That’s the title of an excellent 1999 book I’m now reading, by Timothy Garton Ash. It is real-time reportage focusing around the great transition from pre- to post-Cold War that happened so unimaginably fast, starting in 1989, before our watching eyes. But the History of the Present is what bloggers are writing, too; and Ash says some things that anyone who’s doing it should consider very carefully.

The Body of the Book · Some of History of the Present may be a bit tedious for those who aren’t concerned and educated about the events then in the middle of Europe. Lauren was living in Berlin when the Wall came down so this was meat and potatoes to her; I found one or two chapters a little flat, but the majority are page-turners.

What is Journalism? What is History? · In the Introduction, Ash ruminates at length on his claim that this writing is both History and Journalism, and on the nature of each. Rather than try to summarize or crystallize, I’m just going to present a few excerpts in the hope that some of you will take the time to read at least the work’s Introduction. Ash’s words in italic.

Take Notes! · During some of the dramatic debates between the leaders of Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution,” in the Magic Lantern theater in Prague in November 1989, I was the only person present taking notes. I remember thinking, “If I don’t write this down, nobody will. It will be gone forever, like bathwater down the drain.” So much recent history has disappeared like that, never to be recovered, for want of a recorder.

The First Draft · American journalists writing books of recent history sometimes modestly refer to them as “the first draft of history.” This implies that the scholar’s second or third draft will always be an improvement... it may not be, because the scholar will not know, and therefore will find it more difficult to re-create, what it was really like at the time: how places looked and smelled, how people felt, what they didn’t know.

The Frontier · Both good journalism and good history have some of the qualities of good fiction: imaginative sympathy with the characters involved, literary powers of selection, description, and evocation. Reportage or historical narrative is always an individual writer’s story, shaped by his or her unique perception and arrangement of words on teh page... Yet there is a sharp and fundamental difference. The novelist Jerzy Kosinski, who played fast and loose with all facts, including those about his own life, defended himself aggressively. “I’m interested in truth not facts,” he said, “and I’m old enough to know the difference.” In a sense, every novelist can say that. No journalist or historian should.

Fact-Checking · Great American journals such as The New Yorker employ fact-checkers. As they drag their fine combs through your text, it is horrible to find how many small errors of fact have slipped into your notebook or intruded on the path from notebook to text.

Recording · Tape recorders and cameras put people off. Politicians and so-called ordinary people speak less naturally and freely as soon as the machines come out. Worse still, cameras and microphones also turn people on. Demonstrators or soldiers strike heroic poses and make portentous statements they would not otherwise make.

Trust · Finally, it seems to me, the key to trust is not the technical apparatus of audiovisual recording and sourcing and fact-checking... It is a quality best described as veracity... the reader must be convinced that an author has a habit of accuracy...

Good and Bad · The qualities of bad journalism and bad history are very different: sensationalist, intrusive, populist tosh with millions of readers on the one side; overspecialized, badly argued, ill-writtten doctorates with no readers on the other. But the virtues of good journalism and good history are very similar: exhaustive, scrupulous research; a sophisticated, critical approach to the sources; a strong sense of time and place; imaginative sympathy with all sides; logical argument; clear and vivid prose.

Are You Blogging? · Then you too are writing the History of the Present, whether you know it or not. Try to do a good job. And spend some time with Mr. Ash.

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February 26, 2004
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