Second draft of history


If journalism is the “First draft of history,” as Phillip Graham of the Washington Post is credited with saying, what happens when they get it completely wrong? How does that first draft get crumpled up in the minds of the readers, and who gets to write the second draft?

I’ve been chatting with a lot of people in an attempt to understand how our opinions of the ongoing economic crisis has gone down as we hear different stories over time. The answer, I have come to believe, is the second draft is written by the readers and consumers of journalism. If true, this may give us some insight as to the future of journalism, interaction, and how a whole culture arrives at “The Truth”TM.

Two years ago I was grappling with an issue that I can see now I didn’t fully understand. The popular media was treating the collapse of the famed “Housing Bubble” as an event, not a symptom of a wider economic problem. It took me a few months of wrangling to understand what was going on, but I finally took to writing a decent summary of the real problem in the essay “Housing Bubble, Toil and Trouble.”

That was months after I first took on the issue in some other essays which were, in reality, little more than summaries of other essays by other people who understood what was happening around them. Many people did, in fact, understand just what was happening at the time and what the risks were, but they weren’t making it into the popular press. It wasn’t until a real meltdown happened that the economic condition of the USofA, and the world, was understood to be very fragile.

There are many reasons why this happened, and I’ve speculated as to how very good analysis could go unreported and largely ignored for so long. I still believe that the technical nature of the meltdown combined with a long period where people learned to expect something from nothing was the real reason why the popular press missed the story so badly. But that’s behind us now.

When a big story is missed there are plenty of people who stand to make a decent rep for themselves by telling the real deal. There are popular critics of journalism now, the most prominent being the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We’ve arrived at a point where fake news is more real than real news simply because the big story was missed and often continues to be missed.

The process of writing the second draft of just what happened is still underway, and I don’t expect a strong consensus to develop for some time. The first thing we have to do is to un-learn the wrong information we were given, and that takes a lot of time. But there is an understanding bubbling up through blogs and other critics of journalism as we know it that the problem runs much deeper and longer than we first expected.

How can we speed this process up? As long as journalism continues to rely on “experts” who have their own agendas and reasons why their social class has the situation firmly in control (even when the clearly don’t) there will be a problem with the “First draft of history.” That’s unlikely to change easily because when events are breaking fast a journalist’s job is to explain the situation quickly – “breaking news” will always be a good excuse for a long line of (CowPuckey).

If journalism moves towards being a kind of curator of stories taken from a wide variety of sources, it will be a good start. Online journalism may be moving that direction already. What would be even stronger is if journalism starts to become a place where “experts” have to withstand scrutiny and are subject to questions immediately. That’s no small change. If we think of journalism more as a witness stand than a library, the role of a reporter is less of a curator of facts and more of a judge who presides over a process. That naturally begs the question as to who is the prosecuting attorney who asks the questions, a role that many journalists have coveted as their own.

It also makes me wonder why any “expert” would want to take the witness stand. That is a topic that can wait until later.

Looking back two years, it’s very clear that the system of gathering and disseminating news by relying on “experts” failed very dramatically when it comes to the most important story of our time, namely the economic meltdown. The first draft was completely wrong in many important ways – wrong enough to leave many people questioning the entire news-gathering industry. As we all work towards getting the story right we can see that we have a lot of new tools and new relationships that may provide a better way at figuring out the truth of our world in that first draft.