At Slate, Jack Shafer engages in one of my favorite exercises: investigating the source of a quote. Normally journalists love fishing for a quote from the living, but in this instance Shafer was having fun doing what we historians love: running down a quote from the dead.
And in this case there is a degree of irony. Shafer wants to know who came up with the notion that journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” Like Shafer, I too have admired that phrase and what it expresses about the possibilities of journalism. As such I enjoyed his historical exploration of that particular idea about the reporting profession.
But I draw your attention to the piece not for that quote. Rather, I was struck by Shafer’s reflection on how historians use newspapers. He wrote:
What makes “first rough draft of history” so tuneful, at least to the ears of journalists? Well, it flatters them. Journalists hope that one day a historian will uncover their dusty work and celebrate their genius. But that almost never happens. Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of our work. They’d rather work from primary sources—official documents, photographs, interviews, and the like—rather than from our clips.
From my perch, Shafer has no idea what he is talking about. I have found newspaper reports to be valuable—if not invaluable—tools for thinking about a historical period. The value of newspapers is, of course, relative to the strength of other sources—the ones he mentions. But sometimes newspapers are the only source for some kinds of information.
In my own work on Adler and his community of discourse, I spent hours exploring book reviews as media for the exchange of ideas. It was, and is, an imperfect source with variable internal structures. But the reviews nonetheless conveyed sufficient information to allow me place Adler’s books in a certain matrix of discussion. Those reviews, as well as other books, archival sources, and oral histories, allowed me to build an intellectual history of the great books idea. Indeed, when oral histories are not available for the actors of a certain period, newspapers are invaluable sources of quotes about people, events, ideas, books, etc.
I know I am not the only practicing historian who values newspapers and other journalistic outlets as a source. There was an entire conference (half day) at Columbia University in April 2010 that covered the specific role of opinion journalism in U.S. intellectual history. [I would love, by the way, to see a report on that conference.]
In sum, while Shafer exhibited investigative traits that an intellectual historian would admire in running down the source of his quote, and while he obviously hopes that future historians will admire his own reporting, he clearly does not understand how historians work. Without newspapers as sources, the work of historians would be severely diminished. Frankly, I am astounded that some journalists like Shafer would believe that historians do not use newspapers as sources.- TL