Newspapers: "the rough draft of history"

Paper: The State; Date: Dec. 5, 1905; Issue 5302; Page 1; Columbia, South Carolina

In a recent article entitled “Who Said It First?” on the Web site Slate, Jack Shafer investigates who first coined the phrase “the first rough draft of history” to describe journalism. He thought it was the Washington Post’s former president and publisher, Philip L. Graham, until alerted by etymologist Barry Popik that the journalist Alan Barth used the phrase before Graham, in a 1943 book review.

In his zeal for word and phrase origins, Popik uncovered other early examples of the phrase Graham popularized to describe newspapers. One of these is a newspaper article from 1905 that contains the sentence “The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history.” This interesting article makes a persuasive case why the study of newspapers is important for daily readers, historians—and students in “modern” classrooms.

This article was printed by The State  in Columbia, South Carolina on December 5, 1905:

The Educational Value of “News.”

What is “news” today will be history tomorrow. No one would be bold enough to deny that history is one of the most essential branches of modern education, yet the proposition that the study of the news of the day is of equal value, is, indeed, but a part of the study of history, would probably be challenged by many. Those who value history as a study cannot consistently, however, deny to the study of news an equal value, for it is plainly apparent that the happenings of today are but the progress of history. If the knowledge of what the world did and thought a hundred sleepy years ago is of value in education, then it must be of equal if not greater value to know what the world today, the people about us in our own and in neighboring lands, are doing and thinking.

The most marked and significant tendency in education today is the deeper appreciation of the modern spirit. We may observe this in the revolt from the classical studies, and in the modernizing of the schools and universities. Latin and Greek have been dropped from the courses in many an institution long proud of its classical reputation, and where these ancient languages have been retained in the curriculum there has been a fight to justify their retention—as mental gymnastics. The tendency is seen also in the increased interest in science, especially those sciences that are practical and that touch the quick and pulsing life of the hour. It is seen in the broader study of history and in the tracing of the unbroken threads that, when duly seen, bind us hand and heart to the most ancient of peoples, to the earliest philosophies, religions, and myths. The past is interesting to us moderns chiefly because it has been demonstrated that we issued from it, and are its children and heirs.

In other words, so intense is the interest in modern things that ancient things to awaken any interest in us, must be shown to have an intimate connection with the immediate present, to have been necessary in the great revolutionary process. The old Roman that said that he was a man and that, therefore, nothing that was human was alien to him, would look well on a modern board of education. He had the true modern spirit. To keep abreast of the times we must know what the people of the day are doing and thinking. It is of far greater value to us to know what England and Germany and France are today, and what the people of these and of our own country are thinking, feeling, and doing, than it is to know all of ancient history; and the study of this “familiar matter of today” should be of far greater interest to us than is the study of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.”

The modern newspaper, as the chronicle of the most important and interesting things of the day, should be a text-book in every modern school. In no other way is it possible to learn what the outside world or the people in the next State, or the next county, or the next street are doing and thinking. And as we have endeavored in brief to show, this is the most desirable, because the most fruitful and necessary of all knowledge. We must know something of the great current that is sweeping onward. We are not merely to drift with the flotsam and wreckage. To be a part of the current, we must know what it is, must move with it—not be dragged along. The only way to learn the nature of the current, to become part of its vitalizing force, is to keep in touch with the spirit of the hour; and the newspaper is the only text-book of this science.

Some object to the newspaper because it has so much to do with politics. But Freeman said that history was past politics and present politics is future history. And Hobbes called politics “the art by which the affairs, both of armies and cities, are conducted to their ends.” Politics is, indeed, the history of tomorrow. Some of us may not fancy politics, but it is the greatest force in a nation at almost any hour of its history. The newspaper must, therefore, and should have much to do with politics.

Another objection to the use of the newspaper in the schools is that “news” is uncertain, and that what is learned today may have to be unlearned tomorrow, or something quite different learned in its place. This objection had a better standing as against the papers of ten years ago than against the enterprising and honest papers of today. All the sources of news have been improved, and the dissemination of news is not only far more rapid, but it is far more trustworthy. No reputable newspaper will now publish unverified reports, where it is possible to have them investigated, and no paper of standing will give space to mere rumor. Every paper wishes news, but no reputable journal desires sensational reports, or will admit them to its columns.

Those who make this objection to the newspaper fail to remember that the most valuable source of facts that the historian ever finds is a file of old newspapers. If the “news” as it is published is so inaccurate, so untrustworthy, how does it happen that it stands the fiery ordeal of time and historic investigation? The newspapers of this morning, containing accounts of the opening of the congress, of the measures used by Europe to break the stubborn will of “Abdul the Damned,” recording the political crisis in England, describing the dark events in Russia, chronicling the passing of Korea from the ranks of independent powers—and a thousand other interesting and significant things—will some day be eagerly sought in libraries as the foundation of the history of the wonderful year 1905. The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history. Later, the historian will come, take down the old files, and transform the crude but sincere and accurate annals of editors and reporters into history, into literature. The modern school must study the daily newspaper.

[Editor's note: This post originally appeared last month on the NewsInHistory blog.  This week, October 3 - 9, is National Newspaper Week, which serves to highlight the important role newspapers play in their communities.]

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