Saturday, July 7, 2012

Starr Center's New York Times Series Separates Fact from Fiction in Political Claims on History

CHESTERTOWN, MD—In an unprecedented journalistic partnership with one of the world’s foremost media outlets, faculty and students at Washington College have created a new online feature in The New York Times that will keep watch over the ways politicians and special interest groups use and misuse history. The series, which is titled Historically Corrected, launched on Sunday, July 8, with a broadside aimed at both Democrats and Republicans, casting significant doubt on claims that both President Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, have recently made on the campaign trail.
“History is often the language of American politics,” says Adam Goodheart, director of the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which is spearheading the project. “But whether it’s Democrats harking back to the New Deal or Republicans claiming the mantle of the founding fathers, fact and fiction are often much too easily confused.”

For instance, Mr. Obama’s standard stump speech usually hails past achievements such as Hoover Dam as examples of how Americans “built this country together.” But this week’s column reveals that the dam’s construction in the 1930s was far from what one might call a “kumbaya” moment. Washington College undergraduate Kathy Thornton, part of the faculty-student research team at work on Historically Corrected, unearthed a 1932 newspaper article documenting protests against policies banning Asian-American laborers from working on the site, while African Americans were relegated to a few menial jobs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Romney recently gave a speech celebrating the United States as “unique” and “exceptional in the history of the world” as the only nation that has never taken land through war. But as the Historically Corrected team points out, he made the comment in San Diego – which itself was seized by a U.S. force in 1846, invading what was then part of Mexico.

Co-directing the project with Goodheart is journalist and historian Manseau, a scholar-in-residence at the Starr Center. Beginning with a handpicked group of student associates this summer, the project will expand in the fall when Manseau’s “Writing for the Media” course will serve as a “newsroom” allowing students to track down leads, hone their fact-checking skills, and pitch topics for the series just as they might do one day at newspapers or television networks. “Working on a project affiliated with the New York Times is unbeatable real-world experience for any aspiring journalist,” Manseau says. “Students will come away from Historically Corrected with a better sense of how news and other media are created today, and the role they might play in that process.” 

With tens of millions of unique visitors per month, the newspaper’s Web site is one of the most-read media outlets in the world. Historically Corrected will run several times per month under the rubric of the Campaign Stops blog, one of the Times’ most high-profile online series. A condensed version of this week’s inaugural column also appears in the Sunday, July 8 print edition of the Times.

“The Times is excited to be able to include in our pages and online this valuable contribution to the political discussion,” says Clay Risen, senior editor in the paper’s Op-Ed department, which will oversee the series. “We expect that Adam Goodheart, Peter Manseau and the rest of the Washington College team will offer our readers a unique insight into American history, ironically via a medium — the Internet — that has only recently made such perspectives so quickly and widely available.”

Washington College president Mitchell B. Reiss sees the project as “a wonderful opportunity for our students to be engaged at the intersection of history and politics in a meaningful way. They will be learning from some of the finest historians in the nation, and their research will support journalism on one of the most widely read and influential Web sites in the world,” he adds.  “Adam and Peter are illustrating yet again how the work of the Starr Center can bridge the past and present and bring the insights of history to the forefront of the national dialogue.” 

Unlike existing fact-checking sites that simply declare a statement to be true or false, Historically Corrected is designed to encourage nuanced interpretation, discussion, and debate among readers. Nationally distinguished scholars will contribute comments to spark the discussions. The initial group of participating historians includes Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, the biographer and journalist Richard Brookhiser, and Ted Widmer of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, along with Washington College professors Melissa Deckman, Joseph Prud’homme, and Richard Striner.

“Readers will be encouraged to join the debate in the comments section and through social media,” Goodheart adds, “and the column will also offer a window into the past by providing primary sources—documents, letters, and images—gathered by Washington College students.”

This examination of how history is incorporated into today’s politics is at the heart of the mission of the Starr Center, which was founded in 2000 to encourage new approaches to studying American history, to draw connections between the past and present, and to make the work of first-rate historians accessible and inviting to the general public. The Center also creates unique opportunities for Washington College students both on-campus and far beyond; in addition to the new Times endeavor, it has developed longstanding partnerships with the Smithsonian, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and other nationally eminent institutions.

Goodheart, who serves as the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Center, is a historian, essayist and journalist. His recent book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, was a national bestseller. A frequent contributor to the acclaimed New York Times online Civil War series  Disunion, he also contributes to numerous national publications, including Slate, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and the New York Times Magazine. 

Manseau, the Center’s scholar-in-residence, is the author of several books on history and religion, including Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead and Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, as well as the award-winning historical novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. Manseau has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, and is currently at work on a book about the forgotten influence of religious minorities in American history.
For more information on the Historically Corrected project and its research and writing team, visit
Project directors Adam Goodheart, left, and Peter Manseau, right, discuss
the first installment of Historically Corrected with student assistants
Maegan Clearwood and Kaitlin Tabeling.


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