Journalism is the first rough draft of history

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

This line has over time become a maxim within the industry as a whole. It connects what explains unfolding events with events that have unfolded and must be explained. I thought this quote had an obvious origin in former Washington Post president Philip Graham, however a feature on Slate pointed out that it comes out of the 1940s and has been said by many people in the same era that Philip did.

One news trope that has emerged, most egregiously at Vox, are articles about big issues stating that they are “everything you need to know”. Several red flags come from titles like that. In some cases it comes off as empty swagger; does anybody really think that this article explains everything you need to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict? This attitude about big issues has received criticism (examples here for fairly apolitical and here for a conservative response). When media outlets go big-scale, they run into the maxim: journalism is not equivalent to history, rather they are two points connected within the same space but quite different times.

Vox is a fun site. WonkBlog was a place for very smart people to analyze really dumb, ineffective legislation. In contrast, Vox is more free-flowing and creative. Still, they run into a wall when it comes to big, long-standing issues. What many data-driven news sites attempt to do (538 is another, though narrower in focus) is explain historical issues within the style and vocabulary of news. Any deference to history would see “everything you need to know” stricken from article titles. Israel-Palestine is still unfolding, so is the war on terror and the Eurozone crisis. One thing that history guarantees us is that more significant events are around the corner, and it will take time to see if this news reporting supports or conflicts with prior history.

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the complexity of events, even those that seem straightforward. Journalism has neither the space nor the context to accommodate deep complexity. News is like soda- produced to exacting standards, each unit identical in quality and makeup. History is wine- full of variation and changing over time. It is important to bring historical context to new events- how else can you understand why ISIS exists, and has gained such power in a few short years? But that’s just a thumbnail. To claim to be comprehensive is dishonest, and stunts the intellectual growth of readers. After all, if Vox really had everything I needed to know about Israel-Palestine, why do any more research on the subject?

Short laws don’t fit complex societies

Sen. McConnell next to his claimed mountain of ACA regulations. (Nicolas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

Every so often someone, somewhere proposes a constitutional amendment requiring laws to be as simple as possible, and as short as possible. It’s part of the long tradition of suspicion towards bureaucracy. Why is the budget the size of three phone books? Why can’t Congress just get down to the core of it? Tea Party groups and other small-government conservatives often take hardline stances towards making government more common sense, often by taking a howitzer to the various agencies that seem to make stuff complicated. Each Republican presidential primary is a smorgasbord of tax plans, each aimed at hacking the IRS down to a skeleton crew.

The issue is that government of any size is incredibly complex. Any large institution is- look at the metric tons of paperwork produced by a sizable corporation. Large bills like the Affordable Care Act are not the norm, but they are common. Over three hundred million people live in the United States, who then interact with everyone else on Earth. Even the simplest ideas, those common sense two page proposals, will gain weight as it is connected into the legal system.

Ultimately the task state and federal governments have is not to make their laws briefer or in much simpler language, but making the scope and purpose of a law coherent. Most of a long bill’s paperwork, or tax regulation, is the legal machine code created by a dedicated battalion of lawyers. The specifics of those U.S. code alterations are not important, rather the public needs to grasp what their practical effect will be, and what principle is guiding their use. Doing the paper stunt, where politicians show how giant a given bill can be, is just that- a stunt.

Many ideologies attempt to simplify society, but society refuses easy guidelines. It is monstrously complicated because people are different in a million tiny little ways. I expect solutions to societal problems will be complicated. They just need to be sufficiently graspable.