Max Holland: When newspapers get history wrong (Case in point: Nixon archives)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Holland is the editor of Washington DeCoded.]

Newspapers constantly make mistakes.[1]

Anyone who works on an issue that makes news knows this. Reporters, in their haste to convey the gist, invariably gloss over nuances that mean everything to the people who follow an issue closely. Complexities are reduced to inaccurate simplicities, that is, when there is any kind of effort to describe them at all.

Yet sometimes it is not reporters’ fault. A case in point was the recent release of tens of thousands of historical records from the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library. The release was portrayed as if it were the Nixon Library’s initiative, when in fact, the most arresting documents only came to light because of the diligence of individual requesters and independent institutions, like the National Security Archive.

The November 28 release totaled approximately 122,800 pages of records, which were made publicly available for the first time at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.[2] The Nixon presidential records have been the subject of contentious litigation for decades (lawsuits were filed by parties ranging from Professor Stanley Kutler to Nixon himself), and documents that otherwise might have been released years ago are only now being opened to the public and garnering the attention they deserve.

This cache of documents covered a variety of newsworthy topics, ranging from the White House’s file on W. Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” to National Security Council (NSC) memos about US policy toward Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Soviet Union, and Salvador Allende’s Chile. Some issues have changed so little in 35 years that many of the documents read like they had been ripped from today’s headlines. Consequently, major news organizations, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the Associated Press prepared good-sized stories about the documents.

The caveat to the release was that its most interesting portion by far — some 10,000 pages — was not initiated by the Nixon Library, but came about solely because of requests submitted by researchers under the mandatory declassification provision of the Executive Order governing classification of federal documents. This provision permits individual requesters to press the government to review classified documents to see if they merit continued secrecy.

With the exception of the AP, which ran a story about FBI agents’ campaigning to have Mark Felt appointed as director, the news organizations zeroed in on the NSC documents relating to the Middle East, all of which were released because of mandatory review requests. ...
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