Sunday, August 18, 2013

Presidential Historian "Branding"

"Branding" seems to be everywhere. The concept of a "brand" began in business, defined by Businessweek as "the genuine 'personality' of your company." But in the increasingly commodified, "Glengarry Glen Ross" society in which we are all expected to "always be selling," the idea has become virtually indistinguishable from marketing and self-promotion.

As a result, to my ear the word "brand" smacks of manipulation. I prefer "reputation," since a reputation carries with it the sense of something earned by one's actions, not fabricated by one's conscious self-promotion.

To a greater or lesser degree, everyone on social media engages in some form of "brand" creation--am I someone who posts regularly or irregularly to Facebook? Are my posts personal, political, inspirational, religious, etc? When I decided to start this blog, I had to decide what (if anything) it might be known for, and since my wish was to apply my historian's perspective to contemporary events, most (though not all) of my posts have roughly fit that category.

In recent years, no one has been more successful at this than "presidential historian" Michael Beschloss. He's a regular on PBS and NBC, and recently he has made something of a splash on Twitter, (@BeschlossDC). His account was named to Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013" in the category of "Politics," though it is really more historical than political.

Beschloss has specialized in tweeting interesting photographs, and so it might be more accurate to say that he is doing a kind of history through photography. My friend, the attorney Bill Carleton, who follows Beschloss on Twitter and has an interest in intellectual property and new media, noted to me awhile back that it seemed odd that Beschloss almost never identified the sources of the photos or the photographer.
The Twitter profile of Michael Beschloss

Carleton has tweeted Beschloss on this subject, and last week he wrote a blog post about it. He made his point with this brilliant mock photo credit:
Pictured, from @BeschlossDC: Truman and LBJ in 1965. It's remarkable that Michael Beschloss would have had both the access to the Presidents and the facility with camera equipment of the time to pull this photograph off. From the camera angle, we can infer that he was unusually tall for a child (he would have been 9 years old in 1965)
Despite the tone, the issue Carleton raises is a serious one. Beschloss has added "Twitter photo historian" to his brand, and gained some fairly high level exposure for it, such as this Gwen Ifill interview from December 2012. But it is hard not to notice how Beschloss artfully ducked Ifill's question about how he finds these photos by talking instead about why he finds them interesting.

More recently, Beschloss did the same thing in this interview with Jonathan Karl when asked directly (about 5 minutes into the interview) "where do you get these photos?" Beschloss explained when he does it (on the weekends) and why does it. When asked a follow-up about where he found a specific photo of Lou Gehrig and Frank Sinatra, Beschloss said it was from "archive that was connected I believe to Lou Gehrig who has a lot of fan sites." Finally, Beschloss simply said that he relies on his memory: "I remembered seeing that image somewhere and I went out and grabbed it."

Historians will know where I'm going with this. When it comes to citing primary sources, "I went out and grabbed it" does not cut it. In his books, Beschloss--like all authors--has to credit the photos he uses, in the same way that a historian is trained to cite all primary sources.

As a blogger who occasionally likes to use photos with a post, I can sympathize with Beschloss. The internet has made the replication of images easy, and it can be difficult to track down the original provenance of every photo one would like to use. (Thinking about this issue has convinced me of the need to be more vigilant about using citing photos in future blog posts). It is also the case that in the classroom, we teachers frequently make use of photos pulled from the internet in our Powerpoint presentations without crediting them.

At what point does the size of the audience matter? Beschloss now has over 60,000 followers on Twitter. When he tweets photos, is he more like a teacher using them in a classroom or more like an author publishing them in a book?

Complicating the issue further is the fact that the greater the notoriety that Beschloss gains, the more the photos he tweets in some sense "become" his photos to followers.  For example, the CBS Sports web page made the Sinatra/Gehrig picture its "Photo of the Day," and said it was "Courtesy of presidential historian Michael Beschloss."

Given all of the above, it is good to see that Beschloss (probably because of the prompting of Bill Carleton and others) has now started to credit most of his photos, and promises a future website which will have the sources of the images. I do wish that he had openly acknowledged the change, however, and offered an explanation to his Twitter followers. That, too, could have been a form of educating the public, by letting them know that crediting the original sources is a value historians hold dear.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Beschloss is overly interested in acknowledging mistakes. Last month, he tweeted a picture of Andrew Jackson and wrote: "Andrew Jackson tday [sic] 1832 vetoed Bank of US renewal ending tradition of veto's use only against unconstitutionality." As soon as I read that, I knew it was wrong: Jackson had explicitly argued in his veto message that he believed the Bank to be unconstitutional.

I tweeted Beschloss a quotation from Jackson's message ("the powers and privileges possessed by the existing bank are unauthorized by the Constitution") and included a link to the full text of the statement. There was no reply, but I later noticed that the tweet was gone. Fortunately, I had done a screen capture of the original tweet, pictured here.

Upon learning of his mistake (no doubt from others as well), Beschloss merely deleted the tweet and thus the evidence of his error.

I don't blame Beschloss for getting something wrong, particularly given the volume of tweeting he does. But the fact that he did not acknowledge and correct the error strikes me as beyond the pale. Errors of fact should not just be dropped down the technological memory hole.

I noticed the tweet was gone and I followed up: "I like how you use Twitter, but I think simply deleting the erroneous Jackson tweet is insufficient. Anyone can make a mistake-But a historian has an obligation to correct mistakes. You have nearly 48,000 followers--how many saw it and thought it true?" Beschloss neither responded nor issued a correction. He just removed offending tweet from the record.

Perhaps by making his mistake disappear, and by belatedly (though without explanation) beginning to credit some of the photos he uses, Beschloss is protecting his "brand." But at least for this historian, his reputation has suffered.

No comments:

Post a Comment