The eminent historian J.G. Randall writes of journalists masquerading as historians who easily reveal themselves, such as when “one of the best magazines of the country palmed off some forged Lincoln and Ann Rutledge letters whose fraudulent character could have been detected by a beginner in historical method.” Newspaper writers and their insatiable need for sensationalism and “breaking news stories” to sell papers or corner viewers takes precedence over facts and evidence. The piece below was written in 1939 when fake history in newspapers and magazines was not unknown.
Journalists Versus Plodders
“It has been said that in the journalism of our day the reporting function is better performed than the interpretive function. In other words, given the limitations of news gathering in a world of censorship and propaganda, news writers of today are less unsatisfactory than columnists and editorialists.
The historian may easily be tempted to turn commentator or, if you please, columnist. Editorializing or column writing is easy. It usually takes less effort than research. It offers a cue for easy writing. It satisfies a literary impulse. It finds a demand in the minds of many readers. It is popular to spread one’s story on a broad canvas, to deal with generalization or prediction, to deliver over-the-counter a consignment of impressive pronouncements and omniscient finalities.
Such writers get reputations as thinkers; research men are too likely to appear as plodders. Research is tied down; it is the editorialist who soars and sparkles.
Along with this there is another tendency – the inclination to speak slightingly of that individual who is pityingly referred to as the “professional historian.” At times this term seems almost to connote something suspicious or discreditable, as if amateur standing in the historical field constitutes in itself a kind of superiority.
One does not consider amateur standing desirable in chemistry, nor does one often hear the term “professional chemists.” Similarly it might be enough to speak of historians and let it go at that. The competent historian does not need to pay much heed to it, merely making sure that he justify himself at that point where his essential function lies, i.e., in historical investigation, in the discovering and testing of evidence, and the formulating of conclusions that tie up with reliable and adequate proof.”
(The Civil War Restudied, J.G. Randall, Journal of Southern History, University of Louisiana Press, November 1940, Volume VI, Number 4, excerpts pg. 440)