History’s Rough Draft

with the 1619 project, historical journalism and public history collide.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead reporter for the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, speaking at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2019.

The 1619 Project has, as intended, generated tremendous debate, both in the broader public sphere and among professional historians. Most of the discussion focuses on how the project strives to recenter the story of the United States around the realities of slavery rather than ideals of freedom. At once building on the work of at least three generations of scholarly historians, beginning with someone such as W. E. B. Du Bois, 1619 also paradoxically argues that the essential role of slavery in American history has long been ignored. It seeks to intervene in the broader popular understanding of the nation’s past by taking on the authority of conducting specialized scholarly research while still remaining journalism. In doing so, it moves journalism from its supposed role as “the first rough draft of history” (a phrase generally attributed to Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham) to proposing that it can present the best, final version.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like any profession, scholarly history puts up gates and draws boundaries about who gets to wield authority and on what terms. However, in this case, many academic historians have already been moving in just the direction proposed by the 1619 Project as a new intervention. Popular history, measured by best sellers, has most definitely not, it should be noted; but academic historians have done so at least since the rise of social history in the 1970s. This has led to a push among academic historians to try to break through to the general public rather than only speak to each other as specialists. As a result, an odd collision emerges: while the 1619 Project features journalism as history, many historians increasingly pursue what might be described as history as journalism. Journalists claim Clio’s authoritative robes. Historians want to communicate directly to the public. Journalists develop projects of historical research. Historians publish op-eds, email newsletters, blogs, websites and host podcasts or direct documentary films. In short, the most prestigious journalists now claim the mantle of historians while highly esteemed historians hope to position themselves as journalists. While there is much else to discuss about the 1619 Project and the range of responses to it, the issue of how journalism and history collide is a little explored dimension of why the publication and historians’ responses to it matter.

To be sure, there has always been overlap between the professions of journalism and history; however, it is perhaps only with the collapse of previously stable modes of employment in these two fields over the last decades that we see a publication such as the 1619 Project emerge in its particular way, with its goal of altering public understandings of the long-running injustices and injuries of racism from the positionality not of a journalistic piece about what historians are doing, but rather as history itself. In journalism, corporate consolidation has eroded conventional daily “desk” reporting positions and placed much more focus on the revelatory interpretations of so-called long-form narrative. The 1619 Project does not just report on the findings of historians, it proposes to be telling history itself. It does so by contending that academic history has refused to recognize the facts, or tell the stories of slavery. Yet that contention is a bit disingenuous, since much of the 1619 Project builds precisely on powerful historical scholarship that has moved the stories of slavery and race to the center of the field. At the same time, the Project is still journalism, and so it needs to play by the conventions of that genre of writing. Therefore, 1619 must emphasize how it is not merely conveying historical findings, but rather is “breaking” a new story, which remains a paramount framing device in journalism. So too, the story must be bold and straightforward, supposedly, to reach a popular audience. It might even need to shock the reader. These create very different norms than in specialized historical scholarship. The imperatives of the field tilt away from the subtleties of historiographic debate or the ambiguities of the historical record and toward simplifying interpretations of historical evidence rather than considering complexity.

This is largely the critique found in Dr. Leslie M. Harris’s commentary about her role as a fact-checking historian for the 1619 Project. Crucially (and I would say rightfully), Harris still finds the attacks on 1619 far worse than the Project’s shortcomings, but her response articulates quite well the distance between academic historical approaches to the past compared to contemporary journalism.

What Harris does not mention is how the field of academic history itself, like journalism, is in crisis. The adjunctification of teaching positions has led many scholars beyond campus into the realms of public and “alternative-academic” labor. Even though there remains much historical scholarship to do, American universities are choosing not to create enough stable positions to do the work. This has led many academic historians to seek prestige, status, and employment not just in the traditional domain of specialized scholarship, but rather beyond campus. Even more oddly, some try to parlay attention beyond campus into a job in academia. As a side note, this intriguingly parallels how Hannah-Jones’s moved from success in journalism to a prestigious position at Howard University, although it should be noted that she only did so after the conservative Board of Trustees at her alma mater of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill overruled their own faculty to prevent Hannah-Jones from straightforwardly receiving a tenured appointment there, a troubling sign of who really holds power in contemporary American life: neither journalists nor historians. Yet young historians do not necessarily dream of writing great, nuanced historical essays or monographs for other historians; they yearn to become public intellectuals, pundits, talking heads, social media influencers, even brands (but maybe not H. W. Brands). They yearn to be…Nikole Hannah-Jones. This might even lead back to a tenure track job in the academy. It is a funny situation in which journalists move up the ranks by borrowing from historians, while historians potentially ascend their own professional ladder by acting like journalists.

There are far more concerning issues when it comes to the 1619 Project of course, such as the superficial yet awful assaults on the 1619 Project by cynical conservative politicians frothing at the mouth in their never-ending culture war. But it wasn’t only conservatives who criticized Nikole Hannah-Jones, it was also a number of liberal and even radical historians. Why? These historians complained by and large about the accuracy of her emphases and narrative choices. Hannah-Jones and her editors responded, in essence, that the 1619 Project worked by different rules and norms than academic history in how it wielded evidence, engaged with past scholarship, framed arguments, and offered interpretations. Nonetheless, they wanted to retain the value of the project as historical scholarship. They claimed to be saying things afresh even as they also simplified historical findings in problematic ways within the ground rules of academic history.

Perhaps the success of the 1619 Project as historical journalism merely generated envy among historians aspiring to mass public audiences, but more crucially it provides a way to notice the contested terrain between these two currently destabilized professions. Both want to be able to control the stories we tell about the national past according to their existing traditions while also borrowing prestige or access from the other field.

Can journalism’s first rough draft of history become history’s last best one? Can, in turn, history’s nuanced, deeply contextualized research effectively contribute to journalism’s efforts to capture the present? Can news makers capture history and history tellers make news? Part of the answers to these questions likely lies in creating more viable employment opportunities in each field. From there, more imaginative thinking about how their norms diverge but also can converge might arise in healthy ways. Rather than squabble, journalists and historians might work together in new arrangements and incarnations. Beyond the collisions between historical journalism and public history the 1619 Project points to new possibilities for both conscientious history and historical consciousness.

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