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Newspapers and History are Siamese Twins

 

Codependent and synergistic

History and news are irrevocably linked, separated only by time. In his recently published autobiography Mark Twain notes that “news is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form.”

Mark_Twain_on_newspapersNewspapers need a constant flow of local content, and Portsmouth history and the arts offer a bottomless repeatable source of material. Newspapers also need an equally endless supply of advertising revenue, but historic venues are poor customers. They barely, if rarely, make ends meet. They survive on a trickle of visitor income, their nonprofit tax status, the kindness of benefactors, and the unpaid ours of volunteers to keep the exhibits changing and the walls standing.

The perception that this city has an abundance of exquisite heritage sites is true. But the assumption that there are “myriad supporters” is not. Portsmouth’s little secret is that a very small number of people actually visit, join, volunteer, or donate to these institutions. The list of supporters from one historic house looks very much like the list from the next. Our museums are served by an even smaller number of dedicated board members who rotate from one organization to another.

American newspapers too are living on the edge. As a journalist, I do my utmost to get all the facts, to dig for primary sources, and to explore an issue from many angles. But journalism by definition is “writing in a hurry” and deadlines can trump details. With fewer reporters, fewer editors, and a 24-hour news cycle, there is not always time or money enough to dig deep.

When I’m wearing my historian hat, I often use old newspapers in my research or I quote historians who got their data from newspapers. The Internet has given me instant access to a previously unimaginable array of printed sources. The problem is that old newspapers are frequently biased or just plain wrong.

“If you don't read the newspaper,” to quote Mark Twain again, “you are uninformed, If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Case in point, the first newspaper report of the 1873 ax murders on Smuttynose Island was packed with errors. The names of both murdered women were wrong. A large sumn of money was reported stolen, but was not. The surviving woman, Maren Hontvet, was reported as Mrs. Huntress.

Newspapers print corrections. But the original errors remain in the public record for historians to stumble over. We often miss the updates buried in later issues. In May 17, 1876, for example, a Concord newspaper reported that Maren Hontvet, the lone survivor of the Smuttynose murders, had returned to her homeland of Norway and confessed on her deathbed to the killing of her sister and sister-in-law. That story inspired a century of controversy, not to mention a bestselling novel and a Hollywood film. A day later, however, on May 18, 1876, the confession was revealed as a hoax. At the time, Maren was still living in the Portsmouth area and raising her daughter. A retraction appeared, but the fake news story still lives on, despite the facts.

History and news, flawed as they may be, are linked like Siamese twins. They may not always get along, but they are much the same at heart.

 

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.

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