Suddenly you’re an expert: historians in the media

By Emma Shortis

On Wednesday, 9 November 2016 (Australian time), I rolled in to an Election Day event hosted by the University of Melbourne and the American Chamber of Commerce. I had no real idea what I was doing there. I was supposed to be representing the university and giving my expert opinions on the election results as they came in, flashing up on the huge screen in the middle of the room. Unsurprisingly, not many of the business types there were particularly interested in what I had to say. The ones I spoke to, when I told them I was a historian, either mansplained American history to me or tested my historical knowledge with charming questions like “who was our first president?”

For the most part, I hid in the corner. I left the room once, to confidently tell an SBS journalist who called for comment that things weren’t looking great for Clinton but that she could still win Florida. Florida, the state that had so famously decided the 2000 election, would likely be her path to the presidency. Then Trump won Florida, and the Presidency. He actually won.

I was interviewed by a Channel 10 journalist. “You’re a historian, what does this mean for history?”

I had absolutely no idea.

They didn’t run it.

In the two years since, I’ve kept doing media work. Even before Trump won, there was an insatiable appetite in the media for coverage, and any “expert” comment would do—even a sessional lecturer who hadn’t finished her PhD. Today, Australian media retains its huge appetite for historically-grounded analysis of current events in the US. That is an amazing opportunity for Americanists based in this little corner of the world. I feel very lucky to be able to take advantage of that opportunity, to have the luxury of talking about history all the time, and to be taken seriously when I do.

Still, I’m constantly torn about working with the media. On a personal level, it’s a huge amount of effort, all done for free. While the preparation for interviews gets easier as you get used to it, it’s still a lot of work—and a lot of time spent not researching or being with my family. Staying on top of Bob Mueller’s Russia investigation has proven a particular challenge (one, to be honest, I’m not sure anyone is quite up to).

There are also the journalists who don’t care, and who try to catch you out. During a pre-screening interview about SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s time at Yale Law School, a high-profile radio personality asked me, straight after I explained that I had recently returned from a year-long fellowship at Yale, how he could describe my qualifications so they sounded “more relevant.” He then ambushed me on-air with a “both sides” attack and disgusting listener messages about women deserving what they got.

I’m very lucky, though—that kind of treatment and the minimal exposure I’ve had to trolls on the internet pales in comparison to the experience of others. For me, it doesn’t come close to eclipsing the thrill of being able to explain to an interested audience just how the government of the United States can shut down, or giving a concise history US interventionism, and feeling as though you might have added something to people’s knowledge of the world, or even better—prompted them to rethink what they thought they knew.

Of course for a young scholar, media work is also, in that most coded of terms, a “career investment.” It is yet another thing we have to do, for free, without the return on that investment being clear or even guaranteed. But it has been of enormous benefit to me. Despite that sense that it isn’t or shouldn’t be the real work of historians, media work has created extraordinary career opportunities for me that would not otherwise have come my way. That has only been possible because of my own privilege, because the support of my family meant I could work for free and then my luck in landing a job which allows me to do it as part of my role—two things which are directly related.

That is why I remain so torn. Benefitting from the Trump presidency is gross. Whether I’m deluding myself or not, I justify it with the hope that bringing some historical perspective to debates is worthwhile. When the coverage is almost totally dominated by men of a particular generation, and is often so shallow—this has never happened, things have never been worse, we’ve never been in a more dangerous situation—it’s worth reminding people that’s not always true. Every generation has been tempted to believe theirs will be the last. People have thought the world might end before. It nearly did end, a couple of times, during the Cold War. It’s striking how many journalists have forgotten that. Or never knew it in the first place.

Every now and then, when I’m asked about Trump/Watergate or the historical legacy of the INF Treaty, I worry that history doesn’t have much to teach us anyway. Maybe the assurance history seems to give us—that things have been terrible before but we’ve managed to bumble through—is an entirely false one. Just because we haven’t totally destroyed ourselves yet doesn’t mean we won’t, or we aren’t. I think this time it is different. If Trump doesn’t destroy us, climate change probably will.

At the start, that wasn’t something I was brave enough to say on the radio. That kind of message isn’t exactly welcome in mainstream Australian media, though the landscape does seem to be changing. The message I have always tried to convey was that even if we are in uncharted waters, the United States was messed up long before Trump arrived on the scene. Deeply messed up. While some of what Trump is doing and saying and being might be new, the forces that brought him to power—as our little American studies community already knows so well—have long, long histories.

I love media work, and I love history. Being able to combine the two is an absolute dream. But at the same time, it’s hard not to be bleak. In the US, and in media coverage here, the sense that the march of American progress is inevitable and unstoppable, despite everything, despite Donald J. Trump, endures.

If being immersed in the swamp that is US politics and talking about history almost constantly has taught me anything, it is this: that progress is not, and never was, inevitable. Everything is not fine, and it probably won’t be. The house is almost literally burning down around us.

In Australia, there’s a tendency to dismiss scholars of the US as failing to tend their own backyard. But there are also elements in Australian politics that seek to turn us into a little America. Historians, I think, have a duty to counter that, to explain why the specific historical circumstances of US politics means importing American practices here won’t—or at least shouldn’t—work. More important, we have a role to play in highlighting the US as an example of what happens to people when health care is left up to the so-called market, when industry is left to regulate itself, when you let white guys have guns. People suffer immeasurably, is what happens. People die.

Emma Shortis is a historian based at RMIT University, interested in global environmental activism and US politics. In 2017-18, Emma was a Fox-Zucker International Fellow at Yale University. She has just completed her PhD in History at the University of Melbourne, which is currently awaiting final signoff. Emma is often asked to provide media commentary on historical connections to current events in the United States, tailored for an Australian audience. She’s a regular guest on outlets including ABC News Radio, ABC Radio Melbourne, Triple RRR and the popular ABC podcast “Russia, If You’re Listening.” Emma holds a Master’s Degree in International and European Studies from Monash University.