Even history's 'first draft' needs to include context

 
 
Updated 3/10/2022 8:53 AM

When people refer to newspapers as, in the words of a famous phrase, "the first draft of history," they probably are thinking most about the history part. They should not forget, indeed should emphasize, the "first draft" part.

Our view of events changes over time, and, especially when it comes to politics, may not reach anything like a historical consensus for years or decades. So, when news media report on current events, it's important to remember that what may seem a common interpretation of them today, may not be the view of them in years to come. Indeed, it may not even be factually accurate in the moment they occur.

 

Take, for example, the famous 2019 report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Two years later in our still-unsettled political climate, many people cite the report as an undisputed declaration that Donald Trump did not collude with Russians to gain political advantage, despite the report's explicit statement that, while it found no evidence of collusion, the investigation did not exonerate him. It will be interesting 20, 30 or 40 years from now to see the consensus of historians and society on those points.

Likewise on two other more recent government documents -- one a court filing from Special Counsel John H. Durham related to his investigation of of the origins of the federal probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election; the other a court filing from the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.

Both these stories have been given full-on blockbuster treatment by some news agencies, and they both certainly feature some potentially disturbing claims. But neither of them has been treated that way in the Daily Herald. Indeed, we've been deliberately circumspect in our handling of them, precisely because what so many partisans today see as outright affirmations of historical certainty really amount to important points of speculation that remain far from established fact.

Such subtle distinctions, let's acknowledge, aren't particularly great for newspaper circulation. A sensational Page 1 headline declaring that a House subcommittee accused former President Trump of a "criminal conspiracy" would surely have attracted more attention for us than what we actually did -- which was to wait for four days until we were able to publish a nuanced explanation of the subcommittee's filing. Similarly, we and other media have taken a good deal of heat for not crowing about the Durham case as some other media have even though Durham himself says the document does not establish or claim the conclusion that partisans read into it, in short, that then-candidate Hillary Clinton and the FBI illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Here, too, our approach has been to take the time and space to report Durham's conclusions with at least some of the broader context readers need to evaluate them dispassionately.

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Nor does such discretion apply solely to politics and government. When the Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear plant was first reported, viewers of CNN, in particular, might have thought a world-shattering catastrophe was imminent. We and many others were more restrained, as ultimately proved to be justified.

Yes, the immediacy of news reporting about the events that shape our world and our society may suggest we are providing a "first draft" of what will someday be a common view of history. But even first drafts need to be prepared with care and thoughtfulness. Such an approach tends to annoy people who have made up their minds about events, and it doesn't generate the newspaper sales or online hits that a more sensational treatment would.

But we hope it ultimately will mean something important to folks who truly care about history as well as our own times.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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