Fox News Protects Us From Dangerous Liberal Professors

I guess this is now what passes for investigative journalism.  I am willing to wager that you can find mistakes, oversights, inaccuracies, etc. in any large textbook, especially when it comes to more recent history.  Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information.  The bigger problem, however, is our understanding of the history textbook itself.  Our tendency is to think of it as somehow capturing an objective or neutral historical narrative.  It does not exist.  Good instructors teach their students how to read primary and secondary sources with a critical eye.

My bigger issue with the harassment of Columbia University professor, Alan Brinkley, by Fox News’s Griff Jenkins is the way he went about it.  Jenkins follows Brinkley for several blocks while criticizing the book’s treatment of the War on Terror. Apparently Brinkley wrote that only one terror suspect detained at Gitmo was ever charged, while Fox claims that the number today is over one hundred.  The problem is that Fox did not have data for 2006, when the book was published. On the positive side Jenkins looked quite spiffy and the Fox logo prominently displayed.

If Jenkins was really interested in sitting down with Alan Brinkley than why not request an interview instead of this shameful display?  Could it be that as a producer of one of Fox’s shows that Jenkins wasn’t interested in a mature conversation to begin with?  Could it be that what he was really interested in is the kind of television “shock and awe” that translates into ratings?  I’ve used Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation before in my AP classes and the majority of my students scored 4s and 5s on the test.  From what I can tell it did not turn them into screaming liberal fanatics who call for the downfall of this nation.  On p. 549 of his book you will find the following in response to the tragedy of 9-11: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.”  Yep, this is definitely someone you want to stalk in the name of patriotic journalism.

So, in the end what have we learned.  Well, if you are a fan of Fox News you probably had your assumptions about academics confirmed and you see Jenkins as some kind of moral crusader.  And if you dislike Fox News you are probably feeling sympathetic for Brinkley.  What is lost in all of this, however, is a conversation about the book and its content.  Congratulations Mr. Jenkins – looks like you had a good day.

30 comments… add one

  • Robert Moore Apr 7, 2009

    The sensationalizing of information (“SPIN”) at Fox is just too much. They have an agenda and it is all too clear.

    On another note (and I don’t mean to stray from the focal point of your post)… “Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information.” This is at the core of one chapter in my thesis. The “conclusiveness” of presentation in print is problematic. The question is how we can make something of substance in the digital environment that draws both a source of income comparable to that of a book and allows the writer the flexibility to modify and refine work, as well as entertain the input of others in the overall presentation that is created in the read-write environment.

  • Marc Ferguson Apr 7, 2009

    This is disgusting, but not surprising considering what a cesspool Fox News is. Alan Brinkley is a fine historian. I used his text _American History: A Survey_ one year, and thought it was quite good, considering the inherent problems of textbooks. I agree with you that if Fox News was really interested in exploring issues relating to education, professors’ biases, and Brinkley’s work, they would have pursued a real interview.

  • John Cummings Apr 7, 2009

    Interesting how this has become a matter of “Civil War Memory”. If anything the textbook’s publisher should have been mindful of statements with a shelf life. Griff Jenkins just needs to lay off the Red Bull or something. He could have thought out a better mode of attack if indeed this really warranted attack.
    Very curious to me that FOX did not pick up on the Stafford County, VA experience with “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. Now there’s a liberal textbook for you.
    The most disturbing thing I took away from this post was found in the suggested videos at the bottom. They included a review of FOX News’ obit trashing of Kurt Vonnegut. That was a bit cruel.
    Now, back to Civil War Memory.

  • Phil LeDuc Apr 7, 2009

    Pretty awful – worthy of a low-class local news show. Brinkley is indeed a very
    fine historian. And it’s ironic that he’s the son of one of the classiest journalists ever – David Brinkley.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

    Robert,

    Good points. Actually, I thought the same thing when I was reading through this story. It is indeed and argument for digital textbooks and/or a move away from textbooks altogether.

    John,

    It is an issue to be addressed on Civil War Memory. Although it doesn’t connect directly with the subject I am very interested in popular perceptions of academics and the use of textbooks in the classroom.

    Phil,

    Good point. Jenkins comes off looking like a complete nutcase.

    Please don’t get the wrong idea. I have as much hatred for Fox News as I do for the other mainstream news agencies like CNN and MSNBC. I consider Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann to be equally effective as entertainers.

  • In all due fairness to Mr. Jenkins, he did call and ask for time to properly interview Brinkley. Now as to the practice of hailing down people in the street for im-proper interviews, well that was a tactic dating back to the good old classic days of “60-Minutes” in the face reporting.

    I think the problem here isn’t the issue with slant, but that we end up trying to discuss current events in a history class. I’d make the case for a true currents events curriculum, where students are encouraged to review different news sources. At this point in history, we don’t have enough information from the right sources to place 9-11 or other recent events in proper context. And that won’t happen for about twenty years.

    The same issue stands out with regard to Vietnam. Off the top of my head I can recount at least a dozen “facts” written in my 300-level textbook, circa 1987, which have since been refuted as new information was released. Often we are too close to the event, in terms of time, to give the subject its due. Perhaps discussing 9-11, Afghanistan and Iraq in any historical sense should be tabled for at least a few years. But I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss them as current events. We simply must understand the difference between the two.

    Craig.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Craig,

      First, I agree w/ your comment re: the pitfalls of trying to update the history textbook when we are dealing with recent history. That said, part of our responsibility is to teach our students how history is written and rewritten as a matter of course.

      Unless I am mistaken Jenkins didn’t invite Brinkley to do an interview until after he was stalked. Would you accept an invitation under these circumstances. I also disagree with your 60 Minutes analogy. In those cases we are dealing with people who, in some cases, have refused interviews or are actively hiding from the general public. Brinkley wasn’t hiding from the general public. He’s not a suspect in any strict sense of the word so why did he have to be treated as such? Sorry, but this is not reporting. It’s entertainment.

  • Larry Cebula Apr 7, 2009

    This is the new Fox News ambush/stalking/reporting method. Bill O’Reilly’s minions did it to some blogger who wrote something negative–actually following her on vacation and ambushing her in the street. Here it is:
    http://thinkprogress.org/2009/03/23/watters-ambush/

  • Kevin,
    I may be wrong about the invite, but I recall the reporter stating he first called to have a sit down. Regardless, this has become a standard tactic in TV journalism since the 1970s, and the usual reference is to the long time CBS show as the trend setter. I think we both agree though that it’s detestable and only one step removed from paparazzi.

    Yes, as you say there are pitfalls to recent history, or what I’d refine further as current events. The major problem is that our “sources” for most of the information are unwritten primary sources. In other words, ourselves.

    Unlike the historian 30 or 40 years from now who will have the luxury of context to determine which source was closer to the heart of the event, we have to lump everything together as part of the collective reality we see today. Without that context, how would a student know to give more weight, for instance on the subject of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to someone who has been over there and has first hand knowledge of the situation? As opposed to an AP byline reporter who is simply reciting compiled reports off the wire? Heck, in the case of those two wars, I’m a living breathing primary source here working the keyboard! Yet, the AP reporter will carry more weight as an “established news source.”

    More importantly, how is the student going to get those true first hand, primary accounts of such a current event without going to the point where the event is taking place? Or in the case of Iraq or Afghanistan, inviting a veteran to speak in class. Another outlet which is gaining much momentum is the “milblog” written by recently returned veterans and in some cases those on the ground. Unfortunately the media has derided the content much like the embedded reporters have been denounced.

    Personally, I’ve only read a couple of paragraphs from Brinkley’s textbook, here as I was browsing the headlines. But of those paragraphs, I can pick out two items that I know cannot be supported. Or perhaps more exactly, can be easily refuted by later historians. But I can’t fault the writer. He’s working with what he “knows” at the time of writing. He did not, and probably still does not, have access to the information he would need to support any statements made in those paragraphs.

    I guess my point is current events, or recent history as you might call it, requires a different approach than the more distant past. Students should be directed to less of the conventional sources, and rather exposed to some alternatives that are perhaps right in front of them.

    Craig.

  • Ken Noe Apr 7, 2009

    Brinkley insists that no one from Fox called him until hours after the stalking, telling Think Progress, “A Fox News crew was waiting for me when I left my home yesterday, followed me for two blocks with questions and accusations, and then left. Later that day, I was asked to come onto the show, which I declined to do. I did e-mail the person who invited me with responses to the two mistaken charges they made when I was being followed by the camera crew.” .

    As for the 60 Minutes comparison, I seem to recall Mike Wallace using ambush journalism to confront scam artists, crooks and frauds, not people who wrote things he didn’t like. It is too bad that Brinkley didn’t use Keith Olbermann’s advice: when confronted by a Fox producer, say nothing except “falafel” and “Andrea Mackris.”

  • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

    The difference is that Mike Wallace would always have rather done the interview rather than the stalking. According to the evidence available, Jenkins never had any intention of such an approach. That little fact goes a long way in understanding the lack of journalistic integrity at FOX News.

  • I distinctly recall Mike Wallace going out of his way a time or two in order to “stalk” some folks he didn’t like. Let’s not paint with a broad brush, but at the same time, let’s call it what it is. Walter Cronkite wouldn’t have done it. Hugh Downs didn’t. But Mike Wallace was hiding in the shrubs a time or two. Fox news is only doing what CNN and MSNBC do in order to keep up. It’s a cycle of sensationalism that started before most of us even had cable.

    Jenkins says he did contact Brinkley’s office. Brinkley says he never got the call. I recall a few years back a Senator saying something along the line, “Just because you sent the invitation, it doesn’t mean it was received.” Two sides to the story, and the truth is somewhere in between.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Craig,

      I’m not going to push the Mike Wallace thread any longer. As far as who is telling the truth between Fox and Brinkley I can’t say for certain, but from what I remember Jenkins never indicated in his pursuit of Brinkley that he tried to contact him beforehand. Seems to me that this is something that he would have said to help his case. And like I said before, Jenkins is a producer and not a reporter so it is hard for me to accept that a serious investigation is in his interest.

  • Well, can we analyze Brinkley’s text a bit? You quoted him such: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.”

    Does he have a source for this, or is it just his recollection, or “memory” if you will. My memory tells me Americans were split response to 9/11. Here’s a CNN story from just a few weeks after the event: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/29/ret.antiwar.protests/index.html

    Later the Guardian reported protests spreading across college campuses:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2001/oct/05/internationaleducationnews.highereducation2

    I can probably also find several op-ed pieces warning of the pitfalls of war, that we should stop any actions until after Ramadan, etc. Lots of indication we were split, not united, in our resolve after 9/11. Certainly nothing like World War II.

    I’ve done about 15 minutes of research and already the statement made by the professor seems a bit weak on its face. Maybe we need to look at his source material more closely….

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Craig,

      You are more than welcome to critique Brinkley’s text. Please keep in mind, however, that the point of my post was to highlight and question the way Fox News went about trying to question him about what he has written. They have every right to do so and I see no problem with it. As I stated in the post you can find problems with any history text, especially in reference to more recent events. I agree w/ the points you made about the pitfalls of trying to include in textbooks what are more properly described as current events rather than history. Again, feel free to analyze Brinkley’s text, but I will pass.

  • So I guess then we can both agree that two wrongs don’t make a right in this case. Jenkins used foul tactics, no matter how accepted they seem to be by main stream journalism. But he was calling out Brinkley, who lo0ks to have skirted the research a bit. (Personally I think it comes off as rather unprofessional, but then again, I’m accused of over-sourcing technical documents at work.)

    I still say the best technique to “teach” about this latest late unpleasantness is to invite one who has seen it first hand to talk about it. The audience learns something, and the presenter often finds it releasing in a way.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      With all due respect, comparing Jenkins and Brinkley in this way seems absurd to me. There is no comparison worth considering in this case.

  • Kevin, you of all people should be concerned about the professional ethics of those writing historical texts. If I may, what then separates the good Dr from that writer who decided to publish a work on the Crater because of the scene in “Cold Mountain”?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      I don’t follow you here. I’ve said over and over that I have no problem with critiquing Brinkley’s work. Go for it. What I don’t get is your comparing his actions with Jenkins. I’ll say it one more time that the post was not an attempt to vindicate Brinkley but to point out the way Fox News approached him. Where is the confusion?

  • Kevin, where did I compare Brinkley to Jenkins? I think you are reading way, way too much into this dialog.

    What I am saying about Brinkley is he got called out as being a historian and not acting like a historian. Looks like he was coloring outside the lines, if you get my drift.

    I’ve said from the beginning that Jenkins was out of bounds too. The difference is that Jenkins’ profession has come to accept that type of behavior, like it or not. Brinkley’s profession is, sadly, beginning to accept behavior as Brinkley is exhibiting.

    Again, two people in the wrong. Both now being called on it. As you say, where’s the confusion?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Craig,

      I don’t see how Brinkley is “in the wrong.” You may not agree with his interpretation and there may be flaws in it, but this is the nature of the historical process. Brinkley is no more in the wrong than every other historian who ventures to craft an interpretation. We can always disagree and suggest shortcomings, but I fail to see how that constitutes being “called out.”

  • Kevin,

    As I’ve pointed out, even on the face, this portion of his textbook covering current events appears to offer “feelings” and “thoughts” and not anything directly supported by research. It is as if he wrote the section as a daily journal. That’s not history. Particularly not textbook history.

    This isn’t some case where his interpretation is in question, rather that he did any research on the topic to begin with. I don’t consider that just a shortcoming. That’s a flat out failure a professional should be above. Do you see any documentation or supporting information from the recent history sections? Or any indication it isn’t just his “memory” of the events passed off as history?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Craig,

      You pulled out one sentence from the book. You provided an analysis of it that brings it into question. My guess is that I could do the same type of search and find just as many sources confirming it. Perhaps that is a reflection of its veracity, but how much do you actually want to make of this?

  • Kevin,
    You didn’t read my earlier post above?

    “Personally, I’ve only read a couple of paragraphs from Brinkley’s textbook, here as I was browsing the headlines. But of those paragraphs, I can pick out two items that I know cannot be supported. Or perhaps more exactly, can be easily refuted by later historians.”

    No, I’m not only concerned about one line. If you look at some of the other passages and ask that same question “where did he get this information?” the answer keeps pointing back to “opinions” but not anything factual. I only focused on the “we were united” passage because you had mentioned it earlier.

    I say we put this on the shelf for about thirty years. At that time I’ll be happy to buy you a cold beverage of your choice as we look over the information open to the public on that day. Over that cold drink we can then best decide if Brinkley was on the money, or if both his feet were planted in the thin air of his opinions and memories of current events.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2009

      Craig,

      It’s a date. My guess is that you can pick up any American history textbook and find the same problems.

  • Well funny you should mention “any text.” I did a quick validation of my concept last night. Piked up the old “America” book from survey classes in the 1980s. You recall the late George Tindall, I assume? The copy of his textbook I have was printed in the mid 1980s. He discusses the Carter Administration and specifically the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Not much, but probably about as much as Brinkley spends on the Iraq war. Looks to me Tindall, at the cost of any detailed narrative, avoided the pitfalls. I’d say there’s some value in that example, not a textbook for today, but rather an example of how it should be done.
    Didn’t one of Tindall’s “Ten Commandments” say to the effect:
    “Do not bear false witness, or pass judgment upon mankind.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2009

      I am very familiar with the Tindall book. In fact, I made the mistake of using it one year in a college-level survey. I’m pleased to hear that you find the Tindall narrative more to your liking. Than again, I’m sure there are people out there who can find passages in it that strike them as reaching.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 8, 2009

    “Please don’t get the wrong idea. I have as much hatred for Fox News as I do for the other mainstream news agencies like CNN and MSNBC. I consider Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann to be equally effective as entertainers.”

    I would have to agree with you on this one, Kevin. I can’t say that I “hate” the modern profession of journalism, but I certainly don’t respect it. A pox on all their houses.

    (I think Chris Wallace on Fox News is Mike Wallace’s son. Not sure. Not that that means anything. Just interesting. Also I would join you and Craig for that cold beverage thirty years from now, but if I am still here by that time, warm milk better be on the menu, lol)

  • Sherree,

    Mike is indeed Chris’s father. However Chris acknowledges he was much closer to his step father growing up. So that explains some of the differences between father and son.

    I have you down for one milk….

  • Kevin,
    While I never had the pleasure of meeting Tindall formally, I studied under two of his former students. One thing that impressed me as both an under-grad and grad, is the stress on professionalism. You couldn’t cough in some classes without an annotated statement from the doctor, however.

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