This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Rick Shenkman '76. Photo courtesy the subject.

Making the Past Present

Historian Rick Shenkman ’76 has worn many hats over the years: New York Times best-selling author, Emmy Award-winning journalist, George Mason University professor. But the one for which he’s best known is that of founder and editor-in-chief of the History News Network (HNN), which “places current events into historical perspective” and celebrated 10 years in 2011.

Prior to HNN, Shenkman had been managing editor at TomPaine.com, a progressive website he co-founded with John Moyers, son of journalist Bill Moyers. Every week they published original articles about events in the news, and each week they included at least one by a historian. “I wanted us to thicken the public debate,” he says. “It was frustrating as a historian to sift through the public debate on issues, because seldom were events put into proper historical perspective.”

While launching TomPaine.com in the late 1990s, Shenkman attempted to “thicken the debate” by submitting op-ed pieces to the New York Times. He was “still stewing over rejections” when the idea for HNN struck. “Shouldn’t historians have a national platform of their own in which to weigh in on issues and help lend context so vitally missing?” Shenkman asks. “No one else was doing it, so I did.” (I’m glad the Times didn’t publish me,” he says today. “It spurred me to create HNN.”)

He funded the network out of his own pocket, until George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media signed on as partner. Today, HNN remains largely a volunteer effort, with more than 500 contributors to date, mostly historians with PhDs. “We try very hard to reflect a broad spectrum of public opinions,” Shenkman says of non-partisan HNN, which has proven especially popular among historians, as well as journalists.

It has played important roles in correcting what he calls misinformation, not to mention holding historians to a high standard (its Historians on the Hot Seat feature lists historians in the news for less than stellar performances, such as plagiarism and manipulating data). More recently, HNN has featured content such as “historic questions people are Googling,” and new this month, the Michele Bachmann Award for Mangling History, akin to the Washington Post’s Pinocchio Tracker and PolitiFact’s Pants on Fire award.

HNN also served as a jumping off point for Shenkman’s sixth and latest book, Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter. “The book zeroed in on how ignorant many Americans are, about the low level of public debate,” Shenkman says. “It sounds awfully harsh. But the gross ignorance of the majority of Americans about how our government works, and the real substance of issues facing our country, is unquestioned and a driver of our politics. If we want politics to sound smarter than it does now, we need a country of smart voters.”

He’s now at work on a sequel to Just How Stupid. “If Book One described the problem, the sequel is about the solution,” Shenkman says.

Always, though, HNN remains front and center for Shenkman. Under his leadership, it has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, HNN boasts more than 11,000 weekly subscribers, 340,000 unique visitors, 8 million hits per month, and features more than 5,000 original articles. Plus, it has been cited in more than 450 books, and more than 3,000 websites link to it.

“When I started HNN over 10 years ago, I wanted to create an institution that would live after me,” he says. “I think that’s become a reality.”

–Peter Bronski

March 2012


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