Roy Cohn and the value of visiting the Past

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Photos via Kevin M. Kruse on Twitter
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“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” — George Orwell, 1984.

This is a version from an article I wrote a year ago. It’s become newsworthy again.

Much of what flows through the media ecosystem is about what’s new, what’s breaking and what’s happening right now. But as we continue to see the media world speed up, some are also slowing down and peering backward to look forward.

Esquire Classics is one such example. In 2015, Esquire digitized its entire archive and launched a comprehensive website with more than 50,000 articles from its history. Subscribers receive access to all 1,000+ Esquire issues.

Such a vast backlog would be overwhelming for even the most voracious reader and Esquire fan. So the magazine decided to accompany the archive with curated recommendations and a podcast that examined the enduring impact of such articles as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” Tom Junod’s 9/11 story “The Falling Man” and Nora Ephron’s 1972 essay “A Few Words About Breasts.”

On the podcast, David Brancaccio from public radio’s Marketplace joined the author or an expert commentator to analyze how an article “reveals its cultural impact and resonance.”

Sometimes he’s talking with the author of an article like Gay Talese on “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Other times it’s an expert or culture critic on the subject of the article, like Esquire political writer Charles P. Pierce talking about the late Richard Ben Cramer’s opus on the 1992 election, “What It Takes.”

The Esquire Classic podcast wrapped up in December 2016 with a fresh look at a 1978 profile in light of recent events. Brancaccio talked with Ken Auletta about his “searing” article on Roy Cohn, who went become a key mentor to Donald Trump.

“If president-elect Donald Trump learned anything from his mentor Roy Cohn, it was this: punch first and never apologize,” the episode description reads. “Cohn was notorious for going on the attack — as counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch-hunts of the fifties, and later as a pugnacious attorney for whom the only bad publicity was no publicity.”

Now, of course, President Trump has appropriated the term witch hunt, much like his use of the term “fake news” to fit his own worldview. In the process, he’s editing and rewriting history to fit his version of events.

Though the podcast series is over, Esquire Classic continues to produce original work in Editor’s Notes that look back at its earlier trove of articles through the prism of today, on topics ranging from American gun culture to Father’s Day.

Another similar project is Deadspin’s The Stacks, which revives a “living archive” of journalism stories from the past decades and posts them online. Like Esquire Classic, Deadspin brings a modern-day touch to the articles to make them relevant to today’s audience, adding commentary, illustrations and GIFs.

Journalism is the first draft of history. So it becomes richer and more informative when the first draft is seen through historical context. That’s the value of revisiting archives, and that’s what makes examining the long-term impact of media so interesting.

It’s enlightening to hear an author revisit their piece years later. Susan Orlean shares her perspective on “The American Man at Age Ten” now that she has a son of her own 25 years later.

It’s a strange trip for myself, since I was a 10-year-old in 1992 when this article about a 10-year-old came out. I see myself in her 5th-grade protagonist.

Today, information overload means there are countless hot takes on the same daily headlines, day after day. Social media and breaking news means we are never ignorant of what’s happening this instant.

But maybe that means we start losing some wider perspective.

If we want to prevent an Orwellian future, maybe we need now more than ever to pause the flow of real-time information, and start revisiting the past.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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