The Clare Spark Blog

October 6, 2018

Historians vs. Journalists/Politicians

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 6:17 pm

I am writing this because it is important to specify the differences between trained historians and journalists, especially in this hyper-polarized time when half the country seems bent on reversing the 2016 election results and ostensibly defending abortion rights. (And partly to spell out the difference between my training in graduate school in the “red” history department at UCLA, and my prior experience as a program producer (1969-late 1990s) and director of programming at a left wing radio station (2-82 to 8-82, Pacifica Radio, KPFK-FM Los Angeles).

SOURCES/FOOTNOTES. Even at left-leaning UCLA, the emphasis on reliable sources was emphasized, as were footnotes specifying acceptable prior reconstructions of past controversies. Thus we were expected to be original, and likely confrontational, owing to our reliance on archival research. (This entailed travel to often distant college collections, thus ensuring that indigent students were excluded.) William L. Shirer, a journalist, wrote a best-seller that was a treasure trove for historians The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (1960) because he had access to new sources (after the war, recovered Nazi documents) and his account was footnoted, although he gave too many opinions based on speculation for my taste.

IDEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS. Which brings us to the context in which history is written. In graduate school we were at once introduced to the term “present-mindedness.” It was bad form to impose current values on prior figures, that journalists today indulge (often indoctrinated by Old or New Leftists, such as Howard Zinn.) Historians are divided on this issue, but postmodernists deny “the pastness of the past,” as well as the entire concept of “objectivity” as a bourgeois imposition. Here, historians join with trendy(but disreputable)journalists.

MOTIVES OF PAST ACTORS. Here’s where I depart from left-leaning Wikipedia. ( Wiki says that historians should deal with motives. Insofar as prior historians are writing within a recognizable ideology (usually social democratic today), this makes sense. But with journalists constantly psyching out their subjects (i.e., POTUS), I must demur. We can know what President Trump said (as partial evidence), but our assessments of what he meant are always unknowable.


  1. “We can know what President Trump said (as partial evidence), but our assessments of what he meant are always unknowable.”

    Of course we can make an accurate assessment of what the President meant. He speaks English. We speak English. Words have meanings – words describe things and express ideas and meanings. How difficult can it be to understand and grasp the meaning of what has been spoken? What am I missing?

    Comment by Shirley J. Reynolds — October 8, 2018 @ 7:15 am | Reply

    • We all speak English, but motives are generally partly hidden. For instance, we may be beset by ambivalence or meanings may be ambiguous. And then there are unconscious motives that only surface over time and intense reflection in very old age about patterns of conduct.

      Comment by clarelspark — October 8, 2018 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

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