It’s tempting to think we already know how future historians will judge the Trump administration.
But we don’t. We can’t. And that’s because most of our current information comes from journalists who are, historically, terrible at predicting long-term legacies. The end of the Harry S. Truman administration was marked with scathing columns and reportage. Warren G. Harding’s untimely death prompted glowing encomiums.
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That is because journalism and history are related but not identical. The former too often makes assumptions about how news will ultimately inform public memory and shape history. But we won’t know history’s judgment on the Trump administration until time passes, new documentary evidence emerges and is reviewed, and larger trends, quietly passing unnoticed today, are analyzed.
The split between the two is under scrutiny once more as Siege: Trump Under Fire, the second installment of Michael Wolff’s chronicle of the Trump administration, will be published on June 4. Wolff’s first effort, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, proved a sensational best seller in early 2018. It sold millions of copies, and promised to be a historic moment in presidential biography. But viewed from today’s perspective—in which far more alarming revelations have emerged from numerous credible sources—the disclosures in Fire and Fury seem almost quaint.
Eighteen months later, it’s a relic from a different era.
Twenty-five years ago next month, I was the evening assignment editor in CNN’s Los Angeles bureau. On June 17, 1994, I was on duty the evening that A.C. Cowlings and O.J. Simpson took their slow-motion drive up the freeway in Los Angeles. Twenty-five years before that, on July 20, 1969, my father was a producer of the moon landing broadcast for CBS News. Both broadcasts mesmerized millions of Americans as they occurred in real time, and now both belong to history.
A reporter lays out “the first draft of history each day,” veteran journalist George Fitch wrote in 1914. And in the typewriter age, when less ferocious deadlines permitted moments for reflection, it’s true that reporters might have considered history. A journalist in 1969, covering a well-planned, faultlessly executed space mission, might also have been able to prepare coverage in a structured and coherent manner. Today, you can pop over to YouTube and feel the raw power of the most sensational moments of the moon landing and the Simpson trial. What you probably won’t see are the filler stories pushed out to keep audience attention between those moments.
Sensational stories always require creativity, speculation, and punditry to hook viewers and maintain relevance, but over time such content evaporates from public memory. The audience for Apollo XI expected extensive coverage on the way to an unforgettable ending. The CBS News broadcast included Orson Welles musing about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and Gloria Steinem and Kurt Vonnegut on whether funding space voyages was a good idea while there were more pressing needs at home.
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Working for a cable news channel in 1994, I lived a minute-by-minute existence assisting our producers and reporters with procuring information, relaying updates to CNN Center in Atlanta, and making sure the national desk alerted show producers to any new information. The story was as much a daily serial drama as a news story—moving in unanticipated ways—and I had little sense that history was unfolding. There was no time to be contemplative.
One night early on in the Simpson coverage, one of our reporters broke the sensational but inaccurate story that, according to unnamed sources, “bloody clothes” had been discovered in a washing machine in Simpson’s home. And a few months later, Simpson reportedly confessed his guilt to a minister who had visited him in jail. Years later, when the Academy Award–winning documentary series O.J.: Made in America spent eight hours chronicling the saga, neither the confession nor much of the early sensationalism ultimately made the cut.
History and journalism are symbiotic. Both coherently frame complex and verifiable information. Historians often rely on journalists to provide primary source materials, and journalists will call upon historians to add perspective to daily accounts. When done professionally and ethically, both will provide lasting accounts of vital events to educate future audiences.
But for all their similarities, there remains an undercurrent of tension between them. Historians criticize journalists for omitting context, perspective, or essential details in their reports. And journalists sometimes view scholars as detached, petty, or condescending.
As a journalist involved in real time during a historic event, and as a trained historian, I’ve come to believe that neither endeavor possesses a narrative validity, or even specific intrinsic value, that the other lacks. Assembling reportage in the moment and composing history in retrospect seem similar, but they’re actually quite different. An excellent journalist might be a terrible historian—but that shouldn’t devalue their journalism. A respected historian might very well produce fine scholarship without understanding news.
The journalist sprints from tree to tree, the historian sketches the whole forest.
Journalists face the unknown. They must immediately sift relevant events and new information, as well as a baffling array of attempts to influence their coverage in one way or another, without the benefit of context or hindsight. Key facts that might emerge decades later and reframe events remain unknown. They’re also often driven by brutal competition, which pushes coverage in strange and unexpected directions.
Historians don’t work in such a frenetic world. They gather facts, weigh evidence, and generally enjoy the luxury of composing persuasive accounts on their own schedule. The journalist sprints from tree to tree; the historian sketches the whole forest.
That’s where we stand with the Trump administration today. We simply do not know how much of Wolff’s work will eventually be considered part of the flotsam of fake news spun off in giant dollops by perhaps the most bizarre White House in history. He’s captured electrifying glimpses of the world’s biggest story. The anecdotes he relays are amusing, horrifying, entertaining, and memorable. He has the gossip columnist’s talent for mixing innuendo and rumor. We can watch the sales of Siege to gauge whether the public’s appetite for sensational but ephemeral Trump tidbits remains strong.
But what will ultimately be remembered—and what will be forgotten—remains an entirely different question.