By Eric Newton
News Historian, NEWSEUM

In an exclusive, yearlong survey of national sentiment, Americans have by a provocatively close margin picked the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as the top news story of the 20th century.

The survey's contentious results suggest as much about how survey voters see themselves today, poised on the brink of a new millennium, as they reveal about how the nation sees the past 100 years.

Some 36,000 people cast ballots in Stories of the Century: The Nation Votes, sponsored by USA WEEKEND and the Newseum, the interactive museum of news.

Both news and history, it turns out, are in the eye of the beholder.

Men favor stories about war and technology. Women favor stories about medicine and social issues. Many of us consider "history" to be the events we lived through, though younger voters tend to be more influenced by popular media.

"What people value in the lives they are leading now gets projected back into time," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "It's the prism through which they see the world."

The top story of the 20th century? It's not an easy question. Even the most learned historians can disagree.

Hiroshima is "the correct choice," says historian Douglas Brinkley of New Orleans.

No, it isn't, says historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of New York City. It's the moon walk.

Not so, argues Brinkley. The bomb ended World War II and ushered in the Cold War and the Atomic Age. "War, famine, disease, racism... they are as old as the beginning of time," he says. "The nuclear bomb was new. We could blow up the entire planet."

Not exactly, argues Schlesinger. The moon walk — humans leaving the planet — is what "we will most remember 500 years from now."

Why don't they agree? "News doesn't happen in scientific laboratories," says Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University and author of A History of News. "It happens in people's minds."

The stuff of news is ephemeral -- impact, importance and drama. As Stephens points out: "One person's drama is another person's dud."

Still, when the votes are counted there is a winner, whether it's atop an unscientific Top 100 list or this morning's front page. Today that winner is the A-Bomb. Public voters even agreed with journalists on this point — though it was not an old melting-pot agreement but more of a New Millennium social salad, where we come together and still keep our distinct individual flavors.

Men are for war, women are for medicine

The first lesson: A long and deep divide separates men from women when it comes to how they view the century's top news events. The survey's top story for male voters? The atomic bomb. The top pick for women, who made up 54 percent of the voters? Penicillin.

"It's a miracle drug. Who wouldn't be in favor of it?" asks Bonnie Shor of Annandale, Va., a Realtor and mother of two. "Two of my great-grandmother's children died from strep. My kids get it today, they miss a day or two of school. "

Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University linguistics professor and author of You Just Don't Understand, agrees. "We wouldn't be here to vote on this without penicillin."

Even in day-to-day conversations, Tannen says, men tend to "approach everything through the war template" while women "focus on people and what's happening in their lives."

Why?

"The male is the protector," says John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. "There are hormones inside of men that make them think about it. The female is the nurturer ... taking care of the family, interested in health and social issues."

Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, says there's even more to it than that.

"Men are voting for things that are putting them out of business," she says. "Women are voting for things that help them. It reflects the up and down escalators of men and women in society."

Faludi, whose new book is Stiffed: Betrayal of the American Man, finds "a great sadness" in the male vote. "War," she says, "is one of the few areas in which men are allowed to care for larger social issues," she says, "but the Atomic Bomb ended a war defined by grunts on a battlefield, the comradeship, everything that went along with it."

One place where men are certainly not obsolete is at the helm of the nation's daily newspapers. Though a majority of new journalism graduates are women, it is men who usually run the daily news meetings that determine which slice of history ends up on your doorstep.

Editors should take heed, Gray warns. "You want to make sure you get both kinds of stories on the front page. Stories for both male and female readers."

A case for computers and the Titanic

Time, they say, will tell. But what if time tells and no one is listening? Consider the case of voters under the age of 35, who like the rest of us tend to see the past though present-day eyes. Media wield an increasing effect on the young, who consider history to be either whatever happened during their lifetimes or what was repeated ad nauseum during their lifetimes.

Under-35 voters boosted a few stories onto the public's top 20 list: notably, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of computers. On the other hand, they also voted strongly for the sinking of the Titanic, which, during their lives, was not a news story but instead a blockbuster movie.

Richard Thau, president of Third Millennium, a N.Y.-based Generation X advocacy, thinks there is a "tremendous redeeming value" in knowing what young people think is important, even if you don't agree.

"It helps teachers of history know what they should be focusing on," he says.

Younger voters and people of color ranked civil right-era stories high, but older voters and white voters ranked them low. School desegregation finished a surprising 30th. But that doesn't make the story less important to those who voted for it, says lecturer, author and civil rights activist Julian Bond. "They're saying... this affected me directly in a way that the atomic bomb, as significant as it is, doesn't."

Younger voters jumped the generation gap quite easily. Stephan D. Wilson, 35, an administrative assistant who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, chose the top story of the century to be Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "I'm a bit dismayed," he says, "that a mere five months before I was born it was still necessary for Dr. King to remind this country that its own vision was left unfulfilled... we have yet to really tap into the human spirit and its potential for good."

But even younger voters found the generation gap a major obstacle. Leonard Hall, 36, an educator from Arlington, Va., says the century's top story is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. "As a one-time, single-day story, what other news event had greater worldwide impact?" But Tekella Miller, 24, a journalism student from Hattiesburg, Miss., chose women winning the right to vote. "You probably wouldn't have asked my opinion about this or anything if we, as women, couldn't vote."

The debate itself is illuminating, because it shows us what professor Stephens calls "the strange quality of news." Journalists tend to favor the famous, the bizarre, the close to home — leaving it up to historians later to sort out the big picture. It's a quality that can cause us to expect a story of one person's death to dominate the front page, when the person is President John F. Kennedy, and at the same time, cause us to react slowly, or not at all, to the deaths of 20 million, when the victims die during a slow, secret famine, in China.

Add to that the role moving images play in our national memory. When a plane crashed killed John F. Kennedy, Jr., television taught a whole new generation about the Kennedy family saga. "The younger generation experiences history through film and photographs," says historian Goodwin. "The images sear into their hearts and minds."

Media shocker: The public agrees with journalists

In this era of media-bashing, it is perhaps most surprising of all to learn that survey voters tend to agree with, of all people, journalists.

But it's true. Seven of the public's top 10 choices for top story of the century fall within the top 10 picked by the nominating panel of national journalists that shaped the ballot earlier this year.

Journalists chose the A-bomb, the moon walk, Pearl Harbor, the Wright brothers, women winning the vote, penicillin, the holocaust, World War I, school integration and the 1929 market crash.

This suggests the public's taste for news is not that different from the judgment of the people who bring us the news.

It didn't seem that way when the Newseum announced the journalists' nominations earlier this year. The top story list ignited dinner table debates nationwide. Historian Schlesinger called it an "agreeable parlor game," but airwaves buzzed with dissent. Jay Leno, Matt Drudge, Paul Harvey and Howard Stern weighed in. Panelist and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee vowed to "fill out the next one of these things in disappearing ink."

Even the president complained that journalists ranked the invention of plastics higher than his impeachment trial. Tongue in cheek, Bill Clinton wondered: "What does a guy have to do to make the top 50?"

(In the public survey, President Clinton's impeachment ranked 31. But the public agreed that the invention of plastics, though it garnered no banner headlines at the time, should still rank higher, at 28.)

"Historical events gain or lose significance the further we get from them," says Newseum executive director Joe Urschel. "The challenge for the journalist -- the person writing the first rough draft of history -- is to try to capture that significance on deadline."

How well did journalists do in the last century? According to you -- the public -- not bad. For better or worse, our journalists share our cultural values.

Sorting out the biggest stories of all

What makes a big story big? One way or another, it touches everyone. "My parents were married the same month Americans walked on the moon," says Rachael Morrow, 24, of Springfield, Missouri. "It's something they always talked about. For me, it redefined the possible. It defines the human spirit, what we can accomplish."

Journalists too look for the stories that symbolize turning points or trends. Syndicated political columnist Jules Witcover of The Baltimore Sun, for example, sees the story for the nation (and the world) for the century (and the millennium) as not a single event but a running story: the "victory of freedom over totalitarianism."

Perhaps the Story of the Century vote was so close because almost all the public's top choices carry the same fundamental messages: Technology is amazing. America is winning. Evil is fading. Freedom is growing. It's all just one really big story, with each person picking out the events that best evoke the theme for them.

So whatever our gender or generation, whether we chose Pearl Harbor or the A-bomb, the Moon Walk or penicillin, we have come full circle, placing our choice within the common frame, and we are satisfied — for now.

But in centuries to come, professor Stephens reminds us, "it's entirely possible historians will look back and consider the top story of the 20th century something that is not on anyone's list right now."

We can only wonder what that may be.

Eric Newton is the Newseum's News Historian. His latest book, Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists, was published in December by Times Books.

 

 

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