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?

I hate books; t…

I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the internet age, I find this quote by the famous French philosopher to be quite relevant.

Since we now have access to a huge portion of accumulated human knowledge through Wikipedia and news websites, people have a tendency to act like experts on topics they’ve only recently heard about. Go to any discussion forum, dating back to the days of Usenet, and you’ll see people critiquing academic subjects as if they just defended their dissertation on the matter.

And perhaps it’s worse than it was in Rousseau’s time. Most nonfiction books go through several revisions and a fact-check, the process of drafting and finishing a work can take years. Wikipedia crowdsources the editing process, but many topics don’t have enough interested parties to improve quality. And often when you stumble upon a topic, there’s currently an editing dispute going on between users. Or a disorganized article is being completely retooled to make it readable. It would be like reading a book in which half the pages had yet to be edited.

This isn’t to be crotchety and rail against knowledge. I’m a total information junkie and  enjoy having random facts at hand for each conversation I have. But it is to say that a small amount of reading does not an expert make. The internet is littered with laymen offering medical advice, legal advice, and public policy advice. This can be dangerous, and we should not think that the internet had made us master of all things.

The long run is…

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. -John Maynard Keynes

Economics is sometimes thought to be a science that can predict the future. Certain inputs, certain past trends, they come together to crystallize and make the future known.

Yet, the idea of a long run is silly. In time our lives will change and exist in a new set of conditions. But this is not really the ‘long run’ because the long run implies stability and predictability. In reality, we live in a succession of short-runs where things can change quite a bit.

The long run is the economic equivalent of settling down in life. It assumes that individuals will stop all this nonsense and behave rationally. And perhaps an individual could choose that path. But society is the life of the party, and having too much fun to slip into this “long run.”