What Can Historians Teach The Media In The Era of Trump? 4 Historians Weigh In

tags: politics, American Historical Association, activism, Trump, AHA 2019

Kyla Sommers is the incoming editor of the History News Network.

“Truth itself is under attack and expertise is suspect,” stated Kenneth Osgood as he opened a panel at the American Historical Association’s 2019 meeting on Friday afternoon. Featuring historians Nicole R. Hemmer (University of Virginia), Jeffrey Engel (Southern Methodist University), Jeremi Suri (University of Texas at Austin), and Julian Zelizer (Princeton University), “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Era of Trump” offered helpful advice on how historians can engage with the media and public. Each historian suggested a key insight that historians can offer journalists as they cover political developments under the current presidential administration.


1. Ideological “balance” has limits – Nicole Hemmer

This “crisis of journalism” that has accompanied Trump’s election is not the first time the media has critically reflected on its reporting practices. Many journalists reexamined what they considered “objective” after their defense to political figures and government statistics led to misreporting on the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Nicole Bremmer argued that today “balance” has become the new standard for how many media outlets attempt to be objective. If a program has one voice from the right and one voice from the left, many consider it as “objective.” As a result, journalists often prefer ideological diversity over other forms of diversity including racial, gender, and class diversity. Bremmer suggested that the media could benefit by understanding that good reporting requires more than ideological “balance.” Perspectives beyond just “right vs. left” can improve news coverage.


2. Bureaucracy matters – Jeffrey Engel

“How did each of us get to the AHA?” asked Jeremi Suri. Most arrived because the employees of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Agency were operating despite the government shutdown.  As consumers of news and scholars, historians are often focused on the flashy actors and don’t pay attention to what allows the nation to function. Why do our universities still function even though they often have bad leadership and are attacked? Why is society still functioning under Trump? Suri suggested that understanding how the accumulated procedures and knowledge of bureaucracy is an essential part of democracy can improve both historians and the media’s understanding of the current political state.


3. Highlight longterm historical developments – Julian Zelizer

Princeton scholar and CNN contributor Julian Zelizer believes that historians analysis is best when they can get beyond the moment-by-moment explanations for how the current political climate is so polarized. When speaking to the media, Zelizer always tries to make a connection with issues from the past (especially the 1970s) and how things were reconfigured and those events connect to today. That perspective is often difficult to put forward because Trump’s eccentricities are so prominent. Nevertheless, by adopting a long-term timeframe and understanding how deeply rooted the dynamics and dysfunction are, historians can avoid a “Alice in Wonderland kind of moment where everything is happening the same way once again.” Historians need some sense of evaluating what’s a little bizarre and what’s fundamentally dangerous. For Zelizer, accomplishing this sort of analysis requires him to leave partisanship behind and focus on his role as a historian.


4. History Adds Value, Not Just Context–  Jeffrey Engel

Jeffrey Engel considered approached his role differently than Julian Zelizer. Engel asked, How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how much do those two roles overlap? While Engel originally believed historians should just provide historical context to current events, after the past two years he believes as citizens historians should also give an opinion on current events and reveal how it effects them. Engel genuinely believes the republic is in danger so historians have a responsibility to go a step further when engaging the public. They should speak to what history means for today and the discuss the values behind that history. To Engel, this means he is always prepared to answer a question as to why something from history is important to the present.

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