Brief encounters

Short reviews of Journalism and Memory and Protest and Propaganda: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History

Journalism and Memory
Edited by Barbie Zelizer and Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt
Palgrave Macmillan
282 pages, $95; $28 paperback

Journalism and Memory is an addition to the efflorescent field of memory studies, defined here as deriving from “a shift . . . from ‘what we know’ to ‘how we remember it.’ ” So much, in any case, for historical knowledge. Scholars see in this change a wide-open opportunity. There are already 28 published volumes in Palgrave Macmillan’s memory series, with more to come.

This particular one seizes on journalism as a stepchild neglected by students of memory, although it would seem obvious that the passalong of common or cultural or public memory would inevitably draw on journalists’ output. To make up for the deficiency, the book’s editors—Zelizer, a senior professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and Tenenboim-Weinblatt, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—have brought together 15 papers by scholars writing primarily about topics centered in the United States and Israel, sometimes only glancingly dealing with journalism.

However, at least two articles might be of special interest to students interested in journalism:

Michael Schudson, Columbia University’s veteran historian of journalism, politics, and political sociology, declares that “journalism has been our most public, widely distributed, easily accessible and thinly stretched membrane of social memory.” Moreover, he asserts, journalists contribute to social memory without really trying. Often journalists introduce history to demonstrate the newsworthiness or uniqueness of a story; more often, they employ history to add depth and complexity. Finally, journalists use history to illuminate individual lives—e.g., in an obituary for Rodney King, whose life was intertwined with the aftermath of the 1991 Los Angeles riots.

Barry Schwartz, an emeritus at the University of Georgia, has worked in long-term national memory. Here he takes on journalism’s changing views of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—the shift from dismissal to recognition as a tribute to the fallen of various wars to the most recent interpretation, as a founding document of emancipation. For the last shift, he angrily blames “the left”—that is, the adversarial journalists of recent decades. He is having none of it; for him the famous address remains what it used to be, nothing more or less.

Protest and Propaganda: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History
Edited by Amy Helene Kirschke and Phillip Luke Sinitiere
University of Missouri Press
264 pages, $45

W. E. D. Du Bois, whose lifespan stretched from the era of Reconstruction to the 1963 March on Washington, played many roles in the emergence of African-American rights and progress—scholar, philosopher, writer, theoretician. Yet there has been comparatively little study of his work as an editor, a term of 24 years in the prime years of his life.

Du Bois, holder of a Harvard doctorate and a distinguished sociologist and historian at Atlanta University, was invited to New York in the summer of 1910. He was offered the position of director of publicity and research for the year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His chief task—and opportunity—was to become editor of a new monthly magazine, to be called The Crisis, a title adapted from an antislavery poem by James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis.”

Du Bois’ appointment meant that the NAACP had cast its lot with the militant wing of the era’s racial politics, as opposed to the more accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington. From the start, Du Bois seized his opportunity—not only to agitate on such issues as lynching and Jim Crow but to fill a greater need. As Amy Helene Kirschke and Philip Luke Sinitiere write, Du Bois needed to construct a new historical memory for a people who had been deprived of their past. Much of this was done on an issue-by-issue basis. He boasted: “We condensed more news about Negroes and their problems in a month than most colored papers before this had published in a year.”

Above all, The Crisis was militant in the brash manner of other political magazines of the era, such as the socialist Masses. It used harsh cartoons, paintings, and photographs, most notably in depicting the mob lynchings that still erupted in the South.

But Du Bois could also show moderation. Garth E. Pauley reviews Du Bois’ editorial policy on women’s suffrage and demonstrates how he declined to respond in kind to the element in the women’s suffrage movement that opposed votes for African-Americans. Du Bois stuck firmly to a policy of supporting universal suffrage—and won, although it took decades for the black vote to catch up.

Du Bois remained editor until 1934, when he left in a dispute over the worth of segregation, and eventually his political activity led to scrutiny and exile in Africa. But the publication he started continues today, 114 years later. This volume suggests the need for a full-scale history of the magazine. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.