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Get ready — here comes the Sixties again

The news media love anniversaries, and this month's surge of commemoratives marking the assassination of President Kennedy is just the opening bell for a media observance that will go on for years — the 50th anniversary of the Sixties.

The Kennedy retrospectives I saw were tasteful and appropriate, but they got me to thinking about the differences between practicing journalism and writing history. The fact is, one of the most consequential things the news media do is something they're not really equipped to do: Decide what should be remembered and how.

Tending the collective memory isn't the media's vocation. News people are trained to chronicle what's happening around them, not to recognize what's of lasting significance, let alone to sort out the contemporary meaning of long-ago events. News is only the first draft of history, as the lame old saying goes, and as writers know, most first drafts end up in the trash.

Still, there's nobody else around to supervise the work of large-scale remembering, so that function falls to the media. Normally, it's a function that goes unnoticed, even though it percolates into news reporting, typically when the journalist introduces context or background.

Sometimes history intrudes in the form of the tossed-off, parenthetic characterization of an individual — in the obituary that refers in passing to “the disgraced former congressman.” Other times whole chapters of history are telescoped into insanely compressed descriptions, as when a tortured region is identified as “the province whose secession provoked a murderous 20-year war.” As readers, we let that pass, although if we considered for a moment how cavalierly the past was being rummaged through we'd realize the practice is dubious. It's not that the references are false. It's that they're trotted out as shorthand for some settled historical record, and there isn't one. (That congressman must have done many other things; that war surely had much more complex roots.)

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