The Mistakes Historians Make on Television

History professionals can offer crucial insights on the great issues of the day. But best beware these stock phrases.

Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

In the fall of 1998, as an assistant history professor recently out of graduate school, I was excited to get a call from a producer of a local CBS morning news show who had noticed a panel discussion I’d organized about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The producer asked me on the show to put the event in historical context. I of course accepted.

It went well, and I kept being asked back on. Even as my academic career progressed, I remained in demand as a historian who could talk in an accessible way on TV and radio about current affairs. I’ve inhabited this strange space now for more than two decades, so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on how historians contribute to the public square. Here’s what I’ve learned about what historians get wrong—and can get right—when they do so.

The main pitfalls involve clichéd shorthands or tropes—tempting to use when communicating with a lay audience, but distorting and reductive. There are five, in particular, I’ve heard too many times.

Unprecedented: We use the word because it seems a surefire way of getting attention in a media environment that is constantly searching for novelty. Fundamental breaks are more newsworthy than more of the same. For the historian, it’s also a way of stepping into the shoes of contemporary observers who feel as if something could never have happened before.

The problem is that unprecedented can be misleading: To say something is without precedent ignores comparable phenomena in the past, even if they took a different form. Consider President Donald Trump’s penchant for false statements: To declare his lies “unprecedented” risks downplaying how much presidential lying we’ve seen throughout American history. How should we weigh Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 fabrication about an attack by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin—which became the pretext for one of the United States’ most catastrophic military interventions ever—with Trump’s habitual lies? Or George W. Bush’s grossly exaggerated claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which proved false after being used to justify a disastrous invasion of Iraq that lasted from 2003 until 2011?

Similarly, talk about today’s “unprecedented” polarization in Washington ignores most of American history. As the Yale historian Joanne Freeman has shown, legislators regularly brought pistols and other weapons to the floor of Congress in the mid-19th century, and physical fights broke out among members. More recently, in the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich abandoned old norms of bipartisan conduct by urging his Republican colleagues to attack Democrats as “anti-child,” “pathetic,” and “traitors.” Political scientists were producing mountains of work on the shrinking center, the rise of party-line voting, and the breakdown of civility back when Trump was famous mainly as a fixture on Page Six of The New York Post.

Occasionally, unprecedented is apt: Never, before January 6, 2021, had an outgoing president orchestrated an effort to overturn an election result. But the word should be used sparingly, because otherwise its effect is to make significant developments that are deeply rooted in the design of our political system appear transitory or based on an exceptional individual.

“Just like” comparisons: The flip side of unprecedented is when historians say something that happened today is “just like” something we’ve seen before. For example, when Clinton’s health-care-reform effort failed in 1993, we heard how President Harry Truman’s attempt had suffered the same fate. More recently, to explain contemporary smear politics, commentators have pointed to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s spreading of disinformation and media manipulation in the early 1950s.

“Just like” comparisons can be instructive. When President Barack Obama seemed to get little credit for his economic-stimulus plan after the 2008–09 financial crisis, historians reminded us how successfully Franklin D. Roosevelt had promoted his public-works projects.

Yet the trope tends to flatten history and strip away context and nuance. In their 1986 book, Thinking in Time, Ernest May and Richard Neustadt showed how bad analogies have led to poor foreign-policy decisions, citing Johnson’s insistence on likening U.S. intervention in Vietnam to World War II, when comparison with France’s experience in Indochina or with America’s own experience of stalemate in Korea might have guided him toward a wiser choice.

Cycles of history: Historians love to discuss cycles in American history, picking up on a theme from Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who argued that U.S. politics veered between eras of reform and reaction, akin to a law of physics. The problem is that the theory has been largely debunked.

Rather than operating in a cycle, every era contains competing progressive and regressive impulses. Historians have documented the ways in which, during the supposed mid-’60s high point of liberalism, conservatism retained a powerful hold on America. As Johnson pushed for his Great Society, conservative Southern Democrats and midwestern Republicans were teaming up in Congress to block most of what he was attempting to do. For every chapter that the radical Students for a Democratic Society formed at colleges and universities, the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom did the same.

Nor does the cycles thesis have much to say about what social scientists call policy entrenchment—the way new policies outlast the coalition that created them. Despite the vaunted Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs survived: The conservative ascendancy of the Reagan era was layered over the Great Society of the ’60s, which was layered over the New Deal of the ’30s, and so on.

In other words, the appealing neatness of the cycles argument always collides with the messiness of real-world politics.

Instructive quotations: Who doesn’t love a great quote? And quotations can work very well in a media environment that privileges brevity and catchiness. On the surface, the words of a past leader might seem explanatory for a topical news story, but dig a little deeper into the quote’s original setting, and the particularities—who said it, when, and for what purpose—might make the saying less apt.

The celebrated line from Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” should not be stripped of the precise boldness he was urging—robust government action to defeat the Great Depression. Just because it sounds like an inspirational lesson for crisis does not mean it should be a bumper-sticker slogan for any situation, including calls to cut government. The trouble is that—even more than “just like” comparisons—quotes get deprived of their original context.

Partisanship: This has become one of the worst offenses—the rise of commentators who deploy historical arguments in service of partisan goals. No one would deny legitimacy to a historian who comes to an understanding of the past that meshes with their lived politics. But things go wrong when historians put forth only arguments that fit their political beliefs and skew history to do so.

Included in this cottage industry are conservative historians who depict the history of feminism as being at odds with family values and ignore the ways that the women’s movement championed public policies offering more security for working mothers and their children. Although the problem has been particularly acute in the conservative media bubble, left-wing historians can be guilty as well—reluctant to discuss the failures of certain government programs, say, or the problematic conduct of past progressive leaders.

Historians need to make intellectually honest appraisals based on their research, even if that might cause tension with friends and allies. Echo chambers produce bad history.

Given these traps in store for the media-friendly historian, what is the remedy?

The historian’s most important task is to provide a long view. The value of the discipline is to counter the narrow time frames of most news analysis. Historians can unpack the economic, political, and cultural backgrounds of current events to help make sense of them. Heather Cox Richardson has found a huge and loyal audience for her Substack column with this approach. And the historian Jeffrey Engel did a terrific job during the Trump impeachments of explaining how impeachment has evolved as a political tool and illuminating its complicated legal questions.

At their best, historians can bridge the worlds of academic scholarship and breaking news. For all the jurisprudential talk of originalism, professional historians offer the surest guide to the principles that motivated the Founders and subsequent generations of leaders, as well as to the specific circumstances in which their ideas took shape. Historians can also provide a valuable corrective to lazy conventional wisdom—for instance, the work of Daniel Immerwahr reveals the historical amnesia beneath the notion that the U.S. never acted as an imperial power toward other parts of the world.

Finally, historians can push back against simplistic claims and inject nuance into news coverage. Media producers and editors may prefer black-and-white arguments because they make good sound bites and create conflict that increases viewership, but a historian’s sensitivity to gray areas of complexity and ambiguity is extraordinarily important for making sense of the news.

“Wisdom is the tears of experience,” the eminent sociologist Daniel Bell told my graduating class at Brandeis University. I have that experience now, and understand that we must be more deliberative and self-conscious about how we do history within the constraints of media platforms.

None of this is easy. In the words of Jill Lepore, one of our finest historians, “Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak.” Trying to do all of that in a 30-second TV segment or a Twitter thread is a formidable challenge. In an age when our public discourse has become so impoverished, and disinformation so normalized, historians must have a voice in our national conversations. But we have to speak in the right way.