It is difficult to imagine a serious discussion about the all-time great historians without mentioning Herodotus and Thucydides.
Many refer to Herodotus as the ‘father of history’,” though ever since the early days of my graduate studies I considered him to be more the father of the historical novel. You see, Herodotus was more focused on captivating the reader, whereas Thucydides, who was much more concerned with accuracy than with style, is in my view the true father of history.
I recently finished a book by historian Neville Morley titled Thucydides and the Idea of History, which got me to thinking that Thucydides is also the father of journalism.
After all, journalism is history – or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
If we discover an ancient scroll describing, say, a thunderstorm, we would deem it ‘historical’, but we rarely think of an evening news weather report as such. But it is.
The problem with today’s journalism, though, is that too many media outlets are primarily concerned with entertaining, as Herodotus was, than with the Thucydidean mindset of tabulating the information correctly for posterity.
The media is a competitive and often cutthroat business. Few are the news outlets with sufficient financial coffers to overcome multiple obstacles. Many longstanding newspapers are forced to compete with blogs and tweets in today’s technological chaos. Sadly, for many it comes down to a matter of survival: if you don’t grab the readers’ attention, you’re out of business, so grab it any way you can.
A common technique used to inject flash and gaudiness into articles, particularly in digital form, is clickbait: hinting that the facts are more tantalizing than they really are, but falling just short of printing outright falsehoods. Those outlets want clicks, and are well aware that readers often will be too lazy or too busy to read the entire story, let alone take the time to assess the clickbait headline within context.
Back in 2015, I became acutely aware of how serious the clickbait problem had become, when much of the mainstream media en masse reported that “Trump Calls Mexicans ‘Rapists’ and ‘Criminals,’” only to realize upon further reading that Donald Trump didn’t say that at all. Rather, he said that “Mexico (as in the Mexican government) is allowing rapists and criminals,” who aren’t even Mexican, to pass through its borders to their final destination, the United States, courtesy of illegal crossing our Southern border. There’s a very big difference between accusing one nation’s government of corruption (of which the 2015 Mexican government was widely classified by multiple individuals and groups) and another to disparage an entire ethnicity.
But clickbait is not one-sided. Both the leftwing and rightwing press are guilty of it, in droves. And again, it’s not just ideological; it’s about ratings.
Thucydides, though, wasn’t concerned about ratings. And journalists shouldn’t be either.
There’s nothing wrong with providing a public service and making a buck in the process. Sure, hospital fees and university tuitions are criminally excessive, but making a respectable and comfortable profit is fine. No one says doctors, professors, or reporters should starve.
Nonetheless, just as doctors shouldn’t advertise: “let me operate on you and I’ll make you feel like you’re 20 again!” and colleges shouldn’t claim: “earn a degree in physics here and you’ll be the next Einstein,” media outlets shouldn’t falsely accessorize their stories to gain attention the way fast food restaurants fluff and primp their flat, soggy burgers to appear scrumptious on billboards.
I am not Thucydides by any means, but I write for the same reasons he did. I wrote Trumped-Up Charges! in 2020 in order to correct the record about false accusations against Trump, to distinguish between what he actually said and did or didn’t. I wrote that he certainly deserves to be judged for what he really said and did – and some of those things are indeed worthy of criticism – but that much of what’s reported about him is either false or out of context.
Sure, part of my goal was to sell books and make money, but I realized that any chance of the book becoming a national bestseller that would bring me a life-changing fortune was extremely slim. Consequently, I also didn’t think enough people would read it to change the electoral landscape.
Nonetheless, I hoped, and continue to hope, that in a couple of hundred years when none of us who witnessed the Trump presidency are around to talk about it, someone, somewhere will rely on the book as a historical record.
Importantly, even though I voted for Trump (twice), I didn’t make a pro-Trump case in the book. Like Thucydides, I have my preferences, but I don’t conflate them with chronicles.
Trump is not my favorite president; Ronald Reagan is. Yet there is so much praiseworthy prose written about Reagan that one more volume wouldn’t make a difference, whereas I didn’t see much out there on correcting the Trump record.
As I said, I’m no Thucydides, but I look upon him as a professional role model. A bust of his likeness proudly sits atop one of my bookshelves in my office. I only wish that more historians and journalists, took the time to learn more about this great legend and to appreciate his methodology of assessing and relaying information.
His approach wasn’t perfect, but it was groundbreaking, and centuries ahead of its time.
Books like Morley’s should be required reading at all colleges and universities, because understanding the responsibility of presenting accurate information and knowing how to verify it as best as possible when it is not acquired firsthand are indispensable tools for all professions.
Long live Thucydideanism.