The news media love anniversaries, and this month’s surge of commemoratives marking the assassination of President Kennedy is just the opening bell for a media observance that will go on for years — the 50th anniversary of the Sixties.
The Kennedy retrospectives I saw were tasteful and appropriate, but they got me to thinking about the differences between practicing journalism and writing history. The fact is, one of the most consequential things the news media do is something they’re not really equipped to do: Decide what should be remembered and how.
Tending the collective memory isn’t the media’s vocation. News people are trained to chronicle what’s happening around them, not to recognize what’s of lasting significance, let alone to sort out the contemporary meaning of long-ago events. News is only the first draft of history, as the lame old saying goes, and as writers know, most first drafts end up in the trash.
Still, there’s nobody else around to supervise the work of large-scale remembering, so that function falls to the media. Normally, it’s a function that goes unnoticed, even though it percolates into news reporting, typically when the journalist introduces context or background.
Sometimes history intrudes in the form of the tossed-off, parenthetic characterization of an individual — in the obituary that refers in passing to “the disgraced former congressman.” Other times whole chapters of history are telescoped into insanely compressed descriptions, as when a tortured region is identified as “the province whose secession provoked a murderous 20-year war.”
As readers, we let that pass, although if we considered for a moment how cavalierly the past was being rummaged through we’d realize the practice is dubious. It’s not that the references are false. It’s that they’re trotted out as shorthand for some settled historical record, and there isn’t one. (That congressman must have done many other things; that war surely had much more complex roots.)
Instead, what journalism draws from history are usually highly selective invocations, blinkered ways of seeing a complicated past. As with news, the media seek the common denominator, and typically key off the most emotionally resonant aspect of a major event and universalize it (such as “the searing loss” that “America” experienced when Kennedy was shot.)
The capsule histories they present are deeply flawed, but because they’re inserted routinely into the flow of news, they’re also the way that we most often learn about the past. Thus have the news media become the country’s most influential history teachers.
We’re bound to see quite a lot of that now. Ahead are remembrances of the full mosaic of mid-’60s/early ’70s cultural, political and social upheaval: the Beatles, civil rights, Berkeley, “the counterculture,” the Pill, bell bottoms, mini-skirts, “women’s lib,” Vietnam, acid, Motown, the anti-war movement, urban insurrection, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Woodstock, Chicago, Nixon elected, the moonshot, Kent State, Jackson State, Nixon re-elected.
The media are going to revisit the Sixties because the stories are dramatic and colorful and there’s a vast audience that lived through that period and wants to know it mattered.
So how might the media skip the pieties and the platitudes, capture the multiplicity of experience, and harvest the youthful experiences of the generation nearing grandparenthood now that can enrich public understanding of the world we share now. How might the media do it right?
First, the focus should be on themes, not isolated events. History isn’t just stale journalism, news seen through a rearview mirror. News is what’s happening; history is the context. If you’re recalling the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution, which authorized the Vietnam buildup, you have to say why it mattered — was it presidential deceit, congressional abdication, imperial overreach, whatever — and that context is the story.
Second, the remembrances need to be inclusive. The point isn’t to pander to a particular demographic by recalling that period through their eyes, it’s to acknowledge the fractured social realities of that time. Many Americans were not at all jubilant in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Third, the coverage needs fresh reporting. It can’t be a clip job. (The news media didn’t have a clue anyway.) The challenge is to plumb this history for contemporary significance, and that requires new sets of eyes and today’s sensibilities, and it requires going back to the eyewitnesses to hear them tell what they now think they were seeing and doing then.
Finally, resist the urge to celebrate. It was a thrilling and hopeful time, but it was also cruel and murderous, and many promises were made that were never kept. Talk to historians. Making sense of the past is what they do.
The Sixties are back for a second run, and there’s no reason they can’t be just as surprising, disturbing and illuminating this time around.