Teaching proper journalism nowadays to those willing to learn it is a cinch. All you have to do is turn to a limitless array of media outlets that egregiously violate the profession’s canons, and identify those as examples of precisely what not to do.
But not all journalism faux pas are equal. It is particularly heartbreaking to those of us who truly love the craft when we come across transgressions so atrocious that one would think they appeared in satirical publications such as the Onion or the Babylon Bee. And it is especially tragic when the transgressors are ones who not too many years ago were among the finest in the industry.
I am in the midst of writing a historical biography on President Tyler. The project will take me a couple of years, at least, and I am currently conducting a good deal of research. Part of my probe concerns Tyler’s public perception, often the result of his consistent placement near the bottom of most presidential rankings lists.
Very recently, I stumbled upon a piece that appeared in the June 30, 2021 edition of the Washington Post, specifically in its historical blog, Retropolis.
Not being too familiar with the modern-day Post (it was my go-to daily newspaper until its eminently unprofessional obsession with Donald Trump about six years ago), I did a little digging to find out what Retropolis is all about.
On April 30, 2017, the Post initiated the blog, with the following description:
“The Washington Post has launched a new history blog, Retropolis, that will feature daily posts aimed at connecting present-day news with its rich history.
“Retropolis covers subjects including politics and government, African Americans, women, popular culture, sports, and more. The blog will be anchored by The Post’s Local team, with contributions from the newly expanded general assignment desk.
“‘So much of the news we cover today has echoes in the past,’ said Lynda Robinson, The Post’s local enterprise editor who is in charge of Retropolis. ‘Retropolis will give readers the opportunity to rediscover fascinating pieces of history that may have been forgotten and will be seen in a new light.’…
“The Post has been recording history on its front pages since 1877. Its archives will be a great resource for the blog, along with Washington’s deep trove of museums, libraries and historians.”
Now, let’s turn to the headline of that June 30 article from last year. It was about C-SPAN’s 2021 presidential rankings (that network publishes an updated ranking each time the presidency changes hands), and the headline read: “Historians Just Ranked the Presidents. Trump Wasn’t Last.” The writer begins the column with: “Despite being impeached twice, Donald Trump is not the worst president in U.S. history, according to 142 presidential historians…” I won’t even spend much time making the obvious counterargument that, if, say, Marjorie Taylor-Greene was now Speaker of a Republican-controlled House and she impeached Joe Biden a record three times, I’m sure the writer wouldn’t thus conclude it means Biden is the worst president ever.
By throwing in Trump’s apparent mishandling of the pandemic, and the January 6 insurrection for good measure, the writer clearly tips her hand as to how she really feels about Trump.
Is that because she believes that just about everyone – except for, in her view, a fringe group of uneducated racist rednecks – feels the same way?
Does she think a headline that is implicitly astonished that Trump wasn’t ranked last among all presidents would be universally obvious, as if it read: “Swimmers Rank Which Fish They’d Least Want to Encounter in the Water. Sharks Weren’t Last”?
Or is it that the writer thinks everyone who doesn’t already consider Trump the worst president ever certainly ought to, and that somehow it is her moral obligation to enlighten them?
Mostly, though, I don’t blame the writer. My guess is that probably no journalism professor ever explained to her that her piece is only historical if the topic is chronicling the history of her opinion of Trump.
She probably thinks it’s perfectly fine to jump right in and impose her worldview on us in a blog that the publisher fancies to be a historical archive to be saved for posterity.
The real culprit here is her editors and her publisher. They should have told her that injecting her opinion into the piece automatically disqualifies it from being classified as historiography (yes, blogs can be historical too; history doesn’t have to come in a leather-bound goldleaf tome).
The writer also relays one of the C-SPAN’s rankers wildly incorrect comments, that President Polk annexed Texas. I don’t expect the writer to know that’s not true, but the blog’s editor should. By the way, Texas was annexed by Tyler – the guy I’m writing about.
That should tell you how little stock I place in C-SPAN’s rankings. Oh, sure, they get some of the big ones correct – like Presidents Lincoln and Washington right at the top – but that’s easy; a third-grader could’ve done that.
There are plenty of other problems with the survey, such as including President William Henry Harrison among the ranked, considering he served for only 31 days! Harrison received a very low score for Crisis Management, even though he had no crisis to manage in his very short tenure.
Nonetheless, such critique is better left for another time. The main point of this week’s column is how a once highly respected publication would stoop to the level of including an entry infected by opinion into its self-described historical blog. A hunch tells me it was neither the first time nor the last.
Maybe I should thank the Post, for providing me with another opportunity to teach about precisely what not to do.