I am currently researching a term paper regarding the media coverage of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. That’s right - 1961. It occurred about 18 months before I was born and is one of this nation’s historic moments that I have not had occasion to study in any real depth. Yes, I leaned about it during my journey through California’s public education system, but it was only a punctuation mark in a larger event known as the Cold War.
The preliminary section of the paper is due Monday. The historic synopsis and introduction of the analysis represent perhaps about half of the writing, but only about 25 percent of the research. The story of the Bay of Pigs, including the intelligence, the decision-making process, the reasons for failure and the fallout can be told with a great deal of accuracy with a minimum of research. However, the meat of this paper, analyzing the media coverage - specifically that of the New York Times and the Nation - will be the challenge. And although this all happened 46 years ago, the parallels to the events leading up to our current foreign policy quagmire are eerie to say the least.
But that’s not what I want to write about today. My last three pieces had to do with foreign policy; tonight I want to reflect on a much more personal and immediate experience. The research.
I wrote a post a few months ago titled, “The Record’s Records.” I tried to reflect upon the experience of not just learning about history, but actually touching it. At the offices of my former employer, the Colfax Record, the newspaper’s actual physical archives of are housed. I could, on a whim, pick up a newspaper printed almost a century ago. Although I rarely had any reason to read the back issues, I would leaf through the pages just to enjoy the experience. The smell, the look and the velvety feel of that old newsprint is mesmerizing… almost taking me back to those days gone by.
The New York Times back issues are recorded on microfilm and microfiche at the Sacramento State Library. Furthermore, if one is a subscriber to Times Select (I am) the archives are available online. It makes my job a little easier because I can do my research from home. The experience is enjoyable, much like researching anything else that interests me. However, the Nation, which has been in regular publication since the Civil War days, is only available in bound volumes. They are the actual print versions bound for the purpose of archival preservation.
The fragile, soft, velvety feel of the slowly decaying newsprint - housed in the basement of the Sacramento State Library - had the same effect on me as did the Colfax Record archives. This time, however, I have a mission. I am handling these historic volumes to read the news as it was reported in real time… 46 years later. The context of the other news happening at the time, the advertisements, even the layout can deliver me to a place in time before my time. It is an experience that isn’t possible with the sterility of microfiche or the Internet. It feels somehow less authentic without the tactile experience of the actual physical documents printed in real-time at the time.
As more and more documents are archived electronically, the ability to preserve the information indefinitely becomes a reality. It is a good thing - the physical editions have a limited lifetime no matter how carefully handled. Unfortunately, the physical connection with the past cannot be replicated electronically. We are fortunate that old - often very old - documents are still available to be handled, examined and read. Our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will not be so fortunate. And they might never even know what they missed.