History is written on the fly, we all die better than we lived
In the days after John McCain’s death, right-wing outlet the Daily Beast lambasted the media for praising the maverick Arizona senator as a principled hero in his death after calling him a radical who flared racial tensions and wish-washed his positions during the 2008 presidential campaign.
There’s a kernel of truth in that criticism, with a couple of heavy caveats.
First, it’s important to remember that journalism is a first draft of history, not the final score (which the best historians will tell you doesn’t exist).
The words you read and hear today are journalists’ best efforts to understand the world around them in the 10 hours or 10 minutes they had to put the story together. It’s a reflection of the sentiments of the world around them at the time they laid their hands on the keyboard or stood in front of the network cameras.
What that means is that, in 2008, some political watchers accused McCain of flaring racial tensions, and the media reported what they heard around them. And, by the way, a lot of other political watchers came to McCain’s defense 10 years ago, and I read those reports, too.
What that also means is that we should never judge the quality of an individual journalist, newspaper or TV network based solely on a single story or even a couple of stories. Judge them instead on how well they revise and update their stories as more information and perspectives are collected.
Journalists doing their job well are always striving — one sweaty, frustrating step at a time — to get closer to the truth.
Secondly, we all die better than we live.
With the exception of irrefutable monsters like Hitler or Osama bin Laden, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone’s obituary accusing them of being scoundrels or drunks or problem gamblers or any other of the hundreds of vices with which we all struggle every day we’re alive.
Obituaries tend to overlook our flaws and foibles, because that’s how our loved ones want to remember us when we’re gone.
Political types are no different, and so the Barack Obamas and Joe Bidens of the world who called McCain a danger on the campaign trail call him a darling at his funeral.
As journalists the world over scratch out the latest draft of history in whatever coffee-stained newsroom, hotel room or borrowed office they find themselves, that’s the story they’re telling today. Not because they’re opportunists, but because history is changing around them.
And, by the way, a lot of people still fault McCain for his blunders, for his temper and calculating political mind and that fateful decision to name an Alaskan governor as his running mate.
And I’m reading those stories, too.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.