U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Means of Knowledge

As our faithful and much-appreciated readers have no doubt noticed, we resident historians here in this corner of the internet are struggling to maintain our footing on the ground of history as the swirling currents of the present threaten to swamp us all.  We are doing the best we can.  Indeed, it seems to me, looking at all the posts that have gone up since the election, that collectively we are doing a very fine job of writing our way through this as historians.

wordsFrankly, I’m having a little bit of trouble with the whole “objectivity” thing right now.  I don’t mean “view from nowhere” stuff – there is no such thing.  But even that Haskellian objectivity that is not neutrality is a real strain. And I’m damn tired. And the road ahead is long.  I know: take a number.

But may I also take some suggestions?

If you could afford to subscribe to just one or two newspapers, or just one magazine, just one journal, one or two outlets doing invaluable work as part of the free press of a free society, what titles would you recommend?  What staff writers or freelancers would you support with your subscription dollars or newsstand purchases?  What pillars of the fourth estate most need shoring up right now?

I intend to subscribe to a couple of newspapers, and maybe a couple of magazines as well.  I put a post up at my own blog this morning with some of my own thoughts on one possible candidate.  (Saving you a click: The New Yorker, and I probably won’t subscribe, though I’m kind of torn.)  But I’d like to know what you all think.  Who did you read during this election that you want to make sure you can keep reading?  Whose work did you rely on?  What news outlet’s reporting was brave and true and needs to continue?screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-8-48-21-am

“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”  Well, while I am always up for that dare, I want to also kindly cherish the means of knowledge by supporting our free press with such means as I have at my disposal.  If you were going to subscribe to two, or three, or four publications, which ones would you choose?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an intriguing topic, and I look forward to seeing what others would offer.

    For me, I’d suggest the following: your local newspaper (they often need a lot of help and provide some of the most important news of the day) and then the magazine “Scalawag.” The latter has been important to me because, as a Southerner, it has been refreshing seeing a periodical about the South that presents it as something more than a Confederate flag-draped monolith (in much the same vein as to why I also enjoy “Oxford American”). Scalawag has a good combination of strong writing and reporting. Its only drawback is being a quarterly pub, but their website is fantastic.

  2. My suggestions (nothing groundbreaking here): Dissent, The Nation (both in your picture), and Jacobin among magazines. Among newspapers, anything that informs one about local politics (e.g Chicago Reader), as well as the Washington Post and NYT. (On the New Yorker, like everyone I admire the writing, but is anything ever really *courageous* in it?). – TL

  3. Well, The New Yorker did publish Hersey on Hiroshima, and that seems pretty courageous to me.

    As my other post makes clear, I’m not a regular enough reader of The New Yorker to say much about its house style these days. I know it publishes (and I often read, via the web) some damn good writers doing damn good writing. My complaints about it, such as they are, are minor and, I’m guessing, idiosyncratic.

    Locally here we have the Dallas Morning News (offers subscriptions), the Dallas Observer (free), and the Texas Tribune (public interest journalism w/ some institutional / philanthropic support).

    As the media environment consolidates, conglomerates keep swallowing up smaller outlets, competition flattens, etc., it’s hard to guess who will continue to commit adequate resources to crucial investigative reporting and smart analysis.

    • Of course you’re right about Hersey and Hiroshima. But that was over 65 years ago! Anecdotally, I rarely ever see any New Yorker pieces cited as must-reads on politics, policy, or the general things that matter to me as a citizen. Otherwise, I’m with you on the last para of your comment. And thanks for this post! – TL

  4. Tim made an interesting point about the lack of “courageous” investigative reporting. I, for one, am incredibly skeptical of our corporate owned media fulfilling its role as the people’s watchdog. Look no further than the role of the “Gray Lady,” the so called newspaper of record, the New York Times in the run up to the Iraq war. Did the newspaper function as the free press is supposed to , or is it simply the propaganda arm of the government?

    In 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published a book entitled, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media in which they advanced the thesis that the institutions of mass media operate on a propaganda model of communication. In this book they asserted the existence of five editorial biases, a quick and dirty primer is that media is operated to make a profit. In order to make a profit, they sell advertising to other capitalist businesses. The media’s business side subsides the gathering of “news” and therefore acts as a gatekeeper deciding what is “news.” Herman and Chomsky theorize that the public’s pushback or “flak” serves to constrain the media’s message. It should be noted that wealthy private individuals can use flak in a negative way to chill the media. Look no further than Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan to get back at Gawker media. The last of the five filters of bias was anti-communism. I say if one substitutes “global war on terror” for anti-communism Herman and Chomsky’s thesis holds true today. What is even more chilling is the degree of media concentration today versus 1988. One can choose to get their news from Disney, Viacom, News Corp, Time-Warner, NBC Universal/Comcast, or CBS. Newspapers and radio are just as concentrated.

    By the way, Manufacturing Consent was a book that I “fought” until relatively recently. I admired it, but I never accepted it. Ironically, it was the run up to this presidential election that confirmed that book thesis. There was a candidate who was out polling and drawing much bigger crowds than Donald Trump, but only received ten minutes air time on the network news. On the excessive amount of free media coverage of Donald Trump, Les Moonves said it best, “It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS.”

    Look at the post election news, as various sources are pushing their “spin” as they deflect blame for this debacle. It’s hard to find nuggets of truth out there.

    I’ll second Tim’s suggestions of Jacobin and Dissent. The Nation has betrayed its roots with Joan Walsh’s continued employment. Don’t get me started on Mother Jones. I recommend Cenk Uygur’s Young Turks subscription service. I also recommend that people scour reddit for an aggregator that fits their needs. Just remember to critically read news from your favored sources also.

  5. Robert, thanks for the Scalawag rec. Yes to the move away from the stereotyped, monocultural view of the south. And as we have recently been reminded, there are Confederate flags draped across the whole damn country here and there.

    Brian, thanks for the book rec.

    All y’all know I’m just a bourgeois liberal, not a Leftist, so it will be a big leap for me to pony up for Dissent, or even The Nation, for that matter. The Atlantic, to which I already subscribe, is about as rabble-rousing as I get. (I canceled my subscription to NYRB because the issues just piled up and I never read them. I understand that’s part of the point of subscribing to NYRB, but I could do without the clutter.)

    But I’m less worried about the state of criticism and commentary than I am worried about newspaper journalism and well-funded, deep-diving investigative reporting. The President-elect has gone out of his way to attack the legitimacy of newspaper articles or magazine profiles that dare to pull back the curtain on his utter incompetence and unsuitability for office. So they’re doing something right, and I hope they will keep doing it.

    As to The New Yorker, it’s not that it doesn’t dare, or that it does. It publishes wonderful writers whose work I love — it’s just that I read the writers when they happen to be in TNY, but I don’t read TNY, if that makes any sense. Its “New York”-ness is incidental to me, but very central to the publication itself, and so that’s kind of a bummer for me. (I explained elsewhere, so won’t belabor here.)

    Anyhow, somebody on Twitter suggested supporting ProPublica, so I wanted to pass that along. But of course it’s based in Manhattan.

    Where are the well-funded, deep-bench teams of investigative journalists based in Modesto, California, or Topeka, Kansas, or Garland, Texas, or Lexington, Kentucky? We need some of those too.

    • ProPublica’s N.Y. base may be sort of incidental rather than central/important to its work. Of course fairly deep pockets are needed to sustain investigative reporting, which tends to limit the number of sites. There may be a few, a very few, small independent (or chain) newspapers remaining in small or medium-sized cities that do good investigative work, but I don’t know which ones they are. And a lot of their investigations presumably focus, as they should, on local matters. Among non-U.S. newspapers, The Guardian has a free daily email of top U.S.-related stories (now and then highlighting an interesting angle or story that one might not see in WaPo or NYT front pages). And I ‘should’ prob read, say, Le Monde Diplomatique (either in the original [yeah, cough, missing every twelfth word or so if lucky] or in the English version), but a combination of laziness and busyness clicks in and I almost never do.

      I’ve subscribed in the past to some of the journals and magazines mentioned above (and there’s a good case to be made for subscribing to The Nation or Dissent or Boston Review or The Atlantic or possibly Jacobin, etc.). However, just about the only thing I pay for now to have arrive in hard copy in my mailbox is Foreign Affairs, an ‘establishment’ journal with less-than-altogether palatable origins now covered in the mists of time, and I had to think hard recently about whether to cough up the money to renew my subscription (which I did). I’ll leave aside the reasons, b.c they are of little interest to anyone (except me, and I already know what they are). 😉

  6. Thanks, Louis. And thanks to all the readers of my other blog post — some of you clicked anyhow, and I’m grateful for that. So, in light of that essay, let me shift the drift of my inquiry above, keeping in mind that most of us writers and readers here are teachers. What kinds of current writing do you / we encourage our students to read? And how? (It occurs to me that when I asked my own students last week to share their thoughts on the election, I probably should have also asked them, “Where did you get most of your news about the election?”) My own pedagogical strategy on this stuff, liberal that I am, may be too reliant on osmosis. I will have to think some more about how to do double duty as an historian in the classroom, helping students attain some critical perspective on the past while also helping them be more astute cultural critics in the present. Anyway, as always, suggestions welcome!

  7. My suggestion: including a couple of journals or newspapers that are not from the U.S., for the obvious reasons of feeling out how other communities and cultures experience the world and the United States. There is the London Review of Books, of course, and the New Left Review if you want something a bit more on the scholarly side–though I would not call it necessarily an academic journal.

    Last but not least, I strongly recommend the journal of NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America), it is essential to know at least a bit about the events and discussions that happen in the Americas as a whole–they also include articles about Latinxs. NACLA has a pretty decent website too.

  8. Kahlil, thank you so much for these suggestions — I especially appreciate the pointer to NACLA. A commenter at my blog discussed the experience of being “in the bubble” in terms of a near-complete overlap of his media consumption w/ his social milieu, underscoring the problem of “provincialism” in re: even (especially?) our most critically astute media outlets. But of course as your suggestions above suggest, the problem of provincialism is baked in for all of us (and baked into my bleg above) to the extent that we are looking to make sense of this teetering edifice by looking to commentary coming from inside the house. Might help to find out what the folks next door or across the street see when they look at this house that seems to be collapsing around us.

    And I guess I’m arguing against myself a little bit, but I do want to lean heavily (if only temporarily, and for heuristic purposes) on the need for fearless reporting, as well as fearless commentary. The obvious criticism here, of course, is that there is no view from nowhere, and all reporting is a kind of commentary. But not all commentary is a kind of reporting, and it seems to me that we need reporting — not, perhaps, because “reporting” makes any measurable difference in electoral outcomes (apparently, from this last election, it does not), but because it’s a necessary response to gaslighting in the present, and an act of faith that in some future time, facts will matter.

    In short: I am a dinosaur.

    • I was just perusing the blog today when I came across your post, so I am a little late in commenting. But in terms of “fearless reporting,” Democracy Now! comes to mind (though they are not a print outlet). They consciously try to report on subjects not being covered or unaddressed aspects of/angles on subjects being covered in mainstream media outlets.

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