A recent controversy surrounding the biography of Yuri Gagarin, and involving NPR, highlights the gaping divide separating academic history writing and the public presentation of history. Last week Robert Krulwich, who writes on science for NPR, posted a blog based on a 1998 book entitled Starman (http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/03/21/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage). The blog uncritically presented the book’s dubious account of the tragic death of the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on April 24, 1967. Gagarin was the back up for that flight. Historians at NASA immediately alerted fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi and me to the blog. Asif, who knows the history of Soviet space better than anyone, posted his critique of the NPR article, followed by many others (see the comments following the blog above). To his credit, the journalist involved has decided to investigate further(http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/03/22/134735091/questions-questions-questions-more-on-a-cosmonauts-mysterious-death?sc=emaf).
Meanwhile, the New York Times recently published excerpts from the same book, a biography of Gagarin set to be republished for the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight on April 12 (http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/first-man-up/). That article did not mention – and neither, at first, did the NPR blog – that the book is now more than a decade old and that its conclusions have been largely dismissed by professional historians. Critical parts of Starman are cobbled together from rumor and urban myths about Gagarin that have circulated ever since his flight. The book’s authors legitimized those rumors by passing them through the mouth of an ex-KGB person who claims to have known Gagarin (I’ve met such people during my research on Gagarin. For the right amount of money, they’ll say anything).
I, for one, would have expected more from the NYT and NPR. Not only did editors at both organizations seem completely uninterested in the history of the book whose contents they showcased with nary a caveat (indeed, both at first treated the book as if it was new), but they also seemed to have no sense that it might be a good idea to verify the book’s contents by consulting professional historians with expertise in the area.
Is it too much to expect journalists to distinguish between a popular history, which is not vetted by experts, and one whose facts and claims have been checked and verified by historians in the field?
The incident is a sad commentary on the disconnect between the history profession and the public presentation of history. Along with journalists and editors, who are in too much of a hurry to launch their fact-free missives into cyberspace, we academics share some of the blame for this state of affairs. We are cloistered in our academic journals and university presses. Our research in increasingly expensive academic journals – as Steve Barnes, who created this blog, has noted – remains largely imprisoned behind various pay walls that prevent the broader public from accessing our expertise. And to make matters worse, we often write in impenetrable, jargon-filled English – for an audience of a dozen or so (or less) sub specialists.
It’s a conundrum that is worth considering, especially given the broad-based attack on the value of a liberal arts education: how to bridge the divide between the professional historian/teacher and the broader public. Perhaps this group blog — and hopefully many others like it that will provide an expanded forum for academics — is the beginning of an answer.