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Ed Driscoll

‘When Losers Write History’

April 9th, 2012 - 12:47 pm

Back in 2007, Robert McHenry, the former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica (five years before that august institution would become fully digitized) asked, “Who Really Writes History?”

Rod Dreher, an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News, has posed an interesting question in this blog post on Beliefnet. He begins by offering a passage from a book about local communities in Chicago in the 1950s in which the author, Alan Ehrenhalt, writes about how history is written. It is a commonplace, and therefore a suspect notion, that “history is written by the winners.” Ehrenhalt suggests that, more often than not, it is written by the dissenters.

This is a much more useful insight and one that fits with other things we know or intuit. By “history,” I take Ehrenhalt to be referring not just to academic tomes or schoolbooks but to the public memories and attitudes that evolve with respect to past times and events. For example, we have all learned to think of the 1950s as a time of materialism and conformity and cultural blandness. This has become our shared historical viewpoint. But who told us that? Wasn’t it precisely those who weren’t, or worked very hard not to seem to be, like that?

It’s only been in the last few years that a counter-argument has emerged that far from being a squaresville L-7 drag, daddy-o, the 1950s intellectually, were a pretty vibrant time, both laying the groundwork for the decade that followed, and generating a middlebrow culture that succeeding decades would have a tough time equaling, as Fred Siegel argues in this month’s Commentary. 

But then, (a) all of the conventional wisdom you know about the 20th century could well be wrong, and (b) as Matt Welch writes at Reason in a must-read new article, what you know about history really does depend upon who wrote it in the first place, what institution he occupies, and which axe he’s grinding:

Most journalists are familiar with the arch observation, made famous by Winston Churchill, that history tends to be written “by the victors.” Less known and more cheeky was Churchill’s prediction (mostly accurate, it turned out) that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

To make even preliminary sense of the hotly disputed and remarkably fluid landscape of modern media, it helps to recall Churchill’s axioms about historiography, and recognize that something closer to the inverse is warping our basic view of journalism. It’s the losers, not the winners, who are writing the early historical drafts of this transformational media moment, while those actually making that history—the people formerly known as the audience, in critic Jay Rosen’s apt phrase [And Rosen would have his own issues with some of those who transformed journalism -- Ed]—are treating their legacy interpreters not with kindness but contempt. So much misunderstanding and breathtakingly wrong-headed analysis tumbles forth from this one paradox.

Imagine for a moment that the hurly-burly history of American retail was chronicled not by reporters and academics but by life-long employees of A&P, a largely forgotten supermarket chain that enjoyed a 75 percent market share as recently as the 1950s. How do you suppose an A&P Organization Man might portray the rise of discount super-retailer Wal-Mart, or organic foods-popularizer Whole Foods, let alone such newfangled Internet ventures as Peapod.com? Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up.

That is largely where we find ourselves in the journalism conversation of 2012, with a dreary roll call of depressive statistics invariably from the behemoth’s point of view: newspaper job losses, ad-spending cutbacks, shuttered bureaus, plummeting stock prices, major-media bankruptcies. Never has there been more journalism produced or consumed, never has it been easier to find or create or curate news items, and yet this moment is being portrayed by self-interested insiders as a tale of decline and despair.

Glenn Reynolds links today to a 1996 Atlantic piece by James Fallows titled “Why Americans Hate the Media,” with the following subhead: “Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media’s self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country’s real problems.” Fallows’ article is an excellent summary of the state of the elite MSM at their peak, the moment before first Matt Drudge and then Drudge, Breitbart and the Blogosphere began occupying wide swatches of the MSM’s cerebellums, very much rent-free. (Fallows’ article also makes for quite a contrast with the current incarnation of the Atlantic, but that’s a whole-’nother blogpost).

Fallows begins by very carefully recounting one of the roundtable discussions that Fred Friendly produced* for PBS in the 1980s, the episode which featured the now-infamous exchange between Peter Jennings, and the now recently deceased Mike Wallace. They were joined by William Westmoreland, a pre-Contract with America Newt Gingrich, and Frederick Downs, whom Fallow describes as “a writer who as a young Army lieutenant in Vietnam had lost his left arm in a mine explosion,” and “the man getting the roughest treatment” on the panel. The show was moderated by Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School.  Fallows does an excellent job of recapping that moment when Wallace revealed just how far removed from reality the MSM thought of themselves back then and convincing Jennings that he should be as equally craven. Perhaps Jennings’ “temper-tantrum” moment first began incubating in his brain during that panel.

But it also tells you how far we’ve traveled, since that moment is now preserved (thanks to the invaluable Media Research Center) on YouTube as a video clip for anyone to call up and watch:

YouTube Preview Image

Still though, my favorite scene describing the MSM before the lights went out is an anecdote from around that same time by the Wall Street Journal’s David Gelernter:

Today’s elite loathes the public. Nothing personal, just a fundamental difference in world view, but the hatred is unmistakable. Occasionally it escapes in scorching geysers. Michael Lewis reports in the New Republic on the ’96 Dole presidential campaign: ‘The crowd flips the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say ‘yeah, I’m the Media. Screw You.’ The crowd hates the reporters, the reporters hate the crowd– an even matchup, except that the reporters wield power and the crowed (in effect) wields none.

That’s no longer true, as we’ve seen with CBS’s RatherGate being first noticed by the readers of Free Republic in 2004 and now NBC’s “Edit-Gate” by Dan Riehl of Breitbart.com. Not to mention this very 60 Minutes-style moment brought to you today by James O’Keefe. As with the ACORN sting, which for the MSM to condemn with as much force as they praised Wallace’s similar tactics on 60s Minutes.

* These shows often brought together an amazing assemblage of characters from both sides of the aisle. My favorite was a segment titled “Anatomy of a Hostile Takeover” on the ethics of Wall Street and the investment word, which had Fred Joseph, CEO of Drexel, Burnham, Lambert on the same panel with Rudy Giuliani, shortly before Rudy was escorting investment bankers out of their offices in handcuffs for his photo-ops and threatening to attack Drexel with a RICO charge.

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