The Right Side of History?

The Patriot-News sent the wrong signal by changing its stance on Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

We Americans are a fairly history-minded people. No, we don’t always know our history as well as we should—but the history we do know often tends to act as a trump card in our current political debates. Think about it: There are few conversation stoppers quite so effective as: “You’re on the wrong side of history!

This is unfortunate, because that attitude treats history as an inexorable force for good, rather than the product of millions of human choices about how to act, and millions more human choices about how to interpret all of those choices. History isn’t a train that we’re riding to some inevitable destination; it’s something we make together, every day.

Sometimes, we we even make choices that end up looking, well, wrong.

On the face of it, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union made the wrong choice back in 1863. The paper covered President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—now judged one of the most famous orations in the English language, and memorized by generations of schoolchildren—and gave it a thumbs-down.

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” the paper editorialized about Lincoln’s speech. “For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

On Sunday — 150 years later — the editors of the paper (now named the Patriot-News) reflected on their predecessors’ judgment … and offered a correction.

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

Which, let’s face it, is even sillier than the paper’s original opinion. (Though it did give us this great SNL skit.)

Understand: Corrections are generally used to correct errors of fact — not the “error” of having made a judgement that differed from everybody else’s. If the newspaper reported that Lincoln had started his speech with a “four score and 17 years ago” line, a correction would be in order. But the paper never had the facts wrong. Its editors just decided that the paper’s official stance on those facts had changed. The Patriot-News wanted to get … on the right side of history.

By changing that stance in such fashion, though, the paper sent an ugly signal: That conventional wisdom is equivalent to fact — it isn’t — and that affirming conventional wisdom is one of the more important duties of a news organization.

Which is a pretty horrible message to send — even if that message was probably unintended by the paper which broke the Jerry Sandusky story that turned Penn State’s campus and self-image upside-down.

Instead of its almost-tongue-in-cheek retraction of history, it might’ve been more valuable for the Patriot-News to double-down on its earlier assessment. To let readers hear from thinkers who believe the Gettysburg Address was the template for nearly every substantively empty warmongering speech given by American presidents over the last century. To offer readers commentary from writers who believe that the modern-day flouting of the Constitution in the name of security has had its roots in Lincoln’s presidency. To try something different.

Instead, the Patriot-News hopped on the bandwagon, telling its readers what they want to hear. And it did so 150 years late. Which trivializes the courage of the men and women who chose “the right side” the first time around. Maybe the paper should correct its correction — quick, before the conventional wisdom changes again.