History and Historians, Ten Things I Hate About You

Declining Declension

Or, “There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.”

Egg Suicide

These are not quite post-July 4th musings, but I think on a holiday where we look back on our national past with a split vision — simultaneously measuring how short we’ve fallen from the founders’ gilded example, but also how far we’ve taken their ideas — it might be appropriate to think a little about declension narratives, and why they are, by and large, such useless tools with which to think.

(I should note that this is a complaint of many, many, many historians; so my ranting is less about how others in my hoped-for-profession and more about how history is used in arguments in other settings).

What got me thinking about this was not anything about stars, spangles, or banners. It was a short piece on the precise characteristics of a decline we’re right in the middle of — that of the newspapers industry, or, if you prefer, journalism. It was published in Slate by Jack Shafer. Shafer puts journalism’s overwrought swan song in a medium-term (20th-century) historical context, noting that veteran journalists have been complaining that their profession’s institutional bases have been shrinking, with sure-to-be-dire results, for decades. By putting current hand-wringing about the “death” of newspapers into this context, Shafer manages a nice bit of anti-declension programming, and a highly effective one at that.

Happy libertarian that he is, Shafer argues that we shouldn’t worry, because:

journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t thriving.

So the future looks bright, if not lucrative.

I think Shafer’s got the right line here, even if I am a bit less sanguine about the near future than he is (to be fair, I’m a bit less sanguine about the virtues of the past and the present, too). By puncturing the common wisdom’s declension narrative — even by a little bit — he’s illustrated one of the problems with all declension narratives, whether they’re about the vibrancy of the American press, or teen pregnancy rates, or the relative sinfulness of the world. They are almost always rooted in a shallow, ill-informed nostalgia.

In this case, the common wisdom’s point of view only makes sense if large news organizations were necessary for Watergate-like investigations to be the norm, which, since they aren’t, just doesn’t hold up. The big organizations, now anyway, seem to be blowing even the easy calls. Just think about the last few weeks, where a major uprising in Iran didn’t get reported until it was half-over. Or, see the last few of weeks of sad corruption stories coming out of the Washington Post.

I think there’s enough evidence that at least some of the current institutions representing the pinnacle of journalism do not deserve to be regarded with any sort of reverence (even aside from the need to regard all powerful institutions in a democracy with a irreverent sensibility). I would submit that the NYT Style and Week in Review sections, or anything starring Wolf Blitzer, may serve as exhibits C thru Z.

But this is not a recent development: think about how Pultizer made his money.

In fact, this deep concern for the purity of a form of journalism based on monopoly rents is particularly laughable for anyone who reads early 19th-century newspapers, as then the loud voices in the early American press — the important political voices — were predominately those of highly partisan editors, most of them scrambling to make a buck. Distortions, rumors, and outright lies were not a bug; they were a key feature. Somehow the republic survived; and if you think our public officials now — or then — were more virtuous, then I’d like you to review the biographies of the past and present governors of South Carolina very carefully.

Moreover, I think the problem with the “the decline of journalism we’re seeing now means the end of the world!” meme is a peculiar illustration of one of the other common problems iwth declension narratives. As a smarter historian than I noted:

Although the oversimplication of the past is something to be concerned about, the declensionist pull does the most damage in its tendency to push the past further away thus rendering it more difficult to identify with.  After all, if there was indeed a fall from grace the people who lived long ago must be of a different kind altogether.  As a result, our response tends to be veneration rather than understanding and this is where, as I see it, the “collateral damage” sets in. 

In this case, I think the veneration of the never-extant heroic past of journalism gives a sheen to organizations — and individuals — who most certainly do not deserve it, thus retarding the actual purpose of good journalism. The past gets in the way of the present, and the future, even mid-decline. No real thinking gets done, just genuflecting.

This is all not to recommend a relentless philoneism, or to say that changes shouldn’t be weighed for their relative values of good and bad. And I share the worry of many that the new system of production for information — in all formats and areas — is not quite yet up to meeting the responsibilities of the old. But realizing that change is (and always has been, and always will be) persistently bemoaned and decried in exactly the same ways as a decline in standards/threat to the republic/et al. should temper the despair.

Image cite: Erica Marshall of muddyboots.org, “Egg Suicide,” Flickr, CC License