Why are Historians at War with the New York Times?Historians in the News
tags: New York Times, Haiti, journalism
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
Like a burning sun that never sets, the New York Times is forever there, forever reminding us of its presence, and forever neglecting to give adequate recognition to the rays of light emitted by lesser stars.
At least that’s the way most publications, institutions, religions, universities, corporations, foundations, unions, professional sports leagues, civic groups, local service clubs, food co-ops, pick-up basketball teams and ad hoc car-pools regard the Times whenever it brushes up against a topic they think belongs to them. This eternal reflex activated this weekend after the paper published the first part of its special report on the generations-long economic sabotage of Haiti by France and other nations. Haiti historians were the aggrieved group this time, and they stormed Twitter to express their outrage at being pickpocketed by the paper and not given proper credit. Harvard historian Mary Lewis booted the paper across the room with her tweet, complaining that she had shared insights and expertise with one of the package’s writers and received no published credit.
“It would have been simple to reframe the piece: ‘historians have studied this for years. Why doesn’t the general public know this?’ instead of ‘damn we did all this alone,’“ tweeted historian Kelly Brignac. “Instead, they used the academic labor, then erased it.”
Let’s assign to historians and press ethicists the precise debt the Times owes the leading Haiti scholars for their labors and turn our attention to a wider inquiry: Why is everybody so stuck on what the Times says and does? Why the incessant howling every time it bigfoots its way into a story? Doesn’t every news outlet do that? One would think that if the Times’ eternal glare caused so much discomfort, people would learn to apply sunscreen, wear loose-fitting clothes and a hat, and purchase sunglasses. Instead, they keep frying themselves in fury.
In defense of the Times, it should be noted that the paper ran an exhaustive (5,400 words!) bibliography that rivals the interminable credit rolls that every superhero movie gets these days. Maybe the paper is guilty of extending too much credit! The problem with credit-giving is that somebody always gets left out. On Monday, the paper acknowledged the bruised historian egos with a short piece that will probably only fuel their anger by saying the report will likely “rekindle” the debate over what credit journalists should give experts. But again, it’s not only historians who think the Times has ripped them off. It’s everybody.
The Times occupies a place in our culture that’s bigger than the paper itself — which if truth be told is actually a place of mortals, where everybody puts their Depends on one leg at a time and sometimes forgets to fasten the Velcro strap. Yes, the Times is the biggest dog in the newspaper kennel. Yes, it deploys more newsgathering resources than any other news outlet. And yes, it’s read by the most influential and powerful people in the world. But it also makes mistakes and arrives late to some stories. Is its prestige accidental? Would everybody hold it in such regard if the New York Herald Tribune had survived?
HNN editor's note: we are excerpting this work of opinion writing by Jack Shafer, reflecting his opinions.
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