Interview - Rick Shenkman

I/V: Rick Shenkman, Editor and Journalist - History News Network / 23rd June 2003

What's your background and that of the History News Network?

All of my adult life I have worked as both a journalist and a historian.

At History News Network I finally have the chance to be both simultaneously. I'm not sure if at heart I am one or the other.

Am I a historian who's moonlighting as a journalist or the other way around? Don't know. I established HNN in 2001. We went online in June of that year--the fulfillment of a dream that began, I suppose, with an op ed I wrote for the New York Times in 1980 in which I chastised the media for the shallowness of its coverage of news. I suggested that to remedy the defect the media should begin ringing up historians for their views just as often as they call upon economists or political scientists. We have hundreds of historians to write for us. Most are in the US but some live overseas. HNN gives historians a national platform. We can't afford to pay anybody but we do offer them visibility. Most historians are happy with that. Anyway, they hold paying jobs so don't rely on their writing for income.

What were the world's most important news media milestones?

In the past century there were 3 important inventions that had an impact on the media: radio, TV and the Internet.

Of the three, TV remains the most important. It reshaped our culture and politics and has nearly ruined American democracy. The irony is that deep thinkers predicted that TV would improve democracy by giving viewers a front row seat in politics, allowing them to make up their own minds about the issues confronting the country. In fact, TV viewers simply became bored with politics, forcing the politicians to focus increasingly on emotional issues to attract attention.

The Internet has helped revive democracy, but so far has not reversed the main trends identified with television: low voter turnout, emotionalism, an emphasis on personality.

What news media sources and journalists do you and your contemporaries hold in high regard?

I always recommend to students that they start with the NYT and then read a couple of opinion magazines, making sure that they pick at least one that reflect the views of people with whom they disagree. Of course, I tell them all to be sure to read HNN regularly.

What are your main services?

Our main services:

1. keeping readers up to date on breaking news related to history.

2. providing articles every week that reflect on current events.

3. providing a roundup of excerpts of articles related to history from media around the world.

What's your motto?

We surf the Internet so our readers don't have to.

What news media website do you visit?

HNN. Ok, seriously. We have a list of nearly 100 websites we visit every week to make sure we know what's going on. My favorite is Slate

What does a typical day for you involve?

Spend one to two hours reading the NYT. Then going through emails. Then reading the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Slate. Then surfing websites and reading H-Net. When I come across an article I like that suit's HNN. I'll grab an excerpt and post it.

What role do hoaxes play in the media?

Occasionally pranksters dream up hoaxes to get attention. Few involve history. We haven't done much with these.

What other media related websites do you contribute or assist with?


What have been the main achievements of HNN?

In just over 2 years we have become a resource for national media like the NYT. On occasion we have broken stories and helped keep others alive. After the Ambrose and Goodwin scandals broke, HNN became a clearinghouse for stories about both historians, making us the first place journalists stopped when they wanted to know what was going on. Our coverage of Michael Bellesiles's scandal was through and led to deep reflections by historians about their responsibilities. Bellesiles was accused of manufacturing evidence. Our work helped historians think through the issues his case raised: How to detect false information; the role of peer review journals, the role of ideology in the profession. (His book was used by people in the pro-control movement.)

Will history show that Bush made the right choice in declaring war on Iraq?

Ask me in about 10 years.

Who are your biggest supporters?

Our readers.

Do you think a real time machine could be built? (given that matter can be moved) - NASA and the likes of which have done this. I know this is "out there".

I have no idea. I was a liberal arts major for heaven's sake.

Why has religion caused more wars and deaths than anything else in the history of the world?

I see that you specialize in questions that raise small issues. Jeeze! I cannot offer a short answer to this question.

How has the both the internet, and your website, helped you achieve your objectives?

Before the Internet I could not dream of a way to do what we are doing: providing historical perspective on a daily basis to issues of concern to Americans.


History News Network is located at George Mason University. The History News Network was created in June 2001 and features articles by historians about current events. HNN is the only website on the Internet wholly devoted to this task; the site is updated daily in response to breaking news. HNN is funded by George Mason University. The magazine features articles by historians on both the left and the right. HNN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They average 3 million hits a month.


Is Journalistic Plagurism out of control out of control, by Greg Tingle (published on HNN)