Sunday, April 22, 2007

Where History and Journalism Meet

I spent Saturday at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism for a conference called Reconstructing the Past: When History and Journalism Meet. Narrative non-fiction is one of the most popular genres today, but many historians look down upon the notion that great events must be crafted into a compelling narrative and many journalists are disdainful that too many history books are dull and dry.
The conference was an attempt to meld the two worlds by talking about how to craft a story in an accurate, yet exciting way. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev observed that journalists usually write about the exceptional, the event out of the ordinary, while historians write about the every day, or what is common to a time or place. Regardless of the approach, both fields share the assumption that by going back to the past, we will understand something about the present.
The keynote speaker was David Halberstam, who at 73 is about to come out with his 21st book, The Longest Winter, about the Korean War. He started his journalistic training as a young reporter in Tennessee, where he covered the Civil Rights movement, eventually moving to The New York Times. After two tours covering the war in Vietnam, Halberstam said he realized that while he had won prizes for his reporting, he had never revealed the causes of the war. He quit the Times and spent three years writing The Best and The Brightest, about the men who led the U.S. into war with Vietnam. He regards the journalist/historian as one of the best jobs in the world.
“This is the great gift you get from this life,” Halberstam told at crowd at the Haas School of Business. “You get a chance to be paid and be literate. You get a chance to go out every day and ask questions and come back with a little more knowledge.”
While Halberstam is a master of this craft, most of the conference participants, while accomplished journalists, are still learning how to transform themselves from reporters to historians. There were a number of how-to workshops, including one I taught with the Mark Andre Singer, a librarian from the Mechanics Institute, on using the “deep web” to get information. It was essentially a lesson on how to access databases and historical archives from your computer.
Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, and Mirja Orito, author of Finding Manana, talked about the rewards and perils of interviewing witnesses to events long past. Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of the World, Millicent Dillon, who has published 10 books, and Spencer Ante, the editor of Business Week, talked about how to bring historical characters to life. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld and Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive talked about using government documents. Rebecca Solnit and Adam Hochschild talked about their numerous books as well. You can see details of the conference here.
What made this workshop remarkable was that it was geared toward mid-career journalists. While a number of reporters go to journalism school, the vast majority learn on the job and never receive any formal training. Learning as you go has its benefits, but it is wonderful to get a little training, too.
You could feel the buzz in the room as people spoke. I spotted Julia Flynn Siler, author of the forthcoming House of Mondavi, Ilana DeBare, author of Where Girls Come First, Kate Braverman, author of the acclaimed memoir, Lithium for Medea, Scott Martelle, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose book Blood Passion, about the Ludlow massacre, will be out in August, and many others.


Anonymous said...

Frances, just happened to look up your blog after reading about David Halberstam's death and see this entry. Truly awful news about him! May he rest in peace. --Theresa

James G. Leventhal said...

Y'know I think Jay E. is taking a class with Segev @ UC right now. Did you two touch base?

Sorry you got so close to this most unfortunate and ultimate Halberstam moment. He set a strong example, and touched many lives.

Susan Kitchens said...


What a shock to learn that Halberstam-- who'd just been the keynoter and right in your midst-- was killed in such an untimely way.

I just blogged your description of the Berkeley conference -- along with a conference I attended in SoCal -- of oral historians. Some interesting parallels between the tensions between History (with a captial H) and that practiced by journalists/novelists etc.

Did you attend the session by Tolan and Orito on interviewing those who witnessed long ago events? Your description of that session piqued my curiosity. I guess that the time is particularly bad right now, but if you get a chance and wish to do so, please feel free to come by the post I wrote and share any observations from that session.

p.s. glad to read in your bio that the book is due to be released soon. Congrats.