MEMORY AND RECORD: EVOCATIONS OF THE PAST IN NEWSPAPERS
Department of Communication
Building 120, McClatchy Hall
Stanford, CA 94305-2050
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Submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division, 1998 Association for Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication convention
Memory and Record: Evocations of the past in newspapers
This paper explores how history is evoked and invoked in journalistic writing,
and the implications of different conceptualizations of "history" for the study
of collective memory and news. The paper examines how other scholars have
traced the contours of history and memory and attempts to find a space for
journalism within that discussion. Second, this paper offers a preliminary
attempt to apply those concepts to news stories and identify questions for
Memory and Record
Memory and Record: Evocations of the past in newspapers
"Journalism is a collective arrest of experience ... [it] converts valued
experience into memory and record so it will not perish."
DJames Carey, Communication as Culture
Newspaper journalists do not, generally, shy away from the assertion that what
they do, day in and day out, is something akin to the work of historians. They
cover "historic" events, self-consciously labeling them as such; they remind us
of anniversaries of those events. In part, journalists employ this approach as
a way to justify (and market) the news. If a peace treaty is "historic," no one
questions the space it takes up on Page One.
But journalists' interest in history runs both deeper and wider than merely
making historic "hay" out of certain events D deeper in its assumptions about
the nature of history and wider in its consideration of what constitutes it.
Journalists seem to be guided by a particular notion of history, one that
regards history as simultaneously nostalgic and objective. History means hard
evidence and self-evident chronology, yet fond memory and yearning for the past
Carey acknowledges journalism's dual inclinations toward preserving memory and
record D and by listing both memory and record, acknowledges that they are two
different things D but does not address how journalists approach the past to be
remembered and recorded. How history is evoked in journalistic writing provides
an entr e to understanding the reconstitution of the past within the present
that Maurice Halbwachs and others have argued is the primary activity of
collective memory. As Zelizer (1995), echoing Halbwachs, says, "Collective
memory thrives on remaking the residue of past decades into material with
contemporary resonance" (p. 217). Collective memory can be seen as a process by
which people construct the past, recovering certain events as emblems of shared
experiences and values, for present purposes. Clearly, then, understanding how
one important participant, the press, treats the past will help us to understand
how a community's collective memory forms.
Journalism's working definition of history and what it may suggest for the
study of collective memory and the news is the subject of this exploratory
paper. To what extent does journalism exist in a gray area between memory and
record, employing what it considers to be the "scientific" tools of
historiography to uncover the past and regarding its discoveries with a warm,
uncritical gaze? What kinds of questions does journalism's peculiar brand of
historical consciousness raise?
First, this paper will examine how other writers have traced the contours of
history and memory and attempt to find a space for journalism within that
discussion. Second, this paper offers a very preliminary look at some newspaper
writing to discover the kinds of questions that may be worthy of further
examination and discussion.
Conceptualizing history and memory
Frisch (1986), making an argument for the study of "historical memory," points
out a "linguistic curiosity" that helps demarcate the gray area between history
and memory: While the noun "memory" has a verb, "remember," that readily
corresponds to it, the noun "history" does not. Because memory presumes the
active verb, to remember, "[i]nvolved as well, by definition, is the leap across
time from the then of happening to the now of recall" (Frisch, 1986, p. 12).
But history and memory share an important trait: Both have one foot in the past
and one in the present, with each foot determining where the other is planted.
Thus, as Nerone (1989) points out, one's present perspective determines what in
the past is remembered, how it is remembered, and the importance one assigns to
it. In this sense, the past that is written as history or remembered as lived
experience is more a product of the social, cultural and political location of
the person writing or remembering than the object that is written or remembered.
As de Certeau (1988) has argued, "historiography stages the conditions of
possibility of production, and it is itself the subject on which it endlessly
writes" (p. 11).
The historiographical institution is inscribed within a complex that
permits only one kind of production for it and prohibits others. Such is
the double function of the place. It makes possible certain researches
through the fact of common conjunctures and problematics. But it makes
others impossible; it excludes from discourse what is its basis at a given
moment; it plays the role of a censor with respect to current D social,
economic, political D postulates of analysis. (de Certeau, 1988, p. 68)
Pointing out this similarity between collective memory and history, however, is
not to say that the process or product they denote is the same, or even very
similar. Halbwachs (1992, p. 40) offers a "presentist" approach, arguing that
"in reality the past does not recur as such, that everything seems to indicate
that the past is not preserved but is reconstructed on the basis of the
present." As Zelizer (1995, p. 217) describes it, "the study of collective
memory is a graphing of the past as it is used for present aims." History,
however, is seen as an objective science in which stories are constructed based
on evidence of and from the past. History refers to a practice, bound by
professional standards, as well as a result. While history is often approached
as, alternately, a process of debunking or filling out what is known about the
past, collective memory is more a process of integration or application of the
past to the present.
Zelizer (1995) argues that the study of collective memory is the study of
sites rather than events, which are the typical focus of historical study.
Collective memory is more mutable than history, a "history in motion, moving at
a different pace and rate than traditional history" (p. 216). Becker (cited in
Nerone, 1989) actually defines history in terms of memory D history is "the
artificial extension of a social memory," an expanded and "corrected" version of
collective memory (p. 98).
That collective memory and history are frequently defined in terms of each
other offers a telling indication of how similar they are. But what can we say
about the essence of collective memory on its own? Bodnar (1992) describes
collective memory as an argument about the interpretation of reality "ultimately
grounded in the inherent contradictions of a social system," such as local and
national structures, and ethnic and national cultures whose "function is to
mediate the competing restatements of reality these antinomies express" (p. 14).
Public memory speaks primarily about the structure of power in
society because that power is always in question in a world of polarities
and contradictions and because cultural understanding is always grounded
in the material structure of society itself. Memory adds perspective and
authenticity to the views articulated in this exchange; defenders of
official and vernacular interests are selectively retrieved from the past
to perform similar functions in the present. (Bodnar, 1992, p. 15)
So collective memory is, in some sense, the product of group recovery and
reconstruction; not just what happened in the past, or the aggregation of
individual memories of the past, but how a group uses the past to make meaning
in the present. This is not to say that for each individual in the group, the
past is perceived in the same way. Rather, the collective memory transcends
those individual memories.
The paths that collective memory and history each take to the past appear to
overlap. Conceiving of the study of collective memory as the construction of
the past by a group still points to traditionally historical inquiry: What are
the characteristics of the group? How did it form? Why does a certain event
resonate with this group and not other groups? Zelizer (1995) recognizes this
overlap by noting the tension between the particular and the universal that is
present in collective memory. In some instances, "events give memory a platter
on which to serve historical accounting," Zelizer notes, while in others, the
relationship is reversed (p. 231). That is, events can offer up a way of
reinforcing collective consensus about the past, and memory can turn particular
events into "generalizable markers" about universal and enduring concerns.
The actual past
Knapp (1989) problematizes the difference between history and memory by
questioning whether the actual events of the past are even important, ethically
or politically, compared with what is remembered about the past. He questions
historians' "reconstructive impulse" that drives them to find out what really
happened, to retrieve from the past that which had been repressed or hidden.
The question that concerns me, then, is this: why should it ever
matter, if it does, that an authoritative narrative correspond to
historical actuality? What is the relation between a narrated act's
paradigmatic authority and that act's actually having taken place at some
specifiable moment, or any moment, in the past? (Knapp, 1989, p. 123)
To answer these questions, it is necessary to first examine how the past is
used in the present. Knapp, adopting Halbwach's presentist approach, points out
that a kind of tautology relates what we value in the past and what we value in
the present: "[O]ur sense of what is symbolically useful in the past depends on
our present sense of what matters" (p. 130). Therefore, what we select to
remember from the past represents nothing more than our present values. The
"actualness" of the past event appears to matter little, leading Knapp to
question whether fiction or other sorts of narratives could simply be
substituted for "actual" past events for symbolic use in the present.
As several scholars have argued, then, history as well as collective memory are
constructed of narratives that correspond to values people hold in the present;
narratives of events or memories that do not correspond are ignored or
reconstructed to fill other symbolic roles. Taking this as a given, Knapp asks
"whether the dependence of collective values on shared memories implies an
equivalently strong relation to the actual (as opposed to imagined or mistakenly
remembered) events of the collective past" (p. 141). If so, the extent to which
our collective memories of the past are "correct" has important political
implications. Also, to the extent that we choose our history, we raise ethical
issues about our accountability for past actions. "[W]hat can it mean to deny
that the past has ethical claims on the present?" Knapp asks.
Here, perhaps, is where a discussion of journalism's role in shaping collective
memory is relevant. Most often, journalism's role seems to be reflecting
changing conceptions of the past, filtered through the experiences and cultures
of people in the present. That is, journalism does not perform a "filling out"
role in regards to the past; it is better at performing the memory task than the
record task Carey has assigned it. While the press dutifully reports on new
historical findings or new evidence that alters perceptions of what "actually"
happened in the past, it does not for the most part reflect a broader view or a
more nuanced one. On a basic level, journalists are interested in the new
angle, not a comprehensive picture.
In addition, the exclusion of marginalized, low status groups from the
formation of collective memory makes journalism's role problematic. The
collective memory reflected in journalistic accounts serves to further isolate
and exclude them from power.
Homogenizing images of the past
Kaes (1990) takes Knapp's argument in a slightly different direction: Even if
the actual past doesn't matter in the present, the authentic memory of that past
does. Kaes worries that media images of history will become so integrated into
the collective memory of that history that they will replace the memories of
people who actually experienced and remember that history.
[T]he past always has to be reconstructed and reconstituted,
represented on the basis of representations that already exist. This, of
course, is the aporia of historical representation in film: how to break
out of the circular recycling of images that are mere replicas of previous
images. Only if a spectator recognizes a film's images as historical ones,
as images one has previously seen and knows, only then does the film
qualify as a historical film. (Kaes, 1990, p. 117)
At one level, Kaes is questioning who the collective in "collective memory" is.
The more homogenized memory becomes, the less likely that small or marginalized
collectives will be able to maintain a sense of their unique, shared
experiences. It would seem, according to Kaes, that American mass media can
only work as a repository or reflector of national and not "local" collective
Kaes offers three examples of films dealing with historical topics in which
memory resists expropriation and homogenization: Shoah, Hitler, and Die
Patriotin. The first, Shoah, employs oral history as a way of basing history on
individual, personal memory; the second, Hitler, attempts to shed any narrative
whatsoever by presenting history as a jumble of contradictory artifacts; and the
third, Die Patriotin, acknowledges the "constructedness" of history by having
all the action take place in the artificial confines of a studio. To the extent
that Kaes sees these films as attempts to "defy the all-encompassing,
homogenizing power of mass media and their control over public memory," he seems
to be saying that public memory is (or can be) repressive, that it is not the
populist product of people living together in a common culture in both space and
time (p. 124). The implications for journalism of projects like Shoah, Hitler,
and Die Patriotin seem to be that it must break away from recycled images of the
past and attempt to include other images and stories.
Funkenstein's argument (1989) regarding the inescapable relationship between an
individual's memory and the social context in which the individual and his
memory are constituted, as well as the notion that memory derives from the
present as much as the past, would seem to point in the same direction as Kaes's
notion that individual memories are to some extent "received from" outside,
mediated images of the past. Still, Funkenstein has not addressed media
specifically, and considers collective memory to be "direct and unmediated" to
the extent that an individual recalls events he has personally experienced.
He asserts that because remembering something is a mental act, it is
necessarily personal. Even people who experience a common event do not have
identical memories of it. However, personal memory is socially situated.
Personal memories refer to social objects and events whose meanings are socially
determined. Drawing from Hegel's concept of self-consciousness as something that
"exists only when recognized," Funkenstein argues that personal memory requires
a social context; it requires the collective memory for its own existence.
The relationship between personal and collective memory becomes clearer in the
analogy Funkenstein draws with de Saussure's distinction between language and
speech. Language is a system of symbols; speech is the act of using them.
Hence, collective memory, like language, can be seen as "a system of clear
signs, symbols, and practices: times of memory, names of places, monuments and
victory arches, museums and texts ... " Personal memory, like speech, "is the
realization of these symbols" (p. 7).
It may be useful to think of the location of collective memory as neither in
the individual or the collective, but at their intersection. Or, another useful
heuristic might be to think of collective memory as the social context in which
individuals recognize their own, personal memories. Funkenstein, unlike Kaes,
views historical memory as very different from what a collective remembers.
Again, part of the difference lies in Halbwach's idea that collective memory
derives from the present. Historical memory, in contrast, is distanced from the
present; historians seek to ignore present meanings and avoid interpreting the
past in terms of present concepts.
One could argue that Kaes conflates collective memory with the historical
content of mass media, or that he is not clear enough in his distinction between
history and collective memory. Yet his idea that our memories are increasingly
not our own, or really anyone's "authentic" memory, is compelling. When does
collective memory simply become synonymous with media representations of the
past? Still, his argument begs the question of where collective memory is, if
evidence of it cannot be found in film, and media accounts of memory are not to
be trusted as authentic.
The newspaper as a site of memory
Pierre Nora (1989) argues "there are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because
there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory" (p. 7).
Memory is merging into history, which itself is accelerating as our perceptions
of history become more and more tied to current events. This "dilation" of
historical perception, as Nora calls it, finds assistance in the media, the
purveyors of those current events.
Sites of memory, then, are the result of the siege of "spontaneous memory," the
kind of memory that exists separately from place or object. Sites are places
where memory is turned into memorial; they are the physical representations of
some remembered event, a "jealously protected enclave" of "privileged memory"
set aside for commemoration in a society that otherwise might forget in its
eagerness to get on with history. They are, in Nora's words, "moments of
history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite
life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has
receded" (p. 12).
On a practical level, sites of memory are museums and archives and monuments
and flags D symbolic objects. To the extent that newspapers, magazines and
television programs also are symbolic objects, where might they fit into Nora's
characterization of lieux de memoire? Are they "spontaneous memory" or
"privileged memory" or a compromise between them? Or does the press more
accurately fall under the rubric of history, that which sweeps memory away?
The notion of the press as a compromise is compelling. Like privileged memory,
it takes on a physical form. Yet, more like spontaneous memory, it lacks the
permanence of a monument. The press provides a forum for community memory,
reproduced every day or hour or month, and in doing so seems to stand against
the loss of memory to history. What may be more compelling, however, is the
idea that the press is neither spontaneous nor privileged memory, but history.
Yet the press reflects the memories extant in a community in a more static than
dynamic way. Press coverage seems to stem more from duty than feeling. It does
not provide a "jealously protected enclave" as much as a roving spotlight,
fixing its gaze on whatever has resonance at a particular moment. For example,
some anniversaries and holidays are always covered in the press, some only
occasionally or briefly covered, others not at all. Memory, or a modern
conception of memory, on the other hand, is absorbed by collection, in creating
"an unlimited repertoire of what might need to be recalled" (p. 13). There is
no selection or priority, simply gathering D an approach that runs contrary to
A preliminary search for evidence
As a way to begin applying these conceptualizations of history, memory and
journalism, and identifying themes, issues and questions regarding them, stories
that appeared in the "B" section of The San Jose Mercury News in a single month
were collected and examined. The "B" section in most newspapers large enough to
have multiple sections is generally reserved for news about the local
communities in which the newspaper is published. Stories of national or
international import, as well as local stories that are especially dramatic or
have far-reaching consequences, make it into the "A", or main, section. The
news that is important to the people who live in a community, but not generally
to those who live outside of it, is found in the "B" section.
The selection of the Mercury News was based on convenience and not any
presumptions about particular aspects of its coverage relative to collective
memory. However, the B section in the Mercury News provides an interesting case
study of how this categorization of news content plays a role in shaping
community identity. The paper's multiple editions D some half dozen tailored to
groups of communities in the circulation area D are perhaps most differentiated
in the B section, where local stories are given varying levels of emphasis, or
"play," according to their subjects' proximity to the targeted communities.
Community identity, however, is only one product of local news coverage.
Events of the community's past also preoccupy local news. The B section is a
forum for memories of that past D the history of community identity, in some
sense D characterized by a particular vision of what history is and how events
are, or should be, remembered. The B section, then, plays a role in collective
memory formation. To be sure, Kaes (1990) offers a persuasive argument that
mass media homogenize collective memory, thereby making it more likely for
collective memory to exist at a national rather than local level. For a
preliminary case study of a single newspaper, however, it seemed most
appropriate to concentrate on the section of the paper with news that is
"closest" to its readers.
For each day's B section during January 1996, I scanned the stories and made
the following judgments about subject matter and approach: Was the story
premised on a past event or subject in any way that could be construed as
celebratory or commemorative? Was its content tied, explicitly or implicitly,
to the past and aimed at aiding or reinforcing memory of that past? A total of
24 stories appeared to meet those criteria.
This initial exploration suggests that a great deal of local news is not new at
all, but, rather offers accounts of the past. In the set of examined stories,
those accounts can be separated, roughly, into two groups: 1) anniversaries and
commemorations of past events taking place in the present; and 2) subjects that
are historical but not generally "pegged" to a current event. Taken together the
categories offer interesting insight into which elements of the past are
considered worthy of recognition, recovery and absorption into collective
The significance of stories in the first group, anniversaries and
commemorations, lies in which dates and events are considered worthy of
coverage. History in this case is an event, and one that is easily pinned to a
particular day, such as the birthday of a leader or a natural disaster. In the
second group, stories about past events, history is conceptualized as existing
in a chronology of the past, a collection of artifacts or documents, or a
physical site. Notions of history and historiography are somewhat muddled.
For purposes of discussion, the first category will be labeled "commemorative"
and the second, "historical." Before further detailing the commemorative or
historical characteristics of the stories, however, I will take a brief look at
what constitutes a "news peg."
The past as "peg"
Every reporter who writes a news story must answer the question, "Why am I
writing this story today?" The answer to that question is the peg. Timeliness
is one of the most common pegs: "I am writing this story about a three-alarm
fire today, because it happened today." Stories also are pegged to upcoming
events, such as city council meetings. But even complex stories dealing more
with issues than events must find a peg to hang on. A story about whether the
death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime, for example, would almost
certainly not appear without a paragraph about the latest execution or a change
in judicial procedure. In this way, Schudson (1986) explains, the peg works to
legitimate a story as news, especially "hard news" (p. 84).
Over time, the process of legitimation may have had a hand in creating entirely
new definitions of news. Barnhurst and Mutz (1997) conducted a content analysis
of newspapers over a 100-year period and concluded that "[t]o qualify as news
these days, an event also must fit into a larger body of interpretations and
themes" (p. 51). That is, it is not enough that the three-alarm fire happened
today. The peg is expected to hold the weight of more and more context. And
frequently, that context is found in history. As Schudson (1986) points out:
"To ask 'Is this news?' is not to ask only 'Did it just happen?' It is to ask
'Does this mean something?' And that question cannot be answered without making
some assumptions about history" (p. 84). Perhaps most importantly, a journalist
must assume that his or her readers are familiar with the historical event
providing the context and share a similar interpretation of its meaning.
Implicit in many of the stories examined here is a sense that some change has
occurred that alters our common notion of the past or that speaks to a present
issue in a new way. For example, a story headlined "San Carlos downtown
becoming more hip," tells us that "bit by bit, downtown San Carlos is changing,
and many residents are wondering what the future will hold." (Jan. 9, p.
1B). A Jan. 17 story, "Northridge quake aftermath still rocking Santa
Monica," describes how "the city was virtually ignored in the days right after
Jan. 17, 1994, as the media converged on the more visibly damaged valley 20
miles away" (Jan. 17, 3B).
In each case, the reporter creates a peg out of a contrast with the past or
perceived movement away from the past. On a practical level, reference to the
past is simply a handy way to create a peg and, therefore, justify a story. On
another level, however, one could argue that such a reference privileges the
past or, rather, a particular kind of past. Schudson (1986) notes that two time
dimensions frequently employed by journalists D "the human 'lifetime' and the
'postwar world' D are taken for granted and require no explanation" (p. 87).
But it is not just the span or "depth of time" invoked by journalists that
concerns me here. Rather, it is the kinds of events that are lifted from those
timespans for use in the present that suggest a particular journalistic sense of
The commemorative group of stories tends to follow standard conventions
regarding what is "news" by developing a new, contemporary angle on the
anniversary or event commemorated. Stories in the historical group rely more on
nostalgia for justification, a reliance we will examine in greater depth. To be
sure, the commemorative and historical categories are not mutually exclusive;
some stories could rightfully be placed in both. These general differences,
however, help us to separate stories that seem to obey typical news conventions
from those that more clearly serve the symbolic purposes of collective memory.
The San Carlos and Northridge stories illustrate the two categories. The
Northridge story is clearly pegged to the anniversary of the earthquake and
further justified as news in the new information it offers D namely, that Santa
Monica suffered as much as Northridge, but did not receive comparable attention
immediately after the earthquake. The San Carlos story, on the other hand, is
not pegged to any particular date, but is partly justified as evidence of a
recent trend in downtown's hipness. Clearly, however, the nostalgia for how San
Carlos used to be is a not-so-subtle peg as well.
News as nostalgia
Nostalgia sets the tone from the first sentence of the San Carlos story: "As a
young girl, Lois Schmidt often sat with her mother at Woolworth's lunch counter
in San Carlos, sipping a malt and munching on an egg salad sandwich. She
recently returned with her husband, daughter and granddaughter and discovered to
her delight that little had changed, including the sandwiches."
Nostalgia also seems to be the only peg for three stories in the historical
group. "DC-3 wings back in time: 1990s passengers experience air travel of a
generation ago," describes "nostalgia tours" available on the old prop plane.
Like the San Carlos and Northridge stories, this story relies on contrast with
the present for its symbolic impact. Readers are told that the "dark-blue
velvet seats, two to a side, provide legroom that today's travelers can only
dream of," for example. The story "A buzz from the '60s: Slot cars are back D
lighter, faster, costlier" (Jan. 2, p. 3B) describes the resuscitated sport of
slot-car racing, noting, "If you were around in the late '60s or early '70s when
slot-car racing had its first go-round, the buzz has a nostalgic sound." A
story about a man who collects old gas pumps (Jan. 9, p. 5B) tells readers the
"collection recalls America's golden age of service stations."
To the extent that nostalgia, by definition, is a kind of preference for the
past, the use of it as a peg suggests an urge to build community bonds by
harkening back to a shared "golden age." Zelizer proposes that "our advancing
proximity to the close of the millenium (sic)" has sparked popular culture to
"look backward for its themes" (p. 216). But one could argue that such
harkening back is more cyclical than millennialist. Journalists, like everyone
else, fear getting old and that fear is manifested in their sentimental approach
to the past, in their interest in slot cars and Woolworth's lunch counters and
old gas pumps.
Of course, nostalgia and sentimentality are not neutral. As Kaes has argued,
the images that dominate popular culture may "increasingly expropriate
independent personal experience" (p.119) and that "the sheer mass of historical
images transmitted by today's media weakens the link between public memory and
personal experience" (p. 121). Kaes' particular interest is in how film images
can begin to substitute for remembered images of lived experience. But his
argument tells us something about the power of these slot car and gas pump
stories to define what the golden age was. People who are not of the "baby
boom" generation, for example, are treated to a daily diet of references to the
Age of Aquarius and old television sitcoms that were not part of their own lived
experience. At what point does the dominance of these images in the newspaper
begin to enforce rather than reflect collective memory?
History as artifacts
The slot car, gas pump and DC-3 stories share another trait: They reflect a
conceptualization of history as a collection of artifacts or documents. The
story under the headline "Those old gas pumps tell a story" (Jan. 9, p. 5B)
The history of Antelope Valley is reflected in vintage hand-operated
gasoline pumps that recall a time of sparkling stations, free road maps
and uniformed attendants who jumped to clear your windshield or check the
oil. Bill Waisma of Lancaster, who has been collecting gasoline pumps for
three decades, is busy preserving this history.
In the DC-3 story, in a similar fashion, begins:
The 19 passengers stepped out onto the tarmac and back into time.
Parked in front of them was a vintage DC-3. The twin-engine prop plane
shows barely a trace of its 51 years and 32,500 hours of operation. But
this wasn't just a change to look at a piece of aviation history.
In both cases, the thing D the gas pump, the airplane D is referred to as
history, or perhaps more accurately, as historical evidence of some sort. If
not for the gas pump, the story implies, what would provide evidence of the era
of "sparkling stations"?
Two stories detailing the sale of items from a defunct newspaper's archives
turn newspaper clippings into "history." The first story, headlined "Last
chance to save bit of history" (Jan. 7, p. 1B), is most direct: "[T]he history
folded carefully into thousands of brown and gray envelopes will be given away
to the public ... In the files is the combined history of several decades of
modern times." So "history" again takes the form of some tangible artifact; it
is located in things preserved from the past.
That a newspaper story would consider old newspaper stories to be history
offers evidence that journalists view the product of their jobs in a particular,
"historic" way. And the stories' sentimental tone illustrates the urge toward
nostalgia in news. Such sentimentality might owe something to the fact that it
is, after all, a newspaper that is in the news D journalists have an
understandable interest in this past. But can the coverage of such stories be
seen as a self-conscious or subconscious way of reinforcing the importance of
the newspaper to a community's collective memory?
The newspaper archive coverage, as well as the other history-as-artifact
stories, also demonstrate how journalists' particular understanding of the
nature of history reflects their understanding of the nature of journalism D
specifically, that both are concerned with gathering facts. Journalists,
accustomed to thinking of facts in a largely unproblematic, concrete way, extend
this view to history, taking an uncritical approach to the things that represent
Where this approach becomes confusing, however, is in its possible conflation
of history and memory. That is, if history (like journalism) is based on
factual evidence that can be considered in "objective" terms, how can it also
require consideration of those "facts" in the nostalgic terms of memory? As the
stories make clear, it is not enough that old gasoline pumps are good
representatives of turn of the century aesthetics or that the DC-3 cut the time
for coast-to-coast travel by more than half D they also must recall a "golden
era" in driving or flying. At some point, the objective information the
artifact offers about the past must give way to the subjective memory of what it
was like to live in the days when the artifact was new. Zelizer suggests that
such confusion is the perhaps inescapable result of collective memory's
"usability," its almost utilitarian function in a collective.
For collective memory is always a means to something else. Rather
than be taken at face value as a simple act of recall, collective memory
is evaluated for the ways in which it helps us to make connections D to
each other over time and space, and to ourselves. At the heart of memory's
study, then is its usability, its invocation as a tool to defend different
aims and agendas. (Zelizer, 1995, p. 226)
If this is the case, then journalism occupies an interesting position at the
crossroads of history and memory where history is memory, or, rather, where
history is made usable as memory. In the newspaper, history is history because
it happened in the past and there is objective "evidence" of it. History is
news to the extent that it furthers some present aim or resonates with some
contemporary issue. In this way, journalism's interpretation of history largely
defines its role in collective memory formation.
History as chronology
History finds its way into the newspaper, at least the Mercury News, in an
explicit way, through regular features called "Out of the Past" and "Santa Cruz
Historic Perspective." The choice of subject matter, though historical, relies
on a contemporary news peg. For example, a postal rate increase provided the
justification for a story about the first postmaster of San Jose, heavy rain was
the basis for a look at the Christmas flood of 1955, and the hiring of a new
city manager prompted a story about the first city manager.
Even though there is a contemporary reason for the stories, special logos
accompany them, clearly identifying them as "history" and indicating their
intended purpose: to highlight the historical background of current events. For
the most past, the stories are simple chronologies that point to journalists'
objective, unproblematic approach to history. The postal rate story, for
example, simply begins in 1847, when San Jose first got regular mail service,
and marks various events and rate increases up to 1971, when the U.S. Postal
Service was established. Postal rate history in San Jose follows a straight
The history stories at first glance seem "anti-nostalgic" to the extent that
readers are instructed to appreciate how much progress has been made since the
historical event. For example, "The Christmas flood of '55: Gentle rain
inundated Santa Cruz" (Jan. 17, p. 1B) begins: "We are fortunate so far that
the 1995 storms are nowhere near the disastrous floods of 1982, or the flood of
the century in 1955." Similarly, the city manager story (Jan. 3, p. 2B) states,
"Regina Williams faces multiple challenges beginning her first year as San
Jose's city manager. But they are nothing like those that loomed over Thomas H.
Reed when he became the city's first manager, in 1916."
One could argue, however, that the comparison of past to present, even when the
past event is a crisis like a flood, creates nostalgia among those who
experienced the crisis and made it through. Weathering the crisis becomes a
community bond. Nostalgia also might be said to describe the kind of city pride
created by a story about how far the city manager's office has progressed.
Such simple recitations of historical narratives fit journalists' criteria for
history, but Knapp has gone so far as to question whether the "actualness" of
the narratives is of primary importance in the construction of collective
memory: "Why should it ever matter, if it does, that an authoritative narrative
correspond to historical actuality? What is the relation between a narrated
act's paradigmatic authority and that act's actually having taken place at some
specifiable moment, or any moment, in the past?" (p. 123).
What Knapp is suggesting D that the "actual" past may be irrelevant (ethically
and politically) compared with the collective memory of that past D raises
questions about journalists' apparent willingness, at least in the chronology
stories, to make claims about the importance of the actual past while
simultaneously privileging a particular kind of past as a source of community
History as places
Several stories in the "historical" category focus on historic sites and
efforts to save or preserve them. Two examples from the group include
"Volunteers honored for protecting lighthouse" (Jan. 9, p. 1B), which ran with a
deck headline "Keeping history alive, alight"; and "Plan aims to restore Pogonip
Clubhouse" (Jan. 10, p. 1B). These stories are largely unquestioning, tending to
justify the preservation effort more than dissect it. But they also serve a
larger purpose: Making a case for the preservation of "sites" of memory
generally, and for the type of sites worthy of such special effort.
In much the same way that journalists' seem to conceptualize history as
residing in artifacts, they locate history in sites. Of course, such a linkage
is not very problematic when, in fact, the site is where a historic event took
place D say, a battlefield. In many of the stories, however, the site is a
location for more generalized memories. History and memory become blurred, as
Pierre Nora as points out. Nora argues that as our perceptions of history
become more and more tied to current events, history accelerates and takes over
memory. News coverage of anniversaries also illustrates this trend, as the time
between current event and historical event becomes shorter and shorter. The
explosion of the Challenger space shuttle moves from current event to history
deserving of anniversary coverage in just one year.
Nora's argument that the merging of history and memory necessitates the
creation of sites of memory is mainly applied to sites, such as war memorials,
that are constructed specifically for the purpose of preserving memory, not
extant sites, such as a lighthouse, that become fixed points for memory.
However, the press' role in transforming sites into sites of memory is worthy of
examination, as it serves the same end: Making a space for collective memory.
Among the "site" stories, the lighthouse one is heavily symbolic, a fact that
does not escape the volunteer leading the preservation effort. "Lighthouses
symbolize so many things we strive for in our lives," the volunteer is quoted as
saying. "Society, safety, stability. Just think of the metaphors they stand
for." Much of the rest of the story deals with the difficult life
lighthouse-keepers led. So, the history reference in the headline
notwithstanding, the lighthouse becomes a site of memory for an earlier
(better?) era in shipping and navigation.
Journalists also can construct sites of memory even when a permanent, physical
site is not available. "Exhibit continues bomb victim's quest," (Jan. 11, p.
1B) describes the Children's Peace Statue Exhibit at the Children's Discovery
Museum in San Jose. The top headline reads "Children hear cry of Hiroshima."
To be sure, journalists didn't create the exhibit, and therefore didn't
construct this site of memory out of whole cloth. But most art exhibits don't
warrant the kind of coverage D a story and two pictures on the front of the B
section D this exhibit garnered. Indeed, many exhibits don't get more than a
calendar brief. This coverage, then, suggests another kind of contribution to
collective memory the newspaper can make: pointing out some events for
particular attention, distinguishing them as important aspects of collective
The purpose of this exploratory case study of how journalists conceptualize
history (as judged by the stories they write) was to begin to map out the place
where history, memory and journalism might intersect. Even this cursory look at
local news coverage suggests that there are many questions and issues to be
addressed. Clearly, the "news" is preoccupied with the past. And, to the
extent that the press plays a role in shaping collective memory, how it views
the past warrants attention. If journalists see history as unproblematic,
self-evident and objective D mirroring, largely, how they see journalism D then
the kinds of issues they can raise, the kinds of pasts they can see, and the
kinds of events they can help the collective to remember are limited.
The contradictory urges toward an objective view of history and nostalgia for
the past suggest that the collective memory the press helps to shape will be
somewhat scattered and unpredictable. Of course this is true. What still must
be discovered is the process through which collective memory forms and what the
press's role in its formation means, in terms of its responsibility to the
community. More rigorous content analysis of newspapers as well as local
television news broadcasts may help to uncover this process in greater detail.
In addition, examination of reporting textbooks could offer a more complete
understanding of how the training a journalist undergoes to become a chronicler
of the present also influences how the journalist sees D and remembers D the
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 Names for this concept vary: public memory, social memory, collective
memory. For consistency, I have used "collective memory" throughout the paper.
 Definitions of "local" depend on the size of a community and the
newspaper's circulation area. The Mercury News' daily circulation numbers
nearly 300,000 readers in more than a dozen communities.
 Quoted material from stories is referenced in the text only. Citations are
not included in the references. All stories are from January 1996 editions of
The San Jose Mercury News.