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You’re on Permanent Background

The always puckish Jack Shafer, longtime media critic who now plies his trade at Politico, wrote with amused dismissiveness recently about a raft of Haiti historians angered by The New York Times’ recent series on how Haitians for centuries had to pay reparations to their former enslavers in France and elsewhere, which helped hold Haiti in ongoing immiseration.

The historians were upset for two reasons: 1) The Times framed its series as if the Times was the first to tell the reparations story, when historians had been writing about it for generations; 2) The Times interviewed a number of the historians as it put the series together, but didn’t give them any credit in the piece. Aggrieved example:

Shafer thinks the Haiti kerfuffle (there are two words that have probably never been placed side by side until now) isn’t theft, but just exemplifies two large truths about journalism and academe. First, the undeservedly outsized cultural standing the Times occupies for just about every elite class in the United States. Everybody wants to be in the Times, and the Times feels much the same way about itself — as Shafer puts it, “no subject exists or matters until it receives the Times treatment — that’s the paper’s code. The Haiti package is only the latest expression of this mindset.”

Second, he argues, the Haiti series is just the way journalists who are trying to win Pulitzer Prizes operate:

Nobody ever won a Pulitzer by undermining the importance of their story by confessing that historians told it well before, hence this language near the top of the Times piece: “But another story is rarely taught or acknowledged: The first people in the modern world to free themselves from slavery and create their own nation were forced to pay for their freedom yet again — in cash.”

“Rarely” makes it sound like the Times just located a neglected but previously discovered galaxy when any well-educated person knows about the Haiti swindle. In order to command a reader’s attention, the journalist must find ways to hype the topic. What the Times has done here might offend historians, but it’s so common in American journalism that it hardly merits criticism.

Chris Daly, a former journalist who now teaches American journalism history at Boston University, tells Shafer that the Haiti series shows two cultures in inevitable conflict — one (journalists) made up of “heroic loners” who want to break big discoveries for an audience of non-specialists, the other (historians) who advance knowledge incrementally, write for mainly for their peers and habitually give credit to the works of others as a signal of their own enmeshment in the discipline.

I think Shafer is right as far as he goes. But here’s what he (and the historians) are missing: The Haiti series isn’t just an expression of longstanding journalistic practices and New York Times’ hubris. It (along with the Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning The 1619 Project) have done something new: They aren’t just reporting without attribution to scholars, they are appropriating public expert territory away from scholar-experts by cutting out the quote all together. The goal is to centralize and better publicize expertise in journalism — because of the failures of public scholarship to be truly public, accessible and widespread

These two series are formal expressions of this appropriation campaign; other, more informal expressions happen on Twitter and Substack and podcasts every day. And the campaign is facilitated by scholars’ behavior as renewable, ever-compliant resources who assume journalism values giving credit as much as academe does, and are always surprised and hurt to find journalism plays by different rules.

One way to think about this: As a scholar-expert, you’re now on permanent background — giving quotes with no guarantee of being quoted or even credited — with journalists.

Does that change the way you feel about “getting the word out” through the media?

Does it change your interest in taking more responsibility for the public expression of your expertise?