U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Newspapers As Sources For Intellectual Historians: Or, Jack Shafer Doesn’t Understand How Historians Work

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.

Is this true for you? When you work on intellectual history, or in any other historical subfield, do you devalue newspaper reports? Do historians really find newspapers “unreliable”?

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

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Perhaps Mr. Shafer does not know many historians? I use newspapers for a variety of reasons in my research and encourage my students to do so as well. We talk about what different parts of a newspaper can be used for; the differences between opinion pieces and reporting for example. Newspapers can demonstrate the tone or common language usage of a time period, they can tell you what was important to the general public. I have often lamented that for future historian there will be fewer newspapers from which to draw when the time comes for historians to examine twenty-first century.

  2. Dear 9:29 Anon,

    I think you’re right about Mr. Shafer. And I agree with you on the strengths of newspapers—as well as the potential loss of that source as our present century progresses.

    Though I assert above that newspapers are useful, even indispensable, I am critically aware of the weaknesses of newspapers as sources. The well-known problems with yellow journalism that occurred around the turn of the last century should cause us all to view newspapers with some skepticism, with a jaundiced eye. And readers of blogs and other online sources later in this century will have to deal with a special set of “distortions.” But even with these problems, newspapers still contain much to recommend them to scholars of all stripes. – TL

  3. To echo the first comment, Mr. Shafer makes no mention of the importance of newspapers in estimating the dissemination and reception of ideas to begin with. A social historian relies on newspapers not only when they are the only source of documentation (which they often are) but also when he/she needs to gauge the impact that events had on public consciousness. As ideas flow outward from news centers–either through syndication or, earlier, through clipping services–newspaper headlines become the shorthand for intellectual networking.

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Following Anonymous 9:29 AM, it does seem to me that Mr. Shafer’s characterization of the way historians use newspapers is extremely off-the-mark. In this way, Mr. Shafer actually illustrates how I approach my own use of newspapers as an environmental historian: I see news reporting as a product constrained by deadlines & word limits, influenced by the tide of public sentiment, and beholden (to some discernible degree) to economic/political powers in ascendancy at the time of publication. Therefore, news reporting, in my experience, tends to be cursory, episodic, fickle, melodramatic, and discernibly biased.

    From my perspective, news reporting is the “first draft of history” because it tends to be written without much reflection, context, cross-referencing, or complex interpretation. I see it as a valuable primary source because it explicitly documents basic facts — who, what, when, where, why, how — and implicitly documents other important elements, such as communal perspectives, ethnic biases, regional power structures, changing cultural values, political viewpoints, etc.

    Because of the above considerations, I use news reporting, primarily, as a way to establish a basic chronology of events and learn about key people and organizations. When I have a sufficient pile of news articles in front of me, I can then look for the meta-level details that indicate changes over time in cultural values, demographics, economics, political power structures, impacts of national and global events, etc. These are the things that historians do, by definition, that journalist don’t usually do; journalist’s don’t generally do this because they can’t, and they can’t, generally, because of the constraints of deadlines and the influence of the economic & political power structure within which they are employed.

    I see journalism as the “first draft of history” because it tends to mirror my own first drafts of articles and chapters — explicitly about the basic facts, implicitly about values, politics, perspectives, biases, etc. Then, as I revise my work, the basic chronology worked out in the first draft becomes the skeletal structure, and what was formerly implicit becomes the “meat” of the matter — that which I strive to make clear, concise, and meaningful to my readers.

    I find news reporting highly valuable, actually, even given the constraints under which journalists work.

    One of the reasons that history blogs are usually filled with more posts about journalism than posts about historical articles or books is that journalists publish with much more frequency during any given period of time.

    It’s not so much that “Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of [their] work,” than it is that historians tend to view journalism as one source among many (many!) kinds of sources. Journalists tend to see whatever sources they’re using as grist for the next 500- or 1,000-word article or Op-Ed; historians tend to see their sources as another data point in a complex three-dimensional triangulation to help them make a defensible claim about their given topic in their next 7,500-word article or 60,000-word book. These are very different approaches to knowledge. Different, yet complementary.

    In summary, Mr. Shafer’s lament reflects a profound lack of understanding of the historical profession and seems to me a moment of personal angst unnecessarily made public.

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