February 7, 2013

Changing Facts, Not Changing Histories

This will not come as a shock to most people, but things change. More than that, our perceptions of things change. That’s particularly true of historical events, things that happen at a particular point in time. First impressions are often shaped by incomplete reporting, faulty eyewitness testimony, and the modern journalistic need to get the story right the fuck now, before the bastards down the street get it. It’s only after some time has passed, when the situation is examined comprehensively and with more distance that we get a better idea of what actually happened.

Take, for example, the unfortunate fate of Kitty Genovese.

In the early morning hours March 13, 1964, Genovese was returning from work in New York City. She was attacked, raped, and stabbed to death near her apartment building. As sad, brutal, and horrific as Genovese’s death was, that’s probably not why the name means anything to you these days (if it does at all).

Genovese’s name became widely known thanks to a reporter named A.M. Rosenthal:
It was a gruesome story that made perfect tabloid fodder, but soon it became much more. Mr. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who would go on to become the executive editor of The New York Times, was then a new and ambitious metropolitan editor for the paper who happened to be having lunch with the police commissioner 10 days after the crime. The commissioner mentioned that 38 people had witnessed the murder, and yet no one had come to Ms. Genovese’s aid or called the police.

Mr. Rosenthal quickly mapped out a series of articles centered around a tale of community callousness, and then followed in June with his quick-turnaround book, published by McGraw-Hill. National and international interest in the issue spiked, and soon the Kitty Genovese case became a sociological phenomenon studied intensely for clues to behavioral indifference.
Rosenthal turned his reporting into a book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, which was published only three months after the murders. It was a hit and became the go-to reference for information about the case.

Over the years, as we’ve learned more about the Genovese case, we’ve learned that a lot of the initial sensational claims about the “38 witnesses” probably isn’t true:
But over time the basic facts were called into question. As early as 1984 The Daily News published an article pointing to flaws in the reporting. In 2004 The Times did its own summation of the critical research, showing that since Ms. Genovese crawled around to the back of the building after she was stabbed the first time (her assailant fled and returned) very few people would have seen anything.

The article quoted among others Charles E. Skoller, the former Queens assistant district attorney who helped prosecute the case and who also has written a book on it. ‘I don’t think 38 people witnessed it,’ said Mr. Skoller, who had retired by the time of the interview. ‘I don’t know where that came from, the 38. I didn’t count 38. We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.’ There were other mitigating factors as well; it was a cold night, and most people had their windows closed.

‘Maybe only five people were in the position to hear her calls, if even that many, and knew what was going on,’ said Kevin Cook, an author who is currently researching the case for a book of his own and trying to determine exactly who knew what.
In and of itself, that’s no problem. Our understanding of history changes all the time, revision in light of new evidence is a good thing. But in the modern era, it brings to mind a potential problem – what should be done with books like Rosenthal’s when they are reprinted?

The issue arises because Rosenthal’s book is being reissued in digital formats without any kind of correction or updating:
Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Melville House, said he knew about the controversy but decided to stand behind Mr. Rosenthal’s account. ‘There are, notably, works of fraud where revising or withdrawing the book is possible or even recommended, but this is not one of those cases,’ he said. ‘This is a matter of historical record. This is a reprint of reporting done for The New York Times by one the great journalists of the 20th century. We understand there are people taking issue with it, but this is not something we think needs to be corrected.’
I tend to agree with Johnson. There’s no need to change books, particularly nonfiction ones, simply because the information in them becomes outdated. Not only does that carry some nasty Orwellian overtones, but it also ignores the value of such books as historical and archaeological objects. Future readers, whether amateurs or scholars, need access to original works in the state in which they were originally consumed in order to assess their impact on a particular time period or to use as a case study in how the understanding of an event changes over time. It’s worth noting, as Johnson hints, that regardless of whether Rosenthal’s initial reporting was wrong, it wasn’t fraudulent in the sense that he made it up out of whole cloth. He used imperfect information to produce what is, in hindsight, an imperfect work.

So I don’t think publishers have an obligation to make changes to an outdated work. It would be helpful to new readers and the general understanding of the public if, perhaps, a foreword or afterword were added explaining developments since the original book was published. After all, nobody who went out to buy a copy of Plato’s Republic would spend good money on one that just contained the original text, or even an old translation. You’d expect some context and analysis, apart from the work itself.

It’s an interesting question, but hardly a new one. We don’t expect the works of Josephus to be as accurate as more modern works on the same subjects written with two millennia worth of new information. It doesn’t mean they’re worthless. But it does make the artifacts and readers need to realize that.

Bottom line – always check the publishing date. You never know how much more you have to learn about something if you don’t.

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