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How Not To Do History, by The New York Times

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March 1940 meeting at Berkeley, California: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred L. Loomis. Investigating the history of this meeting and later actions of some of these people would have helped Edmondson to find the answer to her question. US Government photo.

Another chapter in the New York Times’s getting it wrong. The motivation for this example, though, is more opaque than for others.

Barton Bernstein is an emeritus professor at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on recent American history, with an emphasis on Cold War and nuclear issues. What the Times did got his attention. A few of us noted the bizarre article by Catie Edmondson when it appeared in January. Bernstein destroys it.

In January 2024, a Washington-based New York Times reporter, Catie Edmondson, landed a journalistic plum: a “Reporter’s Notebook” article on the front-page of the newspaper, complete with a two-page spread inside the paper, with illustrations. She presented the story as a pioneering article that allegedly uncovered a hitherto unknown, or little known, secret: precisely how the US government funded the atomic bomb during World War 2. The Times underscored the seeming importance of the article by featuring, above the fold, a picture of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime director of Los Alamos and “father of the A-bomb,” along with Army General Leslie R. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. Other photos inside further emphasized what the editors apparently deemed as her article’s significance.

The article reads like an undergraduate paper, poorly researched, lacking context, and crowing about the great historical advance it represents. The Times has many  resources – William Broad and David Sanger on staff, any number of historians like Bernstein and Alex Wellerstein whom they regularly quote and who might have been consulted. But they seem not to have consulted any of them, just went with the claims of a reporter who came to them six years ago, fresh out of college.

Bernstein:

Lamentably, Edmondson’s self-celebrated research did not advance understanding of the subject in any significant way. She discovered and reported what has mostly been long known, though she did not present it as such. At the same time, she made a number of errors, and ignored or omitted much important information and context. Notably, she failed to consult many monographs, memoirs, and biographies published in the last several decades covering the events she claimed to examine afresh, and thus displayed an ignorance of the extensive scholarship by historians deeply familiar with the archival records. Ultimately, the prominence of her article, juxtaposed with its significant faults, constitutes a troubling failure in meeting the standards of journalistic responsibility. The Times ill-served its readers.

    Had Edmondson’s subject been obscure history, her article, with all its faults, might not warrant sustained attention. But since it concerns a subject of continuing importance, and because the article seems to have served as a springboard to an increasingly frequent and prominent role for Edmondson at the newspaper of record, it would seem the article deserves critical discussion and analysis. This is particularly true, moreover, since the Times has not deigned to issue even modest corrections or disclaimers. The Times’s response to public and private criticisms that have been leveled so far has basically been a non-response. The Times, put simply, has stonewalled.

Bernstein thoroughly disassembles the article. Edmondson has no idea how to do historical research, and no sense of how to go about answering the question she’s asked. She believes that because she is unaware of an answer to her question, none exists; in fact, a number of books have addressed it. She finds a single source and blows it up, without understanding the context, into a new discovery made only by her.

As we often note in regard to problematic Times articles, several editors must have read and approved of the article. Presumably they share her ignorance. And, as usual, the Times stonewalls when criticized.

Bernstein’s article is worth reading if you’re interested in this history.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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