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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 crumbled 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”™.

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 took 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.

13 thoughts on “Second Draft of History

  1. I think you’re getting closer to the root of the problem all along, but this is still such a huge problem that I don’t think it will ever really be solved. There will always be an establishment that has an interest in a certain message and they will always work hard to control what is said. As much as reporters might want to counter them I don’t think they stand much of a chance at getting it right when the establishment has things too good for too long.

  2. Dale, I won’t disagree with that. However, if journalism is as competitive as it seems there is a lot of value in developing a rep that you and yours have it right from the start. Interaction may be a way of speeding that process along and getting real “buy in” from the readers early.

    It’s a huge change but it may be in the works. There’s good reason for people to be skeptical of “experts” in general, and I think that a movement away from such a thing is building.

    I heard that The Economist, my fave mag of all, is now billing itself this way: “The Economist presents the world’s political, business, scientific, technological and cultural affairs and the connections between them.”

    Connections rule! If that catches on I think we’re on our way towards a new standard of journalism.

  3. I think what matters is that you got it right. I can see that you were not the only one. The truth is always out there if people are willing to find it.

  4. This is long over due. Kudos to you for airng this subject. I always enjoy reading your posts Erik, I’ve learnt so much in the short time I’ve been following you. I also realise how under-read I am (something I strive each day to correct).

  5. Thanks, Jan and Gwei, I do appreciate it. But the message didn’t get out back then, and I’m not entirely sure the right message is getting out yet. Getting things (more or less) right is important, but having the message propagate through the culture is even more important.

    I don’t know how to do that yet. The truth is always out there, somewhere, but finding it amid the noize is clearly the hard part. Getting past the cult of “experts” would be a good start, but I know very well that this would only turn up the noize in the short term. What comes next?

  6. I don’t really like your headline for this article altho I do agree overall. Minor point, remember I like specifics more than generalities (that’s probably my problem not yours). Example today I asked an artist what her favorite medium was, after a long answer (which was certainly fine) I asked her again. The second time her answer was more satisfying even though not any more specific.
    Please write again on this topic and hopefully I/we will make the connection.

  7. Went over to Wikipedia (economic crisis 2008) and I feel much better now. Generally was a good refresher of what I already pretty much knew. Now if an individual (perhaps you) went there how would it differ from what you perceive to the second rewriting for the mass market? This is all in good fun and I have nary a mean bone in my body. Now I’ll have to look up the meaning of script (and I ain’t talkin bout money).

  8. And while I’m at it I truly think a second draft would include not how widely felt the effects of the e.c. were but how acutely they were felt by those hardest hit (redundant I know). I’m not too good bout explaining things but for maybe 50% of the population life went on pretty much like normal. Yes they may know of a neighbor, a friend, a family member who suffered job loss and long term unemployment. But hey if most everyone took a 25% hit on their appraised value it was all relative.
    For specifics ( I can be hard on myself too) a recent article with Tom Gilipsie (Mn’s state demographer) contrary to the thought of many about people postponing retirement. now many many (not specific I know) signed up for Social Security at 62 precisely becuase they need that economic lifeline. It is generally/specifically stated that approx. 75% of the population goes on social security at age 62. Yet the vast majority of “self-help articles” on social security (and face it that’s what people read) are about when you should take social security when probably 50% of the population has little choice in the matter due to ill health or declining economic circumstances.

    By the way how bout the current narrative on the BP spill? We’ze screwed big time methinks. Yet any suggestion of higher gas taxes to prompt economic/energy change or to make for amends or restitution would be met with howls of protest. After all the five biggest corporations are all oil companies. On a happy note…

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