[SIGCIS-Members] historians and journalists

Andrew Meade McGee amm5ae at virginia.edu
Tue Oct 7 11:18:55 PDT 2014


Thank you for sharing this news and for raising some crucial issues. I find
it particularly distressing you were treated so shabbily by the Washington
Post (someone once told me he could never trust a newspaper for which
the popular abbreviation -- WaPo -- sounded like a forgotten Marx Brother).
That you have, with good reason, been disinclined to share your work with
journalists, is a great loss to civil and informed discussion of the
history of the computer in its broader social context. The Morosov
essential re-appropriation of Eden Medina's ground-breaking work is
similarly galling for ignoring both the considerable legwork that went into
gathering evidence and the careful intellectual framework in which the
argument and evidence are situated.

What's particularly grating is that it's the journalistic interpretations
as filtered through the likes of Isaacson and Morosov that will be read and
discussed, retweeted and reblogged by the chattering classes, those who
make policy and art and media, to eventually be consumed by ordinary
readers. Good journalism is the first draft of history; what we seem
to encounter more and more on the web and in publications is simply
strip-mining of other people's writings for interesting tidbits.

I recently served as a research assistant for a business school professor
preparing a syllabus for a business history class intended for second-year
MBA students. He prepared a list of potential readings on business and
technological innovation, with descriptions of the various books' contents
and approach, and had me poll the students on their reading preferences.
The students' comments expressed surprising interest in reading detailed
"academic" books for greater context and depth of explanation, but they
ultimately voted for more "popular" or "journalistic" accounts because they
indicated those were the books their peers in business world would be
reading and referencing.

This raises questions of how we historians engage with a larger public
while still respecting well-developed professional inclinations for
citation, complexity of claim, elaboration of evidence, etc. I come out of
a graduate program (UVA's history department) where we are aggressively
encouraged to supplement academic publications with journalistic writing,
particularly op-eds linking our research to hot-button issues of the day.
The motivation is sound, but I've always been stymied by the practice.

So, building on Nathan's lessons, beyond the essential task of identifying
perpetrators of misappropriation and plagiarism, are there best practices
folks on the list have for contributing to op-eds, journalistic articles,
magazine pieces, internet and blog contributions, etc.? How can we engage
more readily with the public while still respecting what makes us
distinctive as historians?

Looking forward to some guidance.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Andrew Meade McGee
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
PO Box 400180 - Nau Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904

On Tue, Oct 7, 2014 at 1:30 PM, Nathan Ensmenger <nensmeng at indiana.edu>

> It has been interesting to follow this discussion about the Issacson book
> (which I have not yet read) and the larger questions it raises about the
> relationship between the popular and academic history of computing.
> There is an aspect of this relationship that has come up several times in
> the past few weeks that I think it would be useful for all of us to be
> aware of, and it has to do with the misuse of academic scholarship by
> popular historians/journalists.
> The New Yorker has just published a piece by Evgeny Morosov on “The
> Socialist origins of Big Data,” which describes the Cybersyn project in
> 1970s Chile.  As you might know, Project Cybersyn was the subject of my
> colleague Eden Medina’s prize-winning book Cybernetic Revolutionaries.  In
> fact, the Morozov article is essentially a retelling of Eden’s story — with
> an almost complete lack of attribution.   There is a single sentence
> acknowledging her book, but the rest of the piece is presented as if it
> were Morozov’s own research.
> I hesitate to link to the piece, but here it is:
> http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/planning-machine
> This is the second time in as many weeks that a major publication has
> plagiarized the work of academic historians of science and technology.  The
> Atlantic recently published a piece on an extraordinary visit by Helen
> Keller with the MIT cybernetician Norbert Weiner.  A fascinating story  —
> and one which was drawn entirely from the work of Mara Mills.  The original
> article included only a single sentence about Mara, and then only in
> seeming support of the author’s conclusions.  The fact that all of the
> original research was Mara’s went unmentioned.
> In response to a Twitter-based outcry, the Atlantic piece was
> substantially revised to recognize Mara’s essential contributions, although
> no acknowledgement of or apology for the original “mistake” has been made.
> Lest you think that either example of misappropriation was the result of a
> well-meaning but uninformed journalist, note the Morozov is currently a PhD
> student in the history of science at Harvard, and Latif Nasser, the author
> of the Atlantic piece, is a graduate of that program.
> What makes the Atlantic incident particularly egregious is that the
> Atlantic has been actively soliciting submissions from historians of
> science and technology.  While that in theory is a good thing for our
> discipline, in practice it is clear that they are just as likely to steal
> your material as publish it.
> Many of us have had experience spending a lot of time and energy talking
> to journalists and then being eliminated from the resulting article.  I had
> my work plagiarized by the Washington Post in an incident that ended up
> being the subject of a self-serving editorial “apology” by the WaPo
> ombudsman. (See “Who stole the Computer Girls?
> http://thecomputerboys.com/?p=289)  It was a frustrating and very
> stressful experience.  I no longer talk to journalists about my research.
> Two take-home lessons for us as academic historians:
> 1) No journalist has the ability to guarantee that you will be correctly
> attributed in an article. Editors can and will remove citations,
> references, and call-outs in the interest of making the article “more
> readable.”  They will defend this practice as being legitimate, despite the
> fact that if one of our students submitted such an article, we would fail
> them immediately.
> 2) The only way to change this situation is to publicly call out the
> offenders. The Atlantic piece was only changed as a result of a Twitter
> outcry — and even then only after most readers had already seen the
> original unattributed piece and then moved on to other things.  If you are
> active on social media, make your presence known.
> I say all of this somewhat reluctantly.  I have always been interested in
> engaging with a broader public.  Like Paul, I even worked on a Hollywood
> development project (think Mad Men in the late 1960s computer industry).
>  But it is clear that there are dangers to doing so.   I am not suggesting
> that Issacson is guilty of misappropriating sources.  But I also think that
> as a community we need to engage critically with work’s like his, and in
> doing so, be careful to constantly acknowledge and highlight the
> contributions of scholarly historians.
> -Nathan
>> Nathan Ensmenger
> Associate Professor of Informatics
> School of Informatics and Computing
> Indiana University, Bloomington
> homes.soic.indiana.edu/nensmeng/
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