Monday, October 26, 2015

The Press as a Historian

“What is a journalist? He is … the ‘historian’ of the moment, and truth must be his primary concern… (He should) offer an ethical corrective in the form of a concern with objectivity.... What is a practical necessity for the historian becomes an imperious law for the journalist...”   (Camus, 2005)

This famous phrase by Nobel Prize winning author, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus, in his book Camus at Combat, explains what journalism should be. But questions arise about what journalism truly is. Does the ‘imperious law’ always apply? Most importantly, in the present day world of fast paced journalism, where stories grow stale by the hour (if not minute), can the media still be the historians of the moment?

Debates regarding the role of journalists as historians have raged on ever since the emergence of mass media. While the role of journalism is defined by some as the “Historian of the present, servant of future historians, and mediator of history” (Lavoinne, 1994), many historians like Antony Beevor believe that “journalism has spoilt the ground for historians” (Beevor, 2010). Despite the numerous questions around the distinction between the roles of a historian and that of a journalist, one thing that cannot be denied is the role of media as the makers and shapers of memories, a platform through which the world today “gains an understanding of the past, present and the possible future” (Kitch, 2006).
 Can journalists ever be called Historians? Medievalist historian Jacques Le Goff judged that if journalists “do their job well” they are “real historians of intermediate history” (Chauveau & Tetart, 1992). Zelizer, in her book, explains the interdependency of journalism and memory work saying that just as journalism needs memory work to position its recounting of public events in context, so too does memory need journalism to provide the most public drafts of past (Zelizer, 2008). Journalists have often contributed to this need of making ‘public drafts of past’ through commemorations, historical analogies, historical contexts (Edy, 1999) as well as a personal, a visual and a collectable articles and memorabilia (Kitch, 2006). Further, Kitch makes it clear, through her case study about the Times Inc., that the convergence of history and journalism can be highly popular and profitable. However she argues that confluence is not a result of a purely commercial venture, “something more is going on …. Especially at a time when media are a primary source of what most people know about history” (Kitch, 2006).
 However one can’t help but be concerned about the extent of media’s adherence to truth and objectivity of historical content, media being a profit making structure, when billions of dollars come to play. Terms like propaganda, soft censorship etc. often makes us anxious about the influence of powerful entities over media, corrupting the content to show only a perspective of the entire truth. This is perhaps one of the reasons as to why a segment of people assume that “(journalism) provides a first, rather than a final, draft of the past, leaving to the historians the final processing of the journalism’s raw events” (Zelizer, 2009).

Media is the main source from which people get to know about one’s history and form a collective memory that influences their social identity. Commemorative stories and magazines special issues can help remind people about the past, “a reminder of where we have been, and where we can go” (Rather, 2000). Historical analogies can help us understand and predict the probable future outcomes of a particular situation.  Looking back, giving an historical context to a story often helps the audience understand the circumstance better. The story looks well researched, impartial, and authentic. But again, the objectivity of media in reporting an event from the past is debatable. If the media is under any political/ corporate influence, its views on history may also be skewed. For example, in India, the current leading political party Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) often tries to portray the tenure of 10th Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the one which showed the most growth. The current, chief opposition Indian National Congress (INC) emphasizes on the tenure of 6th Prime Minister Late. Rajiv Gandhi to be the model that should be followed. The news media which are inclined towards either of the political parties, indirectly frame the news to reflect the party’s beliefs. In other words, the viewers get slowly polarized into believing the superiority of either of the two different perspectives to the country’s political history.  
However, in this 21st century, we have to focus on another form of media. The PEW Research Center review of the State of Media in 2015 shows a clear boom of online media, and steady retreat of traditional ones. Digital media, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are slowly becoming the most widely used source of news updates. The huge storage capability and design and searching capabilities can help bring a revolution to formation of collective memory. For the first time ever, any news, or record, or post on any topic are permanently stored in the cyberspace and can be retrieved and recirculated by ordinary citizen. While many see social media as a platform handing the power of creating history, and choosing historical perspectives   to the common citizen, others may argue that the content shared on social media are mostly sourced from digital versions of traditional media.
To conclude, while the objectivity of news reporting is debatable, the role of news in influencing the collective memory is undeniable. Whether news media can or should be the ultimate draftsman of the history of people is controversial, but the role of media as the important first draftsman of history is unquestionable. Perhaps media’s take on this matter can be understood through the words of Daniel Bilalian, the news anchor of Antenne 2 Channel’s evening news, as he covered live the East Germans flocking through the newly breached Berlin wall. He announced:
“We do not have the historian’s stamp of approval to enable us to produce perfect report, but we would like to let you live the historic moment as they happen.”                                               (Bilalian, 1989).

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