The media is always at its best when it’s examining itself in the mirror for flaws.
Recently, there was an interesting brew-up involving one of my favorite podcasts, Backstory. The short form of the story is that Backstory interviewed an author, Sarah Milov, about book that was being released soon, and then didn’t use any of the recordings of the author, or mention her or her book – but they did an entire episode that was informed by the interview and consequently by the book and discussion. NPR describes the situation here: [npr] It raises an interesting problem, which is the degree to which a podcaster or blogger is doing their own work, or summarizing someone else’s.
In today’s world of whirlwind media news cycle, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught by timely stories that lead you into a different idea. I’m sure you’ve notice that many of the topics I discuss, here, are related to current news. But it’s not really original reporting; I am not digging up the story from primary sources. Sometimes, I do dig into primary sources, sometimes I am putting my own spin on someone else’s analysis. That risks putting me into the situation that the Backstory team found themselves in: they used someone else’s analysis and research, and wound up sort-of plagiarizing the author’s content. Or, prematurely disclosing it. The author had not yet gotten a chance to even start her book tour, yet, so the audience had no way of knowing what was going on.
I feel as though the Backstory team handled their mistake fairly well; they did an entire episode discussing the problem with the author and were very apologetic and very open about the way the whole thing had happened. I also appreciated that the author was willing to confront them, in what had to be a fairly tense interview, and she did not cut them any slack. It was an interesting discussion and if you want to hear it, it’s here: [backstory]
For several years, BackStory hosts have appeared on WBUR’s Here & Now, discussing a range of topics that have been in the news. Last week, Nathan and Ed appeared on the program to talk about America’s relationship with tobacco. They relied on the research of Sarah Milov, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, whose book, “The Cigarette: A Political History,” comes out in October.
As you may have seen reported in various media outlets, neither Nathan, nor Ed credited Prof. Milov on the air for her work. For that, we’re deeply sorry.
So in this special segment, Prof. Milov joins Nathan and Ed to talk about what happened last week, as well as broader issues facing historians who are regularly in the media.
By the way, that’s a nicely worded apology. “We did this thing and we are sorry” and a complete absence of excuses.
The things I write here are informed by a mix of:
- Current events and reporting on them
- Stuff I have learned about over the years, and my opinions on those things
- Books I have read years ago (or recently)
- Articles I have read, which consist of other people’s analysis from primary sources
I, myself, get lost when it comes to some of my sources. In my recent piece about Bonaparte at Gettysburg [stderr] my opinion about Robert E. Lee was probably assembled from several dozen books that educated me about Napoleonic warfare (John Elting’s Swords Around a Throne, David Chandler’s Napoleon’s Marshals, Memoirs of General De Marbot, Charles Fair’s From the Jaws of Victory, Cavalie Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, and a bunch of other stuff) Marbot and Mercer qualify as original sources, but even then, the opinion I have formed is digested from their opinions. It’s opinions all the way down. I’m not uncomfortable with that; I believe that’s how opinions are formed and that it’s acceptable.
Where things get complicated is situations in which an article depends heavily on an un-cited source. Whenever I depend heavily on any source for any given article I cite the source and pull direct quotes from it, to make it clear. For example, when I write anything about the Vietnam War, I will try to remember a particularly appropriate chunk from some book that influenced me greatly, and cite it as a reference. After all, if you believe that wars like Vietnam are useless, destructive, and unwinnable, you probably have been influenced by Howard Zinn or David Halberstam. And, if you want to illustrate pretty much any thing about how futile the Vietnam War was, Halberstam has said it better than I could. So, to honor Halberstam’s influence on my thinking, I go out of my way to find a citation from Halberstam. It is my opinion that this is appropriate, if not important. Chris Hedges famously got caught plagiarizing Hemingway [NewRepublic] and managed to survive with his career and Pulitzer intact, by claiming that Hemingway was so influential to him that it was not plagiarism so much as that Hemingway had formed his opinion to a degree that his opinion even sounded like Hemingway. “Pull the other one, Chris” comes to mind, because being influenced by Hemingway does not mean you write in Hemingway’s own words.
The story I just cited in New Republic is a good example. If I were writing a piece about Chris Hedges’ plagiarism, I would not have been the person to discover it; the analysis would not therefore be mine. In fact I read Hedges’ book when it came out and thought it was pretty good. I didn’t catch the ‘Hemingwayesque’ parts because I haven’t read Hemingway on war [Hemingway was a quintessential war poseur and a phony, I believe*]. If I read an article about Chris Hedges’ plagiarism and then went back and researched it and verified it, if I wrote an article claiming that I had just realized Chris Hedges was a plagiarist, I’d be lifting my entire idea from the first article, which would be plagiarism too.
Here is how I feel about this: we exist within a culture and a time, and the things we learn and are exposed to are the things of that culture and time. We are capable of original thought, but more likely, what we are doing is re-arranging existing thoughts into original configurations. That’s fine, in my opinion: creativity does not require original thought, because original thought is both a) nearly impossible b) hard to recognize. The history of art and culture is full of examples of truly original creativity that blew right past its audience because it was too far removed from popular culture. As I write this there’s a chance that some of you know who Chris Hedges is, and others don’t. But, if I were writing a scholarly-seeming bit about whether or not one of Montaigne’s friends was a plagiarist, nobody’d know if that person existed it all, and it would be a legitimate question whether or not the alleged plagiarist mattered.
Shifting gears slightly: maybe some of you have noticed that my writing often starts off going in Direction A, then pauses, pivots, and marches off in Direction B. That’s not an attempt to be clever; it’s a reflection of how I think. What happens when I think about something is I see connections to other things. “History does not repeat itself but it does rhyme” [attributed to Mark Twain] I have a distractingly wide array of interests, and I deliberately let me writing reflect that. It’s not because I think that I’m particularly clever or well-read, but I feel that the connections between things are interesting enough to explore. In other words, I know this blog sometimes ricochets around – that’s not a bug: that’s a feature.
It also helps me address the topic which I started this post off with. If I read some news article about the F-35 being unable to do whatever thing, I can avoid just writing a summary of an article that someone else has written. I can start off with a description of the thing and a reference to the article, then pivot and charge off in my own direction with whatever thoughts I think might interest you from there.
This blog does not have a specific agenda, though it certainly has a trend: distrust of authority, interest in epistemology, rejection of government legitimacy, and fascination with how things go wrong. I consider a war a “thing that has gone very wrong” and there’s a similarity, for me, between the decisions that result in an overpriced, underpowered, design like an F-35 and those that result in a superpower attacking Vietnam and losing. I am very concerned with trying to understand causality and (as I have mentioned) [stderr] how we believe things. Isn’t it amazing that people will look at a bunch of marketing and believe it? If I thought that it was possible for me to make people more cynical about marketing and politics, I would probably try to encourage that, though it seems that you’re a pretty dark and skeptical bunch, anyhow.
When I am writing a piece that touches on matters of philosophy, I try to be as clear, accurate, and honest as I can. I feel it’s insulting to waste people’s time with bad arguments, and it’s dishonorable to make ones that are manipulative. That means that it’s hard to argue for something, and I prefer to drop facts that I believe are accurate, and analysis that I believe follows from those facts, hoping that whoever is on the receiving end will come toward the same conclusions I did. That’s another reflection, I believe, of the anti-authoritarianism and nihilism that pervade my perception of everything.
To me, honesty is one of the most important choices that a nihilist can make. There’s not necessarily a reason to be honest, so it’s a choice. For most people, I believe that we are expected to be honest – civilization depends on it; a lot of social mechanisms break down without honesty and I suspect that the creation of a divine overseer that demands honesty was an early hack to allow civilization to exist, that was suborned by authoritarians for their own reasons.
So, that’s some notes about my “method” for writing. I’m deeply concerned with enforcing and demonstrating a clear dividing line between facts and opinions. A number of years ago, NPR was doing a series called “this, I believe” in which listeners wrote in with little essays, some of which were read on the air. It was around the time that freethoughtblogs was open to new bloggers, and I was starting the process of tossing my hat in the ring. I sent in my entry:
This I believe: knowing the difference between fact and opinion is the most important, and hardest thing for people to do.
Writing used to be very hard for me, because I’d sit and let things build up and build up, until finally what came out was dense like neutronium and convoluted beyond repair. I used to sit on stuff and polish it in my head until I’d usually realize that it didn’t matter and convince myself that nobody cared. What got me interested in starting a blog was that it would force me to let go and write under the self-applied pressure of deciding to post something every week. My original plan was to post something insightful and deeply reasoned every week. But I went with what I could do, rather than what I thought I wanted to do, and that’s how I got here.
[* and where did I get my opinion that Hemingway was a poseur and a phony? From another poseur and phony, namely SLA Marshall, former US Army historian, who interviewed Hemingway about his supposed fighting alongside the French underground, and concluded that Hemingway spent most of his time drunk in bars. The point is: I am unable to go back to primary sources and unpack how I came to have the opinion I have about Hemingway.]