Front pages provide history’s first draft

  • By Ted Anthony Associated Press
  • Wednesday, December 24, 2008 1:59pm
  • Life

“The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages, 1851-2008” (Black Dog &Leventhal, 456 pages and three DVDs, $60)

Hey, you. Yes, you there, skimming the Drudge Report, reading your RSS feed of Yahoo! News on your BlackBerry, trolling through the video clips on YouTube. You’re a news junkie for the 21st century. Congratulations.

But on the day Barack Obama was elected president, what did so many souvenir-hunters turn to? A screen grab of the top of Google News? Don’t think so. For posterity, they sought out a copy of a newspaper — and, in particular, an archival copy of The New York Times.

Even as it bleeds onto the sidewalk and reaches up plaintively toward you for help, the printed word is still canon in our culture — for now, at least. And no canon is more respected than the “paper of record” — The New York Times.

With the publishing of this stunning volume of the most momentous front pages of the past 150 years, accompanied by DVDs with images of every single Times front page ever published, a sprawling snapshot of human civilization — or, at least, civilization as Americans saw it — is suddenly at our fingertips.

It would be easy to say that this book is for older generations, people who read newspapers and now want them compiled into a shiny coffee-table book. And that’s perfectly fine. But the real use of “The Complete Front Pages” is actually very webby: It’s a primary source, offered both in print and an online-friendly format, that will immerse you in contemporaneous stuff about history on your own rather than rely on modern reinterpretations.

Want to see how the Hindenburg disaster was covered on May 7, 1937? It’s in here, including this simple and elegant scene story: “The Hindenburg, giant silver liner of the air, suddenly became a torch above the naval air station here tonight.”

Or the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby two days after Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, with a lead paragraph that reflected the fresh wonder of live, on-the-scene news: “The fatal shooting of Lee H. Oswald, who was held as the assassin of President Kennedy, was seen as it occurred yesterday by millions of television viewers.”

We see the world through a glass, darkly, the saying goes. And perhaps the mainstream media, as so many bloggers assert, is indeed a camera obscura. But these contemporary accounts of what we thought was important at the time — now suspended, like us, in an information age between a huge coffee-table book and equally elegant PDF files on disc — are a gratifying treasure trove for any news junkie.

They are a shining, well-preserved example of what one wise journalist, former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, once called “the first rough draft of a history that can never be completed about a world we can never understand.” The history remains incomplete, but “The Complete Front Pages” offers a chance at capturing some of the understanding, if only for a fleeting moment.

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Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

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