For some of our most respected and revered media institutions, history has become increasingly uncooperative and uncharitable toward the narratives they’re trying to peddle these days. A number of media outlets are finding it necessary to edit the stories of days gone by to make them more in keeping with the present day. After all, why update your thinking or try to maintain some semblance of consistency with regard to past events, when you can just go back and change the way you reported or interpreted those events at the time?
Following a recent Salon article that blasted Senator Tom Cotton for allegedly misleading the public about his service as a U.S. Army Ranger, some media outlets could barely keep up with the stealth editing necessary to make their current reporting more accurate and less hypocritical. Cotton graduated from Army Ranger training school and earned the honor to wear the Ranger pin, but he never actually served with the unit. Up until a week ago, it was quite common to refer to these service members as Rangers, but after the Salon attack piece, media outlets had some work to do to change all that. Newsweek, not wanting to be left out of the media pile-on, used the Salon article to launch an attack of its own on Cotton. However, Cotton’s staff notified Newsweek that it had referred in 2015 to the first two female graduates of the training program as Rangers. (So had Congress, by the way.) Newsweek went back and edited the article, relieving the barrier-breaking female graduates of their Army Ranger status. Now the publication was free to attack Cotton without appearing to engage in any double standards. It must have felt pretty liberating to the Newsweek editors to throw two female Army Rangers under the bus just so they could go after a high-profile Senator from the wrong team.
Indeed, fickle history doesn’t always cooperate when the media sets about attacking a public figure for partisan or ideological reasons. Back in October, during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the then nominee was attacked by Senator Mazie Hirono for using the term “sexual preference.” Unbeknownst to nearly everyone on the planet, the term had apparently become “offensive and outdated.” Despite evidence the term had been in recent common usage by the very same news outlets and journalists who now criticized Barrett, the media rushed to brand the term as offensive. According to MSNBC producer, Kyle Griffin, “Sexual preference,” a term used by Justice Barrett, is offensive and outdated. The term implies sexuality is a choice. It is not. News organizations should not repeat Justice Barrett’s words without providing that important context.” Good thing MSNBC provided that impartial and objective context, because the folks over at Merriam-Webster hadn’t seen fit to update the definition of the term until the brou-ha-ha erupted. The dictionary people quickly edited the term’s definition, doing its part to add legitimacy to the media attacks on Barrett.
One of the most egregious examples of stealth editing was brought to light last September when it was discovered that the New York Times had quietly memory-holed the core claim of its 1619 Project, the celebrated history series which garnered a Pulitzer Prize for its creator Nikole Hannah-Jones. Initially, the piece attempted to reframe history in a manner that belied the facts. When leading historians pointed out these errors of fact, the Times edited the piece without notice, dropping the core claim of the project. Additionally, as if to assert that the public was suffering from some kind of Mandela Effect delusion, Nikole Hannah-Jones publicly asserted that the project had never made the claim to begin with. Attempts to rewrite or reframe history for a present and future audience are common. It’s how history is recorded. But time travelling in a digital space and changing history in an effort to conceal the fact that you ever misled or misstated facts about history…are you f-ing serious? It feels like trying to create a simulation within a simulation. One day journalists and historians may look back on this time as a sort of dark ages, when authors went to such extreme lengths to conceal, alter and meddle with the facts of history, that the true story of what really happened is rendered indiscernible. In any event, it will probably be one really hot mess for someone to disentangle.