Mainstream Media Tackles Confederate History Month = Fail

Civil War Culture, Current Affairs

Thankfully the media circus is beginning to die down over last week’s Confederate History Month proclamation.  I ended up watching more of the “debate” on the major news channels than I care to admit.  It was downright painful to watch.  The most disappointing aspect of it all was the almost complete absence of any professional historians.  You would think that the major networks could have mustered up at least one legitimate historian.  The closest I saw was a half-way decent interview that Rachel Maddow conducted with Patricia Harris-Lacewell, who teaches politics and African American Studies at Princeton.  Unfortunately, the professor’s distinction between two southern pasts didn’t quite address all of the salient issues involved.

More often than not the audience was treated to the same talking heads who clearly do not understand the relevant history.  CNN’s Roland Martin had a field day with this issue, which included a lively debate with Brag Bowling.  No surprise that Bowling was at times inarticulate, but Martin’s comparison of Confederate soldiers with Nazis and suggestion that they were “domestic terrorists” shut the door on any chance of rational debate.  You can read Martin’s recent essay comparing Confederates with terrorists on the CNN site.  It is one of the most incoherent arguments that I’ve seen in a long time; I would love for someone to explain it to me.  Finally, check out Martin in this little clip with Republican adviser Mary Matalin, who retreats to the old saw that most white southerners were not slaveowners and that most northerners were not abolitionists.

Next, we head on over to Hardball where we find Pat Buchanan and Chris Matthews in full combat.  Neither of these guys is capable of doing much more than jabbing back and forth at one another and Buchanan’s constant referencing of the Founding Fathers as slaveowners makes little sense.  Also on MSNBC is something called the Dylan Rattigan Show.  I have no idea who he is nor can I identify the guests beyond their names.  Regardless, there is almost nothing worth repeating from this interview.  Finally, I share with you a real doozy of an interview with the chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Jeff Davis.  Davis does a fabulous job towing the SCV party line and we learn from the woman conducting the interview that there were 500,000 slaves in West Virginia.  Oh boy.

It’s hard to believe that with the resources available to these “news” outlets that this was the best they could do in communicating much needed information to the general public.  I am tired of hearing those cries about how little our students understand about this nation’s history.  If the rest of the nation’s understanding of the past is anything like what was presented as news on this issue over the past week than our children are the least of our problems.  In the end our mainstream news reflects our mainstream culture.

40 comments… add one

  • Joshua Apr 12, 2010

    I’m personally disappointed to have seen the response of Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi: http://www2.wsls.com/sls/news/state_regional/govtpolitics/article/mississippi_governor_dismisses_mcdonnells_confederacy_flap_as_diddly/92762/

    Asking historians to comment about history would be like asking teachers to comment about education. Ain’t gonna happen.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

      But I don’t get it. It’s not as if historians are completely absent from these types of shows. I guess they viewed it as a pure political event rather than something that needed to be seriously understood as part of a historiography.

  • JMRudy Apr 12, 2010

    I don’t know if you were able to see Don Lemon’s interview with the two Confederate reenactors in the studio and of course the infamous H. K. Edgerton via satellite on Sunday night. It was part of the Essence Magazine sponsored hour of CNN programming. Lemon was very knowledgeable, whipping out his knowledge of the “Causes of Secession” documents and a number of other relatively intelligent arguments.

    It took a while, but I finally found a clip. It includes a bit of Martin’s schtick, but then heads into new territory. Lemon makes some really good points and speaks relatively level headed. The reenactors even trot out some of those magical black confederate numbers you’ve been debunking lately.

    http://cnn.com/video/?/video/bestoftv/2010/04/12/nr.blue.gray.revisited.cnn

    My biggest question revolves around the fact that putting on a uniform that you buy for a few hundred dollars gives you credentials to speak on a national stage about the history. Lemon sums it up well: “Am I to believe the history book, what I’ve read about, what the history books say, what every other historian says, my own ears and my own eyes? Or am I to believe what you say and what Civil War reenactors say?” Now if only the producers and reporters at the networks would get a few of those historians on the air…

    While we’re on the subject, I thought you might enjoy this article written by Gettysburg College’s Allen Guelzo this past week on the VA proclamation: http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0409/McDonnell-Confederate-history-storm-slavery-treason-and-true-Southern-courage

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

      Thanks so much for passing the link along. I heard about it, but didn’t know where to look for it. This is hilarious and incredibly disturbing at the same time. Of all the people to engage in a serious discussion with they choose two reenactors and HK Edgerton. CNN should be ashamed of itself along with the rest of these news outlets. This is a perfect example of what I was getting at in my post. Thanks again.

      • Chris Evans Apr 13, 2010

        I saw that interview and was turned off by the whole thing. Everyone who was in it ,including Lemon, should be ashamed. I felt my IQ going down as I watched it. He really should have conducted the interview with Civil War historians instead of all the people he used.

        There is also somewhere a discussion with Keith Olbermann and Julian Bond about the issue but I don’t have a link for it anywhere. This was the interview that Olbermann quoted Shelby Foote from Horwitz’s ‘Confederates in the Attic’ without proper attribution.

        I wanted to add one more thing about Roland Martin’s ‘schtick’. When he paints with such a stupid broad stroke it completely overlooks former Confederate leaders like William Mahone (who you have written much interesting info about) and James Longstreet who tried to move forward and work with Republicans and Blacks. They wanted to put the defeat behind them and move the South in another direction and were criticized for it.

        Chris

        • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

          I hate to say that I think part of the problem has to do with the fact the Martin is African American. Black Americans have every right to be offended by this proclamation and it may have translated into a free pass card with which to respond. Unfortunately, in Martin’s case he responded with an even more absurd interpretation of the Civil War and Confederacy.

  • Dan Wright Apr 12, 2010

    I think the media often take the easy way out – paint one side as right and the other side as wrong and let the discussion degenerate into a shouting match. There’s not a lot of room for nuance or complexity. And that’s a shame. The Civil War was one of those defining periods in our history and it deserves better.

  • Raffi Apr 12, 2010

    It seems at least part of the responsibility for the absence of professional historians is the professional historians themselves. From my experience in my training and most of those around me at various departments, we are not trying to talk to people outside the profession. This is when such behavior can come back to bite us. If we don’t try to talk to people outside the profession, then we can’t get mad at those outside the profession for not listening.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

      Raffi,

      I see your point and we can all agree that academic historians can do more to communicate with the general public; however, in this case all the media outlets have to do is do a little research and make the initial contact. My guess is that it wouldn’t be too hard to find someone qualified to join them on the air.

      • Raffi Apr 12, 2010

        Indeed Kevin, I don’t mean to rid the media of responsibility either — as you suggest, the quality of reporting is certainly not well researched! But I am simply saying that “at least part of the responsibility” falls on us too. Because dialogue doesn’t occur in one direction; it goes two ways. And therefore, we can’t be too surprised at the media overlooking us, if we overlook them. Ultimately, each side blaming the other doesn’t get us anywhere either.

        This is not a judgment on you or on wonderful individuals within the profession, but rather my opinion of the culture of the profession as a whole, unfortunately. I think it’s such a culture that leads to a need for blogs that attempt what you do here, i.e. act as the bridge. The reason we need the bridge is precisely because of that gap in-between, and that gap exists thanks to both sides — let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

          Raffi,

          I appreciate the follow-up. I definitely didn’t take anything in your last comment as a personal slight in any way. As you well know, while academics can be pretty aloof when it comes to reaching out to the general public that is definitely not the case when it comes to our field. Names like Ed Ayers, Eric Foner, James McPherson, David Blight, and Gary Gallagher come to mind as prime examples of professional historians who have made it a point to remain closely connected with broader audiences. Actually, it’s kind of hard to imagine what more many of the folks in our field could do to place themselves in positions where they can comment on such issues. Thanks again for the comment.

          • JMRudy Apr 12, 2010

            The folks you mention are prime example of outward facing historians. But still, I have to agree with Raffi to some extent. The majority of the historical profession, from my personal experience as I look out from the academy, is focused almost exclusively with producing content we intend to be read by the two or three other people in our specific genre, instead of making our work relevant to wider public audiences. There is still a deep negative reaction within the academy when you mention the phrase, “popular history book.” Likewise, when someone like Raffi expresses an interest in moving into a profession in Public History, they are scoffed at unless that have someone very special to guide them and back them up in their goals.

            The battle history reaches the popular sphere far more often than the “thinky” political and social history. I think that’s part of the deficit as well.

            • Mark Apr 12, 2010

              And even if you make the work relevant for a wider audience, its publication will often lock it behind a pay wall that private citizens cannot afford.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

              JM,

              I agree with many of the point that both you and Raffi and yet I can’t help but think that it would have been relatively easy to find a competent historian to discuss this in a sensible manner.

  • Mark Apr 12, 2010

    The only time I ever notice historians on TV, is when something relating to the presidency is happening. And then we get the same small cast of familiar presidential historians—almost never anyone else for any of the myriad other events that would benefit from a historian’s perspective.

    • Michael Lynch Apr 12, 2010

      Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. It’s weird, but they get historians on to talk about modern politics, and now they’re getting modern politicians to talk about history. Go figure.

      –ML

  • Chris Evans Apr 12, 2010

    Thanks for the interesting post on how the media handled the debate. I agree that they did a poor job. Comments like Roland Martin’s statements really made it hard to have sensible debates. I really was not impressed by the coverage at all. There really should have been more Civil War and American history historians interviewed. There should have been people like Gary Gallagher and/or William C. Davis talking about this subject. They are more well read, sane, and articulate than the commentators that they trotted out.
    Chris

  • Michael Loret Apr 13, 2010

    I have no idea why the news channels would do anything OTHER THAN have the punditocracy duke it out for all of us to watch. CNN, MSNBC, etc. are 24hr news networks in fierce competition. The punditocracy is the consequence of this competition. In a 24-hour news cycle where ratings remain supreme, its obvious why Brag and Roland Martin would be involved in a death match and not thoughtful, knowledgeable historians discussing the merits of ideas. You said it yourself…the mainstream news is populated by shock jocks. I agree with your last statement…Bread and Circuses is what the people want. If you wanted something else, you should have changed the channel.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      Michael,

      Congratulations on finally breaking through to leaving a comment. You are absolutely right, now go back to sleep. See you in a bit.

  • Woodrowfan Apr 13, 2010

    1. We should probably be thankful CNN and Fox didn’t chose the Kennedy bros as their “historians.”

    2. Most universities I know keep track of their faculty members areas of expertise. All a Media booker or reporter has to do is call the school’s PR person and say “Hey, who do you have that’s an expert on X?” Many museums have the same service. It’s just laziness on the part of the networks that they keep goign to the same old names….

  • Robert Moore Apr 13, 2010

    Kevin, This literally raises a chuckle in me. I’m in the middle of expressing disgust with the media in a blog post of my own, when I decide to slip over to your blog to see what you are saying. For what it’s worth, I’m going to go ahead and post what I’ve written, but you’ve pretty much covered it here. Seeing Roland Martin’s plug against Confederate History Month made me just as nauseated as watching the Kennedy brothers clip you had the other say AND the clip about the appeal for entering Confed Southern Am on the census. Thinking back to some thoughts of my CW prof at William & Mary, it’s more and more clear just how much we have to “unteach” the Civil War to get past all the bad history learned through the years leading to college (whether that be heritage-based glammed history or the substandard history taught in public schools… thanks so much Virginia SOLs!). And to think that some actually believe that history ranks at one of the lowest levels of importance in our education… geez!

    • Chris Evans Apr 13, 2010

      I agree.

      After reading Roland Martin’s ‘article’ it really is one of the most bizarre tirades I’ve ever seen. I agree with Kevin that it is completely impossible to make heads or tails of it. Going to the complete opposite extreme of the Kennedy Brothers ,as you say, makes little sense either. This was no way to have an informative discussion.
      Chris

  • John Maass Apr 13, 2010

    Kevin—the chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is Jeff Davis? LOL!!! JM

  • Charles Lovejoy Apr 13, 2010

    If our students know little about our nation’s history, then maybe they should be encouraged to go out do their own research , come to their own conclusions .

  • Leonard Lanier Apr 13, 2010

    Well, at least local media is doing a little better about contacting experts in the field. The Richmond Times-Dispatch just posted an interview with Ed Ayers,

    Link: http://ow.ly/1xQes

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      I read it this morning. Thanks for the link. It would have been wonderful to see Ayers interviewed on one of the mainstream channels. It would have been both entertaining and educational.

      • Leonard Lanier Apr 13, 2010

        I agree, but cable news wants shouting idiots, not entertaining intellectuals.

  • Nat Turners Son Apr 13, 2010

    I agree the Media has failed to get any real history Teacher to explain this issue.

    Is Robert Moore , Yourself and Dr. Blight so busy that you couldn’t get on TV and address this ?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      Unfortunately, no one called me. :D I was asked last week to write a response piece for NPR, which I did. I submitted in time, but the governor’s apology undercut pretty much everything I said. I was so close to my 15 minutes of fame.

  • Brian C. Miller Apr 13, 2010

    Kevin
    I am not sure if you saw CNN with Anderson Cooper last night. He had Presidential Historian and Rice Univ faculty member Doug Brinkley on, who, I was under the impression, was an expert on the 20th century. Cooper asked him a few times to talk about VA and secession and Brinkley kept giving really broad strokes, pivoting immediately back to slavery after Cooper brought up that VA left after the call for 75,000. He also made the statement that Virginia’s soldiers also all fought for slavery. It is a shame that the media, if they are going to pull historians on, ask someone who knows about the Civil War, or who can at least give a more varied discussion.

    • Chris Evans Apr 13, 2010

      Interesting post. I didn’t see that with Cooper and Brinkley. I agree with you that Brinkley is someone you want to have on talking about 20th century politics. He is one of the same historians that the networks always trot out. How I wish a real Civil War historian could have been heard over this din!

      It’s interesting that you mention Cooper saying about the 75,000 men call up. Lemon ,also on CNN, in the interview referenced in the links above was talking to an author that I had never heard of and the author went on and on like he was an expert on the reasons Virginia left the Union and the author failed to mention the 75,000 man call up being one of Virginia’s reasons. Lemon ,the CNN commentator, did not call the author on that but it is interesting that you say that Cooper mentioned it two nights later.

      Thanks,
      Chris

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      Hi Brian,

      Nice to hear from you. I will have to look for the interview online, but I agree that Brinkley is probably not the historian you want commenting on this issue. The Brinkley/Kearns-Goodwin/Beschloss trio is about as far as it goes in terms of bringing in historians.

      Can’t wait to read your new book on Hood and Civil War Memory.

  • Charlene Apr 13, 2010

    I watched many of those same debates and was equally annoyed and disappointed. Many people in this country seem to have a very selective memory when it comes to U.S. history, particularly the Civil War era. A few years ago I had a real struggle searching for information regarding slavery to teach my bi-racial daughter prior to one of our trips to the southern states. As a result, I decided that there was a need for much easeir access to this part of our country’s history. I have recently enrolled in travel and tourism classes, in hopes of someday having my own tour company, specializing in the southern states. For today’s class, I brought with me for discussion, Kevin’s article “Whose Tourist Dollars Does Governor McDonnell Hope to Attract?” Since many of my classmates are from other countries, I thought it would be a good idea to also provide for them some very basic details about the Civil War and secession. In doing that research, here are a few sentences that struck me as particularly obvious as to why Governor McDonnell and his followers are so terribly wrong. This information comes directly from the Wikipedia website: As one of the causes of secession: ” Southern fears of losing control of the federal government to antislavery forces brought the crisis to a head in the late 1850′s” and “Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said that slavery was the cheif cause of secession” and “Victory for the North meant the end of the Confederacy and of slavery in the United States.” The people in my class, which is made up of people from Japan, Samoa, America and Bosnia, all seemed to completely understand the huge and insensitive error made by the Governor of Virginia for (1) even considering having a Confederate History Month, and (2) for trying to convince us that slavery had little to do with the Civil War. Hopefully we will be able to keep other states from rewriting their history books as they are in Texas, and our students will be taught the true story of this country in their history classes, both the good and the bad.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      So pleased to hear that the blog is coming in handy in ways that I never anticipated.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 13, 2010
    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      Thanks for the link, Brooks.

  • Nat Turners Son Apr 14, 2010

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/04/14/hale.confederate.history.race/

    Do you know this person Kevin she makes some interesting points.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2010

      Well worth reading. Hale is the author of “Making Whiteness” which is an excellent study of race in the South through Jim Crow. Thanks for the link.

      • Leonard Lanier Apr 14, 2010

        Hale’s “Making Whiteness” is not for the faint-of-heart. It can be an extremely dense read at times, but is certainly required reading for anybody trying to understand the intersection of race and southern culture.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2010

          Thanks for pointing that out. At times I found it to be incredibly difficult, but well worth the effort.

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