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Jedward, Balloon Boy, Blessed-Virgin-Regarders and the First Draft of History

November 10, 2009

I remember during Bush’s presidency (although I try not to), that he would occasionally suggest that it should be up to history to judge him. And I would shout at the television, “But I’m ready now, you f*ckstick!” And I remember someone telling me about an archaeology lecturer who used to ask his students what they thought archaeology was, how old something had to be, and then when they answered in the hundreds or thousands, he would throw a pen into the middle of the floor and say, “That’s archaeology.”

When I was first teaching the stuff, I tried the same thing, but stopped after the first time I accidentally thwacked a student with a pen, which was the firs time I tried it. I quickly removed the use of projectiles from my workshops, but it wasn’t long after that that I stopped emphasising any difference between the contemporary objects I used to make students think (I would either bring in carefully-selected garbage, or objects from my bag, which allowed them to pull the piss out of me and satisfy their curiosity in a controlled setting) and the ‘real’ ancient objects I would later hand to them. Because it didn’t seem to matter to them. The division between past and present is a largely arbitrary and academic one, and real-world people have much more fluid and complex ideas about what is past and what is present.

In a recent BBC Magazine survey, 31% of respondents answered that history begins ‘a second ago’. And 28% believe it was ten years ago, which means that well over half the people surveyed agree, perhaps by default, that journalism is “the first rough draft of history”, that while awareness of experiencing historical moments is nothing new, we’re now not running out of past, we’ve eradicated the present. No wonder we feel anxious all the time. But that said, I’m all for it. I’m all for feeling a responsibility for what we say and do, and what we prioritise, and that no matter how hilarious it is to follow the ever-increasing exponentially crazy-bananas Balloon Boy family, it’s never too soon to worry about why we’re doing it. Do we want Balloon Boy in our history books?

I’m always wary about people thinking that ‘no one cares’ about the serious issues. We can’t let the popular press dictate to us what’s important. If the papers are full of Balloon Boy, then buy the paper that has a non-no-lebrity on the cover. Click and send the links to real stories on websites. We can decide what’s important and demand to know more about what we care about, and we do and we are. The main problem is how to fund it, and how journalists can be paid to do work to the standard we require as readers. Journalists are also media consumers, which is easy to forget. We are our own public. Just like we are making our own past right now.

The 24-hour news cycle is here to stay, for better or worse, but what’s interesting to me is that rather than keeping us in a suspended state of the ‘now’, it seems to have eroded the idea of any present at all. We joke about our collective ability to feel nostalgic for something that happened when we last got a haircut, but perhaps what new journalists can teach historians is how to be better engaged with a public who consider the past their business (although local historians have, for a long time, done a pretty excellent job of preserving and sharing the past with the actual, rather than simply the academic, public). There will always be a place for Balloon Boy and his ilk, but a new media will acknowledge that 21st-century people feel the past living cheek-by-jowl with the future, separated only by a thin film of a present that can’t be pinned down. But journalists, who often confuse the ‘death of the modern media’ with a morbid fear of losing their own jobs, sometimes do not suffer from introspection.

As Slate’s Jack Shafer points out, even the Newseum, a holy shrine to journalism and about as self-aware as the Vatican and as ‘fair and balanced’ as Bill O’Reilly, gets this ‘first rough draft of history’ wrong. Not only do they get it wrong, but they used it as the basis of a conference last month, which featured a combination of very good journalists worthy of our respect, and Chris Matthews. Also speaking were such exciting and controversial activists as Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, and Michael Bloomberg, who embodies the discomfiting and close relationship between media and politics. Shafer also points out that the original quote, by former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham in 1963 is usually used out of context.

Far from ballyhooing the greatness of the press and implying that historians owe it some debt, Graham staked a much more modest position. He acknowledged that much of journalism was “pure chaff” but said that “no one yet has been able to produce wheat without chaff.” He went on:

“So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

My own criticism of the Newseum as self-regarding newspaper-business advertorial, as desperate plea for uncritical support for journalism (and how at no point does it even mention the existence of advertisers or their influence in any meaningful way), for its inability to acknowledge that there is a lot of ‘chaff’, is for another day. But the basis for the Newseum and the message it seems to send, for the desire to keep ‘old media’ exactly as it is and has been, is predicated on a misquote, and on a misunderstanding of journalism’s own history: most of what we remember is the big stuff. Anyone who has ever been through a paper’s archives can tell you that most of it is the same chaff we still complain about. And yet, in some ways, that chaff is what gives historians something to go on. What measures the depth of humanity by showing the shallowness of our interests and the depths we will plunge to indulge that shallowness. When you’re in a newspaper archive, your ‘a-ha’ moments come from a tiny article in the corner of the page that tells you something about the values of the average target reader, that tells you something that the booming voice of Serious Journalism and Very Important History tend to leave out. The Big Serious Story is the meta-history, the ad in the corner for ‘reducing pills’ is the archaeology.

But it led me to think about this debate, which is really worth your time, about the current state of the mainstream media. If the Newseum, the ‘first draft of history’ conference (complete with misquote) represent what mainstream media is right now, something very far away from what it should be, then maybe, yes, good riddance. The Newseum should not have been set up by journalists. And the present and future of media? Who knows. But don’t leave it up to the historians, and definitely don’t leave it to the journalists alone. Or, god forbid, publishers, who will come up with ideas like this ridiculously misfired, money-squandering nightmare.

Now I’m not even sure what the point of this post is, which probably undermines any point that might have been there in the first place. In any case, I guess maybe my point is, when I jumped from archaeology to journalism, I didn’t jump very far, did I?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sinead permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:18 pm

    Modernity (and that dratted postmodernity) have made us so aware of ‘making history’. Yet we are very blasé regarding sources. Rightly, historians have focused more on ‘history from below’, a revised approach away from the ‘kings, queens and high politics’ history of Bede and Acton. But constructing an accurate history of the common folk depends on records of throw away comments, items of no contemporary importance. E-mail, Twitter etc pose enormous problems in terms of retention of sources, so there is a real danger that future historians will lose the luxury of revising historical perspectives (as others have been doing for generations). I hope that the first rough draft will not adversely colour our ability to reassess, and that the 24 hour news cycle won’t leave us with a history littered with balloon boys!

    • Jane permalink*
      November 10, 2009 3:23 pm

      Yeah, it’s interesting – we have so much more of the ‘common voice’ available to us in the present, and for posterity, but we’re going to end up with information overload, big time. One thing that my now-abandoned PhD touched on was how the processes of forming personal archives and national archives in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were careful and selective, so we should be aware of how they work. Now we are almost adopting the archaeologists’ methods of saving absolutely EVERYTHING, to the extent that we can’t find anything. But I think we’ll find ways through this. And we’ll miss a lot, and there’s a lot historians won’t be able or willing to sift through or piece together because that’s what happens – it’s a series of incomplete and ultimately flawed drafts.

      I don’t think we have *too* much to worry about in terms of history being littered with Balloon Boys and Jedwards and Blessed Apparitions because the past is already littered with them. And they tell us something about ourselves that maybe we don’t necessarily want to face – which is that as complex as we are, and as intellectually engaged and modern as we like to see ourselves, we use that modernity and complexity to convince ourselves that some really stupid shit matters. Which we do. Like, we should kinda be embarrassed about what we leave for posterity. We’re pretty embarrassing creatures.

      I like the idea that people increasingly see history as something in the present, something that we make every day. I don’t know what to make of it in relation to journalism or the writing of history or the doing of archaeology, and I wonder how it compares with, say, 30 years ago, but I think it’s interesting.

  2. Suzanne permalink
    November 11, 2009 3:00 pm

    Have you ever even been to the Newseum? Jack Shafer has not. He wrote his editorial based on nothing except his own self-perceptions. He’s never set foot in the door.

    • Jane permalink*
      November 11, 2009 3:15 pm

      I have indeed been to the Newseum, and I wouldn’t have been criticising it like that if I hadn’t. It’s an absolutely fascinating place, but it’s also quite self-regarding and so, not entirely unproblematic. The history of the press thing is the best bit, and where I spent the longest because it interested me the most and bugged me the least. Most museums are pretty problematic, and while I liked actually being there, I left feeling like it was missing huge and important chunks of the story that left me feeling unsettled about it. Not to mention that it costs an absolute fortune to get in. A museum of journalism set up by journalists is a bit like a war museum set up by generals. It’s going to give you a pretty interesting story, but not really be sufficiently critical of itself.

      And Jack Shafer’s point, which was what I was pointing toward, was that the ‘first draft of history’ is often used to big-up journalism, when it was apparently intended to remind journalists of how flawed journalistic narratives are by nature. As for his argument, he was also being critical of the gathering of people, which I think is pretty fair to do based on the list of attendees, whether or not he’s been to the Newseum. But that’s not really what I was talking about.

      I didn’t realise that Shafer hadn’t been there, but then, that wasn’t necessarily relevant to his argument or mine.

  3. Suzanne permalink
    November 12, 2009 12:10 am

    I’m glad to hear that at least you have been there. Criticisms from Shafer and others who have never set a foot in the door are rampant, and get picked up and repeated across the Web and blogosphere. And doesn’t his lack of attendance mean that Shafer is practicing the same sort of poor journalism of which he accuses the Newseum?

    I want to address some of your criticisms, and in true journalistic style, will do so with the following bullets.

     “Holy shrine to journalism, as self-aware as Vatican” – There are a couple of issues here. The first is that it is not a holy shrine. The Newseum examines many media failings in areas of bias, credibility, fairness, accuracy, honesty, anonymous sources, and other issues through original videos, interactives, the Ethics Center, as well as through traditional exhibit displays. The second is that, it seems to me, that you are basing your argument on what you think the Newseum should be, rather than what it is meant to be. The Newseum was not developed to be an academic examination of the media in all its forms and its effects on society. It was designed to take visitors through 500 years of history, as seen through the eyes of the journalists who covered it. There are many fine organizations that engage in thoughtful examinations of media —Poynter, American Journalism Review, Paley, Pew, as well as countless Web sites and blogs identified as media watchdogs. The Newseum leaves that to the experts. Instead, its goal is to engage, educate and, yes, entertain, visitors about news history and inspire them to leave with a greater appreciation of our rights to free press, as well as the other First Amendment rights to speech, religion, petition and assembly. Despite its many failings, a free press is a cornerstone of our democracy, and many Americans don’t realize how truly rare and special it is in contrast to other countries. Also, it’s up to the visitor to apply his/her critical thinking in any museum, including this one.
     The “First Draft of History” conference was not a Newseum program. It was organized and presented by Atlantic and Aspen Institute. The program was just held at the Newseum; actually, it was held in the Conference Center above the Newseum, which is a space for event rentals.
     “Never mention advertising”: It’s not a museum about advertising. There’s already one in Milwaukee, and I think a couple of other ones elsewhere.
     “Predicated on a misquote”: The Newseum is well aware of the origins and meaning of the original Graham quote. That’s why it examines the good and the bad, the messy journey to a true and fair story, and shows that the media are not perfect beings that should be trusted absolutely, but they do play an important role as first documenter on the scene, covering many stories that have turned out to be historically significant.
     “Absolute fortune to get in” – The Newseum is not a Smithsonian museum; it receives no federal funding, no tax money. It is entirely supported by its endowment, donations and revenue, in the form of admission. The Newseum also is a non-profit. Admissions go toward covering operating expenses only. The majority of museums around the nation, and some in D.C., charge an admission fee so they can keep the doors open. This includes the Corcoran, Phillips, Mount Vernon; the Met, the Rose Center, in NYC, on and on. In terms of a value among D.C. paid museums, let’s look at the facts:
    o Spy Museum: adult general admission $18, plus upcharges once inside. 20,000 feet of exhibits
    o Crime and Punishment: Adults: $19.95. 28,000 square feet of exhibits
    o Madame Toussauds: Adults $20. To see wax people.

    The Newseum charges $19.95 for adult admission. It has 250,000 square feet of exhibits. It has seven levels of exhibits, 14 galleries, 15 theaters, 100 original video presentations, 130 interactives and more. If a visitor hasn’t seen enough, he/she is admitted the next day for free. D.C. area school groups are admitted free. Many partnerships allow for discount programs, such as the WTOP radio half-price admission in August. One of the most common comments from visitors is that they were reluctant to pay the fee, but understood why they were charged after their tour, and thought the visit was a great value. Some have even said it should be charging more for the unique experience.

     “Desire to keep old media exactly as it is”: Nowhere in the Newseum is this stated. The Newseum stays up to date with the changing landscape, particularly in the Digital Newsroom, covering the rising influence of blogs, phone videos, PDAs, as well as the problems facing traditional newspapers.
     “Museum should not be set up by journalists”: You can’t have a news history museum without journalists. But it wasn’t all journalists. It was curators, historians, academics, researchers, librarians, First Amendment scholars, and more.
     Yes, I have knowledge here, but am not an employee.

    • Jane permalink*
      November 12, 2009 1:13 am

      I think these are pretty fair points. Although really, it should be acknowledged that one, I was being deliberately flippant, and two the point of my post (which was actually a bit garbled and as lame as it sounds, really didn’t think anyone was gonna land on that post at all, and should have thought it through better) didn’t rest on the Newseum itself. I did still enjoy being there. I just enjoyed being there in the same way that I enjoyed spending a day in the Museum of the British Empire and Commonwealth, but was really bothered by some of the stuff that was left out. Not least that there was a huge hoo-haa about Britain ‘freeing slaves’, without really mentioning that they, erm, yeah. It was kind of a eulogy of empire, which isn’t really necessary. Or the way I’ve enjoyed tours of historic churches that are led by people who are in the church.

      And you’re also right: I am judging it based on what it should be. It was flashy, slick, exciting – yes. But I felt shown-off to. I honestly wanted to like it more than I did, and I was ridiculously excited about going there. I think it’s okay to want it to be better than it is – it was a hugely ambitious project and it falls short of its own goals. I do think it should take a more academic view, in the loosest sense of the word (without resorting to the elitism that we don’t need at all and is one reason I left academia). As a museum that promotes journalism, it does a good job. I’m just not sure that’s a wholly positive thing.

      As for not mentioning advertising and funding, I think as one of the challenges of modern media, it’s pretty important. For example, Ireland has a really high rating for free press. What the ratings don’t account for is who owns the news organisations. As with most developed countries, most of the newspapers and radio stations are owned by a very small number of people, and you see more and more advertorial passed off as editorial. I know that ‘free press’ refers to not being pressured by political interests (in that respect, Ireland’s media is definitely a little more sharp-toothed), but other interests do come into it. Given that for-profit media organisations are funded by advertising, I think having some kind of critical look at how it’s handled is vital to presenting the full picture. And like I said, not just because it is an ‘issue’, but the little ephemera can tell us a lot about the values of a society. The newspaper headline declaring a major event can tell us what everyone was thinking, but the little ad for ‘reducing pills’ in the corner of a 1920s paper tells us a bit more about what people were like. The newspaper isn’t just about delivering news, it has always done a whole lot more. The ‘chaff’ that makes up the bulk of journalistic output, is important, too. And a lot of journalism is lazy, sloppy, dangerously slanted, and stokes ill-will. Not because the press is not free, but because it’s possible. The big important stories are in the paper, but so are the items sent in by a PR company that end up as bylined articles.

      Maybe I wanted more of an archaeology of it – how the news is shaped by various interests, how the standards are set, met and flouted. What I left with was a feeling that the overall statement was, “We bring you the news – aren’t we great?” Except that people who are going to pay 20 bucks to go to a museum of news are probably already a bit sympathetic. I didn’t get the sense that it looked forward. I didn’t get the sense that it looked backward with the kind of introspection or critical eye that a good museum needs, no matter what it’s about.

      Anyway, my point was really just to scribble down some messy thoughts about how the 24-hour news cycle has kind of eroded the present, and how people’s concepts of history have changed, and how I don’t know if the two are related, but it’s interesting to think about. Everything is past and future, and that the future of journalism is that it becomes a historical record perhaps more rapidly than before. I am actually pretty optimistic about the future of media, and don’t think that we should take a sledgehammer to ‘old media’ (which isn’t really a great term), partly because most journalism has always been inane. We look around and worry about vapid stories swallowing is up, but journalism is like the archaeological record we leave of our public discourse, and while it doesn’t paint a flattering picture, it’s something ‘true’ about us. We’re stuck for now with the minute-by-minute news cycle, for example, and if we want something that isn’t that, we will get it because now more than ever people are active agents of media production.

      Ok, now I really don’t know where I’m going with this and I need to sleep. Also, I always assume no one reads my blog posts, except people who land on it by accident when searching for ‘naughty pee’ (one of the most common search terms) or ‘dirty underwear’ (that one, too). As soon as I posted that, I was like, “Arg, I really don’t even know if I know what the point of that post was.” And then “Whatever, it’s not like anyone’s gonna see it.”

      I still think that the Newseum is an entertaining place to spend the day but it’s there to promote journalism, and so it’s just a little too selective about what it presents. You obviously have some interest in the museum despite not being an employee, and so I hope that whatever organisation you’re part of can accept criticism, even if you’re not gonna agree with me.

      I still think 20 bucks is too expensive for any museum, no matter how many big-screen TVs it has.

  4. Suzanne permalink
    November 12, 2009 9:38 pm

    Yeah I can do another set of point-by-point comments, but, who cares, right? Goodnight.

    • Jane permalink*
      November 12, 2009 9:50 pm

      Crikey! And I thought your first two comments were patronising! You want to start a conversation, fair enough. You want to just be a passive-aggressive know-it-all who can’t deal with someone who doesn’t agree, then, well, that’s a bummer. And it’s the downside of the interaction that happens in blog comments, which can be fruitful and exciting when people are not just trolling for a fight.

      BTW, if you are involved with the Newseum, your defensiveness reflects pretty badly on them.

      Note to self: Probably I should stop giving benefit of the doubt to, er, borderline trolls.

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