Thursday, January 01, 2009

How Do You Know It's True?

One of the courses I have long hoped to see back in the UA curriculum is History of Journalism. I have two reasons, and no, neither one is because I'd be perfect to teach it.

The first reason is the natural outgrowth of doing "We're History" on KUAF. Been a while since there was time to cut a new episode (and not quite so many media fumbles since the election), but the gist of the series is the short-sighted and misuse of history by our media. A big part of the approach I'd designed for the course was to teach journalists how to utilize professional history to their advantage and to avoid the dreaded "unprecedented" pitfall. The second is obvious -- to give these digital natives some sense of the field.

Here's living proof again of the lack of historical perspective. The historical hoax of the last American pirate was revealed recently by George Mason University professor T. Mills Kelly. Kelly, a part of the Center for History and New Media at GMU, turned the digital natives upside down with a well conceived story of Edward Owens. It was part of a semester course in which the 15 graduate students concocted every aspect of the "history" of Mr. Owens, right down to Wikipedia entries and a supporting faux diary.

Kelly took it one step beyond as he launched his fake into the media world, and until the reveal, got away with it. Kelly's going to take a lot of heat for this from the serious academic types, but he did it for the right reasons -- to show just how simple (notice, didn't say easy) it can be to pull the wool over the public and the media. Say, here's your first clue: the name of the course was Lying about the Past. (As usual, the Chron has a great coverage of the course.)

Does it undermine our faith in history? It should.

We live in a world where plenty of people believe Americans never walked on the moon, that Oswald didn't act alone and Guilani was a key conspirator in the destruction of the World Trades.

A healthy skepticism is an important part of citizenship.

Another of my favorite pastimes (huh? well, something for between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., OK?) is the NPR show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Their end of the year story circled back to the Dana Perino -- Cuban Missile Crisis brouhaha they helped stir up. This week, the host Peter Sagal, had Perino back on to claim the whole thing was a comedy skit, that her husband hadn't really chided her ("Oh Dana") about not knowing the difference between the missles of October and the Bay of Pigs.

But, wait, wait -- it got so much media play. Hosts across the country were calling Perino out as yet another Bush appointment gone wrong. So, was her Dec. 2007 NPR appearance the "exaggeration" she said it was? Was Perino playing the media, knowing that overly smug anchors and commentators would pounce on her?

It does stretch belief that anyone who would rise to her position would not know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was -- I thought that at the time.

So what worse: a history professor that turns his profession and the media on itself with a hoax, a public relations professional who pranks the media or that same PR person would actually be ignorant of a major part of American history?

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