Robert Darnton

What is News?

VTR Date: October 8, 2011

Robert Darnton discusses the ongoing production of historical narrative.


GUEST: Robert Darnton
AIR DATE: 09/08/2011
VTR: 06/02/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest once again today is historian Robert Darnton, Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library.

A former President of the American Historical Association, my guest comes quite naturally to considerations of past and present … of history and news.

For after earning his Ph.D. from Oxford, Robert Darnton worked at the New York Times, where his father Byron had been a renowned reporter killed in World War II, and where his brother John was to win the Pulitzer Prize for reporting and to achieve high editorial rank.

Indeed, I’d like to begin today by asking Dr. Darnton about a point he made at the very beginning of his 1999 Presidential Address before the American Historical Association … that in asking “a question about the media today: What is news? Most of us would reply that news is what we read in newspapers or see and hear on news broadcasts.

“If we considered the matter further, however,” continued the AHA President, “we probably would agree that news is not what happened – yesterday, or last week – but rather stories about what happened. It is a kind of narrative, transmitted by special kinds of media.”

And I wonder if that’s the line that connects the two – history and news: that neither is reality; that both are stories. Is it?

DARNTON: You, you’ve got it exactly right. That is precisely my position. And in using the world “reality” you made me squirm in my seat because, of course, we don’t have any unmediated access to reality.

We see reality through frames …cultural conventions, ways of perceiving the world, attitudes we share with other people, values systems.

Reality is constantly being re-defined for us. And I think it’s defined often in exactly the way you described it, by people who tell stories.

Now it’s very interesting that in this country we talk about news stories and we think of news almost implicitly as a kind of story telling.

And as you know from your own experience, I certainly know it from mine, you can’t just write a news story from scratch. You have to be trained.

You have to know what a lead sentence is. You have to know how to conduct an interview, you have to shape a story in a certain way and if you fail to do that, it doesn’t get published.

So everyone who’s been socialized into the news story writing business, conforms to certain conventions. And I was socialized by working for the Newark Star Ledger which is a tough newspaper, specializing largely in crime. And I was in police headquarters trying to make sense of what was happening on the crime front.

And I think that made … it made it possible for me to get some sense of the story element of in news, news reporting as most reporters did back in the more remote past.

Everyone began in police headquarters. And there was a saying, you know, “If you can cover police headquarters, you can cover the White House.”

Which I think is very interesting as an example of how … well attitudes among the professional news reporters.

HEFFNER: You know, I, I thought back as I read you AHA address, I thought back to my own training as a, as a young historian and I thought about Charles A. Beard’s address in which the concept of history, or reporting as an act of faith was then … to some considerable extent, refuted by Samuel Eliot Morison, a very different kind of historian, some years later.

And we used to talk about his address as “history through a beard” …

DARNTON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … with, with a kind of contempt for this relativity approach to writing history.

DARNTON: Relativism can be a dirty word, of course. But what is the alternative? Do we have an absolute knowledge of what happened in the past?

People who haven’t done archival research don’t appreciate the story element that goes into making sense of the past.

When you go into the National Archives in Paris and you have a “hunch” that somewhere in those millions of boxes there is a story that you could tell, you are wading into a very unorganized world. It has a certain organization because it’s … depends on the way documents are catalogued.

So you work through a series … the F-7 series, which is … has to do with the Terror in the French Revolution.

You order a box, the box appears, it has a little ribbon on the side …

HEFFNER: There it is … history …

DARNTON: There it is … and it’s, it’s a wonderful moment because you undue the ribbon, you fold back the top of the carton and you take out the first folder. You open it up and you start reading … they may be letters, they may be memos, they may be official documents by the Attorney General who’s taking people before the Revolution Tribunal to be guillotined … it, it could be lots of different things.

But you have to somehow make sense of this “stuff” that comes inside the folder.

And the succeeding folders and the folders after that. And the boxes that stretch out almost to infinity because we have read only a tiny fraction of a fraction of the documents that are out there in the archives.

So, my own view is, and I’ve spent a long time in archives … in making sense of this raw material, you are in a, in a way behaving like a newspaper reporter. These are the sources that you consult, you get hunches as to what “the story” is and then you have to provide evidence to support it.

So, if you’re covering police headquarters and you come back and you address the night city editor and he says, “What’s the story, kid?” and you say, “Well, there was a … an armed robbery at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street”. He’ll say, “Mmmm … 800 words”.

And then it’s up to you to somehow … in 800 words … get across what happened.

Well, I’m simplifying things, but I honestly believe that historians have to get across what they find in all those boxes in a way that speaks to readers.

So, Morison’s position strikes me as naïve and if I may use the word “positivistic” as if there were hard facts of reality that we can arrange in some self-evident order … a la Beard …

HEFFNER: But wait a minute … are you, are you suggesting there are not hard facts of reality? Something didn’t happen at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue?

DARNTON: Well, I would say “yes” to the first part of your question and “no” to the second. What is a hard fact? What is a fact? Of course, people and live and die and I would be … it would be ridiculous to deny that. But if you look at a document in the archives, you are interpreting it from the very first line.

It’s … facts are not self-evident. People make sense of the information that hits their senses. Even when they walk down a street … so when you cover a fire … you, you interview the Captain of the fire brigade. You look around, you smell the smoke, you want to find out how many people were injured.

Those people really were injured, but the story you write is a construction built out of all of your sensory experience.

HEFFNER: You know, what’s so fascinating to me is that I think this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak with someone who has been both a newsman and a historian.

And you are an eminent historian … I … it goes way beyond the fact that you were the President of the AHA … how do you account for the fact that over the years … and this is 55 years now that I’ve been facing historians and reporters … it’s always the reporter who says … the journalist … the high and mighty editor, who says “Don’t compare me with the historian. I don’t’ have his obligations and I don’t want you to impose them upon me”

But you seem to be saying that the two have similar opportunities, similar approaches and therefore, I would think, similar responsibilities.

DARNTON: Similar, yes, but not the same. So, you know the expression, nothing is more dead than yesterday’s newspaper.

Or another one … today’s newspaper is the first draft of history.

I don’t believe that because … of course, it’s … today’s newspaper is evidence that will be used by historians … like the documents in the boxes I mentioned. But it’s not a first draft.

HEFFNER: Why not?

DARNTON: Well, because it’s like other bits of evidence that you put together in order to see a pattern that you find meaningful.

HEFFNER: But what about the responsibility of that first gatherer of what happened.

DARNTON: Well, I think it’s a magnificent responsibility and very important because that gatherer is informing his or her readers. So, of course, it’s a great profession. I mean I’m profoundly admiring of news gathering, but I, I think it’s, it’s not the same thing as what a historian does because the historian has the perspective of time and he’s got different sources of information besides the newspaper. I can give you an example.

HEFFNER: Please.

DARNTON: The 18th century … in London coffeehouses, there were men called “paragraph men”. They would sit there, listen to gossip and write on a scrap of paper a single paragraph, which they would take to a printing shop where a man … you could call him an editor … he was really a typesetter … had, on the marble … a big frame and he would take the paragraph, compose it in type and fit it under the previous paragraphs in, in a column.

And if you look at newspapers from London from the beginning of the 18th century to the early 19ty century. They’re all the same. They have no headlines, they have no by-lines, they have no stories … they’re just a succession of paragraphs.

Now, these paragraphs were fully of information and very important, often. But the … my point is that news reporting began by paragraph men who are giving you something like blogs or tweets, you could say … little chunks of information.

And that, I think … it was out of that sort of tradition of very imperfect information, but information that was limited, that reporting developed as a modern profession.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, that brings me to this great book of yours Poetry and The Police Communication Networks in 18th Century Paris (not London).

And it was so enormous, it is so enormously revealing to learn about the way … maybe not paragraph artists, but the way in which these little incidental notes are, are kept or passed around and … so that even poetry and song incorporate news …


HEFFNER: … become news. But, when you say that … look when I asked the question about the historian and the news reporter, I’m trying to put my finger on the reporter, on the journalist, not on the historian. Because I think the journalist who often doesn’t accept enough of his responsibility to weed out, as much as possible, what happened. He doesn’t want that responsibility; he doesn’t want to be burdened by professionalism. Now, you’re going to say “no” to that, I can tell.


HEFFNER: .. it’s in, it’s in your …

DARNTON: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … genes.


HEFFNER: To say that.

DARNTON: Well, I, I think a good reporter sorts out the attempts of people who are sources of information to put spins on it, to bias it in favor of their own interests. He goes to other sources that would be competing with the first source. He sees both sides or many sides of a question, and that’s part of the genius of being a good reporter. So I have a profound respect for that.

And in that respect, he’s not, or she is not, altogether different from the historian, who is also looking for opposing points of view. Different kinds of information.

HEFFNER: So you’re taking the good reporter …


HEFFNER: … and I certainly agree with you …the good reporter and making that favorable comparison, or drawing a line to the good historian …


HEFFNER: … because we have bad historians, too. What’s your evaluation of the journalistic field today in terms of being “good” reporters?

DARNTON: Well, I have to heave a great sigh because …

HEFFNER: I hear it.

DARNTON: … I, I think that, that we’re in trouble, frankly. Of course there will always be, I hope, great newspapers that will even print stories by excellent reporters, but the decline in quality is clear and it’s based on economics, because the “Want” ads don’t sell the way they used to sell, and people go online for information.

If you’re unemployed and looking for a job, you don’t buy the Daily News or the New York Times … you go online. And you may not have a computer so you go to your neighborhood library where you get access to computers and you get instruction from librarians on how to use them. It’s a very important service.

However, it does … it’s part of this re-shaping of the whole ecology of information. And I fear that investigative journalism, the good, tough reporting of what we used to call “the shoe leather man” … that kind of rigor in the … in the … in the finding out of information and in the writing up of information … that it, it’s being eroded. And, of course, all of my students, I ask them at the beginning of every class, or lecture, or seminar … “to you read the daily newspaper? The printed daily news paper”?

None of them does anymore. They all … they say, “Well, but we get our news online”. But that’s a very different experience for most of them, because they tend to click on individual items and to read superficially, frankly.

I think that the front page of The New York Times is a map of what happened yesterday. It’s a map that is an artifice, of course, it doesn’t correspond with reality perfectly, as we were saying earlier. But it’s the work of wonderful professionals who have a skill in telling you, the reader, what is more important than what, what deserves your attention and organizing a, a collective story about yesterday.

HEFFNER: And that, too, has been changing.

DARNTON: That’s been …

HEFFNER: And not for the better.

DARNTON: No. No. I … so I’m … alas … I’m with those who say the great newspapers of yesterday don’t exist today except for a few. And a very few.

So I’m, I’m worried, frankly, and I think it’s a danger for democracy because we need great newspapers that are performing this function.

HEFFNER: The phrase the “ecology of communication” that’s such an interesting phrase which I, I suspect is not very well understood.

DARNTON: Well, it may sound pompous, you know. I don’t mean to use big words in a pretentious way. But I do think of information as something that exists in many different forms.

You know, people say today “We have entered the information age” … as if other ages didn’t have information. And one of things I’m trying to do in this book, is to show how other information systems actually operated.

Now it so happens in Paris around 1750 … first of all there were no real newspapers. There was the Gazette de France, but it didn’t have in it what we would call news.

Secondly, it’s a highly illiterate population. But, thirdly, people wanted to know what was happening. So, how did you find out?

Well there were different ways. One way was to go to a tree in the garden of the Palais-Royal, called the Tree of Cracow and it was just a tradition that people gathered around this tree to talk about news, what was happening.

But this was an oral system of transmission. And they would get rumors, basically, which they would filter through discussion. And then many of them, they were called nouvellistes de bouche… newsmongers of the mouth … in other words oral reporters


DARNTON: … so to speak. Some of them would then write them down on scraps of paper and they, too, tended to be paragraphs, just like the paragraph men in London. Only the word for it in French was anecdote … anecdote.

Then sometimes the … they would carry these slips of paper in their pocket and they would take one out at a café and read it to the regulars of the café and there would be a lot of discussion … usually with a police spy listening in. There were probably 3,000 police spies in Paris at this time.

They were writing regular reports. The reports, many of them, have made it into the archives and I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of reports of police spies about what people were saying in cafes.

And then sometimes these little bits of paper would be combined in gazette a la main handwritten manuscript gazettes which circulated all over.

And some of these then finally would be printed. So you had different systems, different ways of communicating news. And the one that fascinates me, most is, is song.

HEFFNER: I know.

DARNTON: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: I know. I know.

DARNTON: Song was wonderful. You know I believe that all of us have in our heads a repertoire of tunes. And it’s just there as a kind of collective memory. Not exactly the same for everyone, but there are certain tunes that all of us know together.

And in France in the 18th century, everyone carried around in their heads this repertoire and many, many people improvised new words …

HEFFNER: New words.

DARNTON: … to old tunes.


DARNTON: … and this … it was not hard to do, you know, they were doing it every day. I have actual statistics, which I’ll spare you. But the point is that every day there is a new verse to some tune everyone knew about the King’s mistress or the taxes, or the bad harvests, or someone who drowned in the Sienne … and it spreads like wildfire through the streets of Paris. So you would imagine this city singing. There were professional beggars … street singers … on, not every corner, but many corners in Paris.

Then there were people who sang at work. They were people who sang in the marketplace, they sang in salons … and these songs spread like crazy. In fact there was a … one of the wit’s Chamfort said, “France is an absolute monarchy tempered by songs”. Songs really mattered. That’s how public opinion was formed.

HEFFNER: And if … we’re not talking about Louis XV … but rather about Barack Obama … are we talking about blogs as the substitutes for those songs, perhaps?

DARNTON: I think it’s a valid parallel. You know original sin among historians is anachronism. So I don’t want to construe the 18th century as though it were the 21st. But I think we can learn by this parallel.

And so, if you actually look at the evidence, the scraps of paper which I found in literally thousands of pages of scrap books and documents of all sorts, they’re rather like blogs.

And, in fact, I’ve actually done some research on blogs and put the blog next to an item from the 18th century, you know, usually about sex in high places …


DARNTON: … they were about … but they’re remarkably similar. So this notion of, of a tweet, a tidbit, a snippet … which is a kernel of news, that’s something that has existed for centuries and centuries.

HEFFNER: But we did grow out of that. Do you see the seeds … kernel of a seed that would indicate that we may grow out of this?

DARNTON: I don’t know, frankly. I’m not too good as a prophet of the past and I’m certainly not a prophet of the future. But I think I can look into the past to see lines of development that will inform us about the direction things are taking.

HEFFNER: And when you do?

DARNTON: Well, when I do … I see a profusion of what you could call the fragmentation of information. Information coming in bits and bites. I think that is similar to what happened before … in, in the world of paragraphs before the news story became 800 words long as opposed to 50 words.

So I think “yes” that we are moving into a world where information is fragmented. Where information appears in many different kinds of media. And furthermore where the citizenry is participating in this, so you don’t have citizens sitting back at their breakfast table reading the printed newspaper and shaking their heads in disbelief, or whatever.

Instead you’ve got citizen who are participating in blogging and often, actually write books themselves that are published through print on demand and in, in manners that we used to call the vanity press.

But you know more than twice as many books were self … were published in this self-publication mechanism last year than the year … then were published through the professional trade.

So there’s something new going on. I mean some people call it the “social media” or, you know, Word 2.0, or something like that. But there is a kind of dialog going on in the communication network or the “ecology of communication” which people participate more than they used to.

So I worry about fragmentation and the lack of perspective and professionalism. But at the same time I’m enthusiastic about the empowerment of citizens who maybe participating more in this general world of information even though they don’t have professional training and they can’t do the job that reporters used to do.

HEFFNER: I’m glad we end and we are ending now on a, on a kind of upbeat note. But I hear my own voice, it doesn’t sound upbeat. Maybe because it’s frightening to me and I don’t know whether it is to you, this future.

DARNTON: Well, I see a loss. I mean I, I’m a deep believer in professional journalism and the shoeleather man on the beat kind of thing. And I regret that. I honestly do. And I regret investigative reporting. But I see lots of new possibilities. And frankly I’m optimistic about the new landscape that is just coming into view.

HEFFNER: And that’s the way to end. Thank you, Professor Darnton, so much for joining me today.

DARNTON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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