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Journalists and Academics: Stop Fighting!

It was perhaps an unfortunate coincidence that on the day my Lenten Twitter break ended, a fight broke out on that platform between academics and journalists — two groups to which I could reasonably be said to belong. The inciting incident was the publication in The Washington Post of an excerpt from the labor journalist Kim Kelly’s forthcoming book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. The excerpt described a work stoppage launched by Southern Black washerwomen in the mid-1800s. During the editing process, the Post removed a quote from and a citation of the Princeton historian Tera Hunter, whose book To ’Joy My Freedom had been Kelly’s main source for the episode described in the excerpt.

Hunter was understandably upset to see her research used without attribution. Academics rushed to her support. Some tweeted in anger at Kelly and at her publisher, Simon & Schuster; a few suggested that Kelly either alter or pull her book (which publishes next week) or donate the “profits” to Hunter. Several journalists publicly defended Kelly, emphasizing her precarity as a freelance writer, the paltry earnings of most trade books, and her limited autonomy as a writer with a trade-book contract. Kelly apologized both publicly and privately to Hunter and got the Post to reinstate her original in-text engagement with Hunter’s work.

This seemingly simple error touched off bigger discussions, including an important one about the racial politics of academe and trade publishing, two notoriously white industries. It also prompted participants to ask how and why a journalist like Kelly might use Hunter’s scholarship in a trade book — or why Kelly might write about labor history at all. Their questions dovetailed with an online discussion from the day prior, when an academic historian suggested that a New Yorker staff writer didn’t have the requisite credentials to review, for the magazine, an academic book about the restitution of African art. Why not ask the experts — the academics — to write magazine articles and trade books on these topics? Shouldn’t critics and journalists do their own original research? And what qualifies someone to be a staff writer at The New Yorker, anyway?

These are fair questions, not least because trade publishing and legacy media are not the most transparent industries. (The social-media hashtag #PublishingPaidMe represents one effort to make the ins and outs of book deals more transparent.) I’ve given them a lot of thought — first when I started writing for magazines while pursuing a Ph.D. in English, then while writing a trade book that included original research but that also drew on the work of other scholars. They’re also questions I discuss with my journalism, creative-writing, and history graduate students at least once a week. (Yes, I’m an adjunct, hence the wide variety of courses.) And while I don’t claim to have any definitive answers — the definition of a “good critic” is as open to interpretation as that of a “good scholar” — I can share some of the ways I’ve thought about these questions with my students and my friends and colleagues, both those in academe and those working for magazines.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education