Like a burning sun that never sets, the New York Times is forever there, forever reminding us of its presence, and forever neglecting to give adequate recognition to the rays of light emitted by lesser stars.
At least that’s the way most publications, institutions, religions, universities, corporations, foundations, unions, professional sports leagues, civic groups, local service clubs, food co-ops, pick-up basketball teams and ad hoc car-pools regard the Times whenever it brushes up against a topic they think belongs to them. This eternal reflex activated this weekend after the paper published the first part of its special report on the generations-long economic sabotage of Haiti by France and other nations. Haiti historians were the aggrieved group this time, and they stormed Twitter to express their outrage at being pickpocketed by the paper and not given proper credit. Harvard historian Mary Lewis booted the paper across the room with her tweet, complaining that she had shared insights and expertise with one of the package’s writers and received no published credit.
“It would have been simple to reframe the piece: ‘historians have studied this for years. Why doesn’t the general public know this?’ instead of ‘damn we did all this alone,’“ tweeted historian Kelly Brignac. “Instead, they used the academic labor, then erased it.”
Let’s assign to historians and press ethicists the precise debt the Times owes the leading Haiti scholars for their labors and turn our attention to a wider inquiry: Why is everybody so stuck on what the Times says and does? Why the incessant howling every time it bigfoots its way into a story? Doesn’t every news outlet do that? One would think that if the Times’ eternal glare caused so much discomfort, people would learn to apply sunscreen, wear loose-fitting clothes and a hat, and purchase sunglasses. Instead, they keep frying themselves in fury.
In defense of the Times, it should be noted that the paper ran an exhaustive (5,400 words!) bibliography that rivals the interminable credit rolls that every superhero movie gets these days. Maybe the paper is guilty of extending too much credit! The problem with credit-giving is that somebody always gets left out. On Monday, the paper acknowledged the bruised historian egos with a short piece that will probably only fuel their anger by saying the report will likely “rekindle” the debate over what credit journalists should give experts. But again, it’s not only historians who think the Times has ripped them off. It’s everybody.
The Times occupies a place in our culture that’s bigger than the paper itself — which if truth be told is actually a place of mortals, where everybody puts their Depends on one leg at a time and sometimes forgets to fasten the Velcro strap. Yes, the Times is the biggest dog in the newspaper kennel. Yes, it deploys more newsgathering resources than any other news outlet. And yes, it’s read by the most influential and powerful people in the world. But it also makes mistakes and arrives late to some stories. Is its prestige accidental? Would everybody hold it in such regard if the New York Herald Tribune had survived?
Examples of Times singularity abound. Listen to the accomplished author of several books who considers the first Times review of one of them the capstone of his career. Behold the professional who glows after being quoted by it. Wince at the unmatched pride journalists express when the paper hires them. To work at the Times — even to empty wastebaskets — is to have arrived and transcended. You could compare the “accomplishment” of working at the New York Times to that of attending a top college like Stanford, Harvard or Princeton, except there’s only one Times and there are at least a dozen exemplary places of higher learning.
Even the most modest Timespeople (yes, they exist) waddle through life expressing this high self-regard, even after they quit. Don’t laugh. You’d waddle, too, if you worked there. Viewed through the Times lens, the journalism practiced elsewhere is substandard, incomplete, inadequate. No subject exists or matters until it receives the Times treatment — that’s the paper’s code. The Haiti package is only the latest expression of this mindset. As Washington Post columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan tweeted this morning, the paper’s alternate motto should be “It’s News When We Say It’s News.”
When newspapers mobilize their resources to commence monumental, expensive stories like these, they do so with winning prizes in mind, specifically the Pulitzer Prize. Nobody ever won a Pulitzer by undermining the importance of their story by confessing that historians told it well before, hence this language near the top of the Times piece: “But another story is rarely taught or acknowledged: The first people in the modern world to free themselves from slavery and create their own nation were forced to pay for their freedom yet again — in cash.”
“Rarely” makes it sound like the Times just located a neglected but previously discovered galaxy when any well-educated person knows about the Haiti swindle. In order to command a reader’s attention, the journalist must find ways to hype the topic. What the Times has done here might offend historians, but it’s so common in American journalism that it hardly merits criticism.
Boston University’s Chris Daly, who has worked both sides of the street as a journo and a historian, thinks the griping is a matter of “two cultures,” each governed by its own ethos, coming into conflict.
“In journalism, the priority is to attract an audience of non-specialists by touting some scoop-y, surprising finding. Ideally, these are also exclusive, so journalists tend to cast themselves as heroic loners,” Daly says. “Historians want to earn the respect of their peers above all else.” To that end, they display their mastery of the existing literature by printing extensive footnotes. And footnotes carry a subliminal message. “By giving so much credit to others, I am showing off how much I have read, so that I can state authoritatively how my incremental finding fits into the big picture,” he says.
Here's hoping that the historians will cool off, that Timespeople will stop regarding themselves the pilot of the harbor, and that non-Times journalists will forgive the paper for its conceited ways. Timespeople don't mean any harm by it. That's just the way they are.
The Times package on the longitudinal pillaging of Haiti is great, by the way. I corresponded with five academics for this piece and quoted only one. The neglected ones are already composing their complaints of erasure to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have no vacancies at the moment. My Twitter feed flunked history. My RSS feed stares into the sun and says, “Big deal.”