Pressing Issues: time traveling via the ‘NYT’ archives

By: Greg Mitchell

I don’t even want to think about how much time and money I could have saved researching four books of history that I wrote in the 1990s had the latest offering from The New York Times existed then. The Times, after more than a year of work, has just made available in its online (paid) archives articles from the paper going back to 1851. Previously, you could only peruse stories from 1981 on. The artifacts come in PDF format, allowing you to see exactly how the story was played in the original issue ? often complete with photos and quirky headline treatment.

Each of my books ? subjects ranged from ancient political campaigns to capital punishment and the atomic bomb ? drew strongly on New York Times articles, partly because they were most readily available on microfilm. For one book, while working at a think tank in New York City, I snuck down to the college library at lunchtime nearly every day for at least two months, scrolling through seemingly endless reels of microfilm from 1934, laboriously taking notes and making crude and expensive photocopies. Now I could do the same from my desk at home and print out copies cheaply and easily on my own machine.

Obviously, I was born too early. But at least this leap forward has arrived, with possible revenue benefits for TimesSelect and other newspaper archives.

In the early days of the new service, I haven’t conducted any relevant research, just had some fun with it and tested its potential. It was appalling to learn that the Times fell just as readily for the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin attack in 1964 as it did, on many days, for the bogus Iraq WMD scare in 2002-2003.

On a lighter note, it seems the paper did not cover at all one of the turning points for music in America ? Bob Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. The only story on the festival ? by critic Robert Shelton, whose favorable Dylan reviews in the early 1960s helped launch his career ? came the day before and focused on Donovan, the Dylan wannabe.

Shelton did write an analysis a week after the event, which briefly noted: “Bob Dylan, who seems unable to sneeze without causing controversy, introduced very unpersuasively his new fusion of folk and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Bring back Cousin Emmy,’ shouted a young festival-goer as Dylan’s electric band played.” So that sustains the conventional wisdom that many fans may have booed Dylan at Newport.

The first important New York Times story on Watergate came on June 19, 1972, by Tad Szulc, and was titled “Democratic Raid Tied to Realtor: Alleged Leader Said to Have GOP Links and to Have Aided CIA on Cuba.” This, of course, was Bernard Barker. The story opened on Page One and jumped to page 20, accompanied by mug shots of the five busted burglars.

But to really get full use of the new feature, one should look for truly moldy material almost impossible to find by other means. How, for example, did the Times cover one of the most famous moments in our nation’s history, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?

The front-page story, appearing Nov. 20, 1863, four months after the battle, came topped with the usual multi-deck headline, under “The Heroes of July.” Mention of any speeches didn’t come until the fifth deck, and even there the president failed to get star billing: “Oration by Hon. Edward Everett ? Speeches of President Lincoln, Mr. Seward, and Governor Seymour.”

The article, which carried no byline, led with a brief overview, then reprinted the entire opening prayer. It mentioned Everett’s oration and said the complete text could be found on page 2. The sun broke through the clouds, it noted, to shine on this “magnificent spectacle. ”

The reporter listed the guests on the platform, before dryly observing: “The President then delivered the following dedicatory speech.” Since it was so short ? half the length of the prayer ? it was reprinted in full, with half a dozen parenthetical notations of “applause” with “long continued applause” noted at the end. So much for the urban legend that few in the crowd could hear the speech or were so disappointed they did not respond at all.

However, the reporter did not offer any words of praise or any indication that the speech was anything special.

After reprinting the governor’s address and attending to a few details, the article closed on an odd note, revealing that the president returned to Washington by train but that many others were left stranded at the train depot and would have to make use of Gettysburg’s “meager” accommodations for the night.

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