow into books…


By the 1950s, in Vanderlan’s view, creativity was vanishing from within the Luce empire. At fault were Luce’s calcifying conservatism and “the strengthening of the Cold War consensus” in America. Intellectuals began their long escape into academia and journalists their descent into grubby commercialism. Intellectuals went one way, magazines another, and a tenuous middle ground was lost. This narrative of structural decline is reductive; it exaggerates the aloofness of academia and the crassness of American journalism in the second half of the twentieth century; but for Vanderlan it confirms the historical salience of Luce’s magazines. In their best years, the Luce magazines furnished “a model worth emulating.”