History is never above the melee. It is not allowed to be neutral, but forced to enlist in every army”. — Allan Nevins
To begin with, history is memory, and it is just as essential to a society as it is to an individual. Reflecting on the past and preparing for the future are ingrained features of human intelligence at all levels. The discipline of history, then, requires us to examine small events and sweeping trends, to suggest patterns that might be found in the record, and to constantly ask the vital question: why.
Historians search out facts and tell stories. Above all, they have what amounts to a sacred duty to accuracy and the truth. Yet historians are free to explore and interpret without an expectation of exact answers. In this sense history is not a science, nor is it a social science. History is a separate discipline that plays by its own rules and answers very much to its own muse.
History is a powerful discipline, not only in terms of analytical ability and scope, but also in terms of the way it can be used to legitimize present day political agendas and projects. In that sense, history has been called “the dressing room of politics.” Perhaps the most important first lesson about history, then, is that historians have motivations that influence the way they emphasize some facts instead of others. Or, to put it another way, historians usually write with a purpose in mind.
Why do historians write history?
Two of the highest overarching purposes of history might be summarized as 1) to remember and honor the heroes and 2) to learn the lessons of history. These were expressed very early in Classical Greece.
Herodotus (484 – 420 BCE) said he wrote history “… in the hope of … preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory…”
Thucydides (460 – 400 BCE) hoped his history would “be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future … I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”
These two motivations are often at cross purposes. Heroic history often omits the blemishes and controversies as a form of honoring heroes. When students are first introduced to history in elementary and secondary school, the heroics usually get far more attention, and the controversies are glossed over. It often comes as a shock to discover that some views of history may have been influenced by heroic perspectives.
On the other hand, the “warts-and-all” school of history is often open to criticism, as noted in a memorable William F. Buckley essay about Winston Churchill. Still, the best-known idea about history comes from George Santayana (1863 – 1952), who echoed Thucydides when he said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
One of the great myths about history is that established facts are set in concrete soon after events take place. Revisionism, then, must be avoided, according to this myth.
The problem comes in part from the way we use the word history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word applies both to the succession of events themselves and to the discipline that records and interprets those events.
Of course, to change what is known about a succession of events, or to alter the historical record, was what made Orwell’s book 1984 so nightmarish. Clearly, this is not what historians aspire to do.
Yet history is an active discipline practiced by ordinary people. It is influenced by their perspectives and motivations; it serves a variety of greater and lesser interests; and its narratives often change, grow and coalesce around new facts that may have only come to light decades after events in question.
Thus, the historical record is no more a static collection of facts than science is an unchanging description of the physical world.
As James W. Loewen (author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong), put it:
- “History is furious debate informed by evidence and reason, not just answers to be learned. Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is learning facts. ‘We have not avoided controversial issues’ announces one set of textbook authors; ‘instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments’ on them – thus removing the controversy! No wonder their text turns students off!”
And so, in the end, the capacity to think through historical issues and understand historical evidence is key to understanding history. Not only should a textbook (such as Revolutions in Communication ) try to introduce many controversies, but it should also encourage students to think and to speak for themselves.
Is history objective? How should history be written?
Another important set of ideas about history has to do with objectivity and the way history is written. Objectivity is a question that has dogged the historical profession as much as it has challenged the news media.
One famous German historian, Leopold Von Ranke: (1795 – 1886) said that historians should take a “scientific” approach and report “the way things really were.” But by that he meant that an account of the battle of Waterloo should be based on facts commonly accredited by French, German and English historians. But no one would suggest that the rise of Napoleon would be seen in the same objective light by all nationalities.
It’s no surprise, then, that the quest for objectivity is often seen as quixotic. In That Noble Dream, Peter Novick describes American historians attempts to first incorporate and then move away from Von Ranke’s presumed objectivity. Many historians abandoned this constricted view of objectivity and devoted their histories to nationalistic purposes, he notes. Several in the US and UK disliked the idea of holding up a string of cold facts without an attempt at meaning, and focused on making history moral, or progressive, or more relevant to the present. These included Charles Beard (1874 – 1948) and Lord John Edward Emerich Acton (1834-1902). Acton believed in a moral approach to history. His most famous aphorism is: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Objectivity wasn’t the real problem, according to some historians like Herbert Butterfield (1900 – 1979). It was, instead, the tendency of historians to take sides. Butterfield objected to the way historians would “write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions, provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past, and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” This is often called “Whig” history. It’s not always such a bad thing — in fact, the focus on democratic reform in US and UK histories was designed rather deliberately to keep that historical frame in view as an aide to present-day political growth and reform. Yet it tended to present history in a linear form and omit irregularities.
In recent years, many historians have moved away from objective and progressive national histories, focusing instead on cultural history or other smaller topics. Cultural history might involve the history of ideas, history of technology, women’s history, black history, environmental history and many others not yet explored. Yet history as a discipline, as Novick has noted, has not moved any closer towards a resolution of the fragmentation.
To some, such as Francis Fukuyama (1952 – present) and Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the collapse of ideology or even the end of an idea of historical progress represents the “end of history.” According to Baudrillard, this comes from the abandonment of utopian visions shared by both the right and left wing political ideologies.
And yet, ideas about utopian futures re-emerged with the advance of communications technologies, living on in the visions of social networks and free cultures described by Vannevar Bush, John Perry Barlow, Howard Rheingold, Richard Stallman and others engaged in the digital revolution.
How is media history different?
Historians have always seen a strong role for media in the larger sphere of national histories, and it would be unlikely that any historian would overlook the role of printers like Benjamin Franklin in enabling the American Revolution of the 1770s, or of radio news as a catalyst of public opinion during the 1940s, or of television images to bring home the suffering of Civil Rights demonstrators during the 1960s.
Among early American media histories are Isaiah Thomas‘ History of Printing in America and James Parton’s Life of Horace Greeley (1855). Like many subsequent histories, both took a “whiggish” approach that presumed a history of progress towards freedom. The same idea remained in the heart of the narrative until the 1970s, when the foundations of objectivity were shaken to the core by events inside and outside the world of the news media. (Footnote Carey p79) Communications scholar James W. Carey challenged journalism historians to go beyond their identification with the press and, as one suggestion, to focus on the development of consciousness as expressed in the news report. (One upshot of that idea was Mitchell Stephens’ book, A History of News. )
One school of historical thought goes considerably further than giving media a role in national histories by placing communications history at the center of civilization. For example:
Harold Innis (1894 – 1952) was an economic historian who explored the idea that cultures using durable media tended to be biased (oriented) towards time and religious orthodoxy (Egypt, Babylon), while, on the other hand, cultures with flexible media (Rome, Greece, modern) were biased towards control of space and a secular approach to life.
Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) was a media critic who was strongly influenced by Innis and also put communication at the center of history. McLuhan saw international broadcast media connecting through satellites in the 1950s and 60s, and described the new media landscape in terms of a “global village.” He also considered the idea of media as an extension of human thinking. He is probably most famous for the statement that “the medium is the message,” which, in other words, means that the medium is has a strong influence on the message and the type of thinking that creates the message.
Communications theorist James W. Carey saw McLuhan’s relatively optimistic ideas about media technology as something of a reaction to the pessimism expressed by others, especially British historian Lewis Mumford. McLuhan envisioned electronic media liberating users from the sensory limitations of the past, while Mumford “recognized the paradox of electrical communication: that the media of reflective thought — reading writing and drawing — could be weakened by television and radio; that closer contact did not necessarily mean greater peace; that the new inventions would be foolishly overused… ” (Carey, 1997, p. 49). While electronic media may well be liberating in some ways (for example, the social impact of television on the civil rights movements in the US), experiments with MRI imaging in the early 21st century showed that special parts of the brain are engaged by the process of reading. So the idea of “cool” media (film, television) involving less processing, and “hot” media (such as reading) involving more mental processing turns out to have been essentially correct.
McLuhan has also pointed out that new communications technologies change and grow in familiar patterns that can be mapped out in what he called a “tetrad” of four effects. A new medium can 1) enhance 2) obsolete 3) retrieve and 4) reverse. For example, the arrival of radio enhanced news and music, it obsolesced (or made less prominent) print and visual media; it retrieved the spoken word and music hall shows; and it reversed (when pushed to its limits) into television. (McLuhan, 1988 and 89) We might also say that television enhanced the visual, obsolesced the audio, retrieved theatrical spectacle, and reversed into “500 channels with nothing on.”
Social theories of the media
Another part of our theoretical toolkit involves normative social theories that have critiqued and challenged the mass media. We begin with an overview that describes a continuum between liberal and critical concepts of the media. On the one hand, liberal democrats have seen the mass media can be seen as an agent of progressive social change, a self-righting component of a democracy. On the other hand, sociologists and critical theorists have seen the mass media’s production of culture as a locus of ideational conflict and an instrument of class control. Illustrating this range of social theory, we have:
• Liberal democrats like Walter Lippmann held the press up against the idea that the press is part of a system of checks and balances (“the original dogma of democracy”) in his 1921 book, Public Opinion. Lippmann also described four stages of media progress, from authoritative, to partisan, to commercial, and then to a state he called organized intelligence.
Other important media critics include:
- Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle (about the Chicago meat industry), compared journalism to prostitution in The Brass Check, a strong criticism of the American media in the 1920s.
- Hilare Belloc wrote The Free Press – a scathing attack on the British press in 1917 from a conservative perspective.
- A.J. Liebling, a media critic with the New Yorker from the 1930s to the 1960s
- I.F. Stone, and George Seldes, independent newsletter editors and press critics in the 1950s and 60s.
- Ben Bagdikian, an American academic who criticized the “media monopoly.”
- Niel Postman, an American academic who saw the media “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
- Robert W. McChesney wrote “Digital Disconnect.”
• Sociologists like Max Weber and Michael Schudson use an ideational model as the appropriate focus for a critical examination of the media, observing, for example, the clash of ideas around effective social reform movements.
• Communications theorists like Michel Foucault often use discourse analysis to understand the information content and structure of mainstream cultural products and “subjugated knowledges.”
• Critical theorists like Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jurgen Habermas and others from the Frankfurt Schoolsaw the conflict of classes as the dominant theme and observed that mass media was structured to subvert identity and assimilate individuality into the dominant culture. Noam Chomsky, an academic expert in linguistics and self-described “libertarian socialist” is sometimes included in this group as a critic who sees media as little more than propaganda generation for the ruling elites.