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History News Service Feeds Popular Hunger for Good History and Good Journalism

by David Paul Nord on Oct 23, 2010

The Texas State Board of Education, God's gift to op-ed writers everywhere, recently announced that there is a creeping Muslimization of world history textbooks.  They warned of the rising influence of Middle Eastern interests in the U.S. textbook publishing business.
Liberal commentators and religious libertarians denounced the board's resolution as misinformed in fact and offensive in principle.  But this latest skirmish in the culture wars in Texas got me thinking about something slightly different:  the history of religious public relations.  In the past, when unpopular religious denominations set up interest groups and organized PR campaigns to improve their image in mainstream America, how did they engage with the school-book business?  Did they actively pursue this particular PR strategy, and if so, how did it work out for them?  For example, in the early twentieth century the Christian Science Committee on Publication in New York continually scoured the newspapers for biased stories about Christian Science and pressured editors for change.  Did they also lobby textbook publishers? 
Questions like these are bread and butter for the History News Service (HNS), an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to bring historical scholarship to bear on current public debates.  The HNS was founded in 1996 by Joyce Appleby and James Banner as a way to bridge what they believed was a growing disconnect between academic history and popular journalism.  The HNS is still in business today, providing editorial guidance for writers and free distribution of history-related op-ed essays to several hundred newspapers and news Web sites, including the History News Network.  For example, some recent pieces distributed by the History News Service have explored the hapless history of efforts to produce bipartisanship in Congress, the long-standing role of "empathy" in the selection of Supreme Court justices, and the recurring story of Congressional conservatives who oppose progressive reforms but then decades later support them as part of traditional Americanism. 
To put it simply, the mission of the History News Service is to connect historians with journalism.  Are you a historian interested in this kind of writing?  If so, contact me.   I took just over the editorship of the HNS in September, so I'm new on the job.  But I'm working with a splendid group of volunteers who have served the HNS faithfully for many years.
To say that there is a disconnect between academic history and journalism is not to suggest that history is absent from public debate and popular media.  Quite the opposite:  History is everywhere.  But often it is the kind of history that makes specialists squirm.  Turn on cable television or the Internet, and you can find a flood of history.  You can learn about the U.S. Constitution's Christian origins, about slaves who happily fought for the Confederacy, or about the curious parallels between Woodrow Wilson and Adolph Hitler.  You can get the latest proofs of Nostradamus's prophesies, along with the history of Area 51 and the "truth" about Dealey Plaza and 9/11.  As one long-time journalist recently put it, in some places on the Internet everything happens on a grassy knoll.
But I believe that for professional historians all this blather and chatter should be more encouraging than disheartening.  It suggests that Americans are hungry for history.  And they are hungry for good journalism, too.  The History News Service is an important project because it feeds those two appetites together. 
Furthermore, the current economic crisis in mainstream journalism has expanded the opportunities for the HNS.  Over the last year, the big news in the newspaper industry has been the search for new business models that can help the industry generate new revenue and new content and move more viably onto the Web and into mobile digital applications.  One approach has been new collaborations with other news sources and content providers, especially not-for-profit news projects.  The HNS is precisely the kind of collaborator that mainstream journalism is seeking.  So we at the HNS will continue providing a flow of traditional newspaper op-ed columns, while at the same time collaborating in new ways with a variety of journalism providers—both print and online—to bring the perspective of solid, scholarly history into the public sphere.
In short, both the need and the opportunity for the History News Service have never been greater.  And I'm looking for historian-writers who want to help us meet this challenge

David Paul Nord is professor emeritus of journalism and adjunct professor emeritus of history at Indiana University-Bloomington. He can be reached at: