Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat mistakes
From the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sept. 23, 2004: “…State Controller Kathy Augustine became the first statewide officeholder to face impeachment in Nevada history.”

During the 1989 legislature, the Gazette-Journal reported extensively on efforts by members of the Nevada Assembly to make an impeachment case against State Treasurer Ken Santor.

The Nevada State Journal, forerunner of the Gazette-Journal, reported on June 30, 1956, that the Nevada Legislative Commission opened an impeachment investigation against Nevada Surveyor General Louis Ferrari by voting to call Ormsby County Grand Jury Foreman E.H. Hiller, District Attorney Cameron Batjer, and Grand Jury Counsel William Crowell before the commission, with an eye to an impeachment at the 1957 legislature. Surveyor general was then elected statewide.

The Gazette-Journal is hardly the only media entity to report that Augustine is the first statewide officeholder to face impeachment. It has been repeated by numerous newspapers and broadcasting stations—most of them, probably. Does it matter?

“Of course it matters,” says UNR journalism professor Jake Highton. “I tell my students they must be able to report on the historical context of their stories. You can’t report competently on the South without knowing Southern history. You can’t do a good job reporting on labor if you don’t know the ordeal unions went through.”

Historian Jerome Edwards, author of books on journalism history and Nevada history, agrees.

“History gives a context to the present so you are not living in such a constant vacuum. … [B]ecause of the nature of the state’s development, it is easy to ignore its past—but we still are impacted by it.”

But Edwards also says some reporters have an excuse in the state’s rapid population turnover.

“One reason why it is so easy to forget history in this state and in this environment is that Nevada has been changing and growing so rapidly—it is almost an ‘instant society.’ There are very few people here who were here—oh, let’s say 40 years ago. This is true for journalists as well as for other people. But Nevada, no less than other societies, has been shaped by its history.”

Thus, writing about the state’s battle against the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump requires some understanding of the damage Nevadans living downwind of the Nevada nuclear testing site suffered in the 1950s and ‘60s. In that connection, Highton says he quotes Winston Churchill to his students: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Highton argues that, while allowances can be made for some bad reporting because of population turnover, newspapers like the Gazette-Journal and Las Vegas Review-Journal, which have newsroom morgue files extending back many decades, have less excuse.

That leads to another problem—often when items like the Augustine claim get into newsroom morgues, future reporters rely on them for research and repeat the same bad information. Highton says it’s important to get the story right the first time because morgues “perpetuate the errors.” He wonders whether newspapers will flag their morgue clippings on Augustine with a correction, to protect future reporters and researchers from repeating the error.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...