As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Journalism is the first rough draft of history."
Or possibly it was Thomas Edison who said that. I'm pretty sure somebody said it, because you often hear journalists quote it in an effort to explain how come they get everything wrong.
We see this all the time. Journalists, rushing to get a story out under deadline pressure, will report — based on preliminary information — that a ship sank, and 127 people, many of them elderly, perished. Then, upon further investigation, it turns out that nobody, in fact, perished, although one elderly person was slightly injured by a set of dentures hurled by another elderly person in an effort to get the first elderly person to stop talking so loud. Then it turns out that this happened at a nursing home, as opposed to a ship, although the elderly people were watching a video of "Titanic" at the time, and although there were only four of them, as opposed to 127, the nursing home is located on Route 124, which is only three less than 127, which is not that much of an error when you consider the deadline pressure that journalists operate under.
That's what we journalists mean when we talk about "the first rough draft of history."
I was a practicing journalist for a number of years. I started in 1971 as a cub reporter at the "Daily Local News" in West Chester, Pa., and I can honestly say that at least 87 percent of the time when I produced a news story I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. For example, one of the beats I was assigned to cover was the Downingtown Area Regional Sewer Authority, which, as you might imagine, was an authority responsible for the regional sewage of the Downingtown area. I was an English major. I had learned, in college, to explain the difference between the metaphysical and Cavalier styles of British poetry. I had learned nothing about wastewater treatment, a topic rarely addressed in seventeenth-century British literature.
Yet there I was, wearing a sport coat and taking notes in my official reporter notebook, as the members of the Downingtown Area Regional Sewer Authority discussed, at great length, matters pertaining to sewage, such as "sewer interceptors." The Authority was always talking about these, and I wrote many long stories about them, but to this day I have no idea what they are or why anybody would want to intercept sewage. I'm sure that the stories I wrote made no sense; fortunately, as far as I could tell, nobody was reading them.
I spent several years cranking out the first rough draft of Downingtown-area sewage history before moving on to other areas of journalism. Eventually, I became a columnist, which is the branch of journalism where instead of attempting to explain topics that you don't know anything about you have strong opinions about them. Some columnists are really good at this. You can wake them up from a dead sleep and ask them: "Should the UN send troops to East Zambora?" Or: "Should the San Francisco city council ban nitrogen from the atmosphere?" Or: "Which is a better style of British poetry, the metaphysical or the Cavalier?" And these columnists will instantly feel very strongly one way or another, and produce six hundred passionate words in support of their views. They can do this even though there is no such place as East Zambora. That is the opinion-generating power that your true columnist possesses.
Me, I can't do it. There are very few issues about which I have strong opinions; beyond those, I generally don't get riled up. So I have spent my columnizing career writing mostly about "offbeat" topics such as the alarming decline of American capabilities in the field of accordion repair, or the man who came up with the idea — which I am not making up — of keeping turkey rectums shut with Super Glue. This kind of story is my bread and butter; I let the other columnists deal with the hard news.
The exception is the "Year in Review." This is my one effort to participate, as a journalist, in the writing of the first rough draft of history. Each year, along about Halloween, I start going through the headlines, month by month, summarizing the big stories that happened during that year. My deadline to finish the "Year in Review" is always early December, so I have to make most of December up, but that's not a big concern as I also make up large chunks of the rest of the year.
The book you hold in your hands contains my reviews of all the years of the Second Millennium so far. As a bonus, this book also includes my review of the First Millennium, covering the years 1000 through 1999. These two millenniums have not been picnics for the human race. But as you read this book and review the many tragedies that have befallen humanity over the years, I suspect that you'll come to the same surprising conclusion that I did: No matter what challenges we face as a species — no matter what hurdles are placed in our way — somehow we always find a way, even in the darkest hour, to make things worse. It's a miracle, really. You read about the events of one year and you think, "There is no possible way that human beings can get any stupider than that." Then you read what we did the next year and darned if we didn't pull it off!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book. I could not have done it alone. I would like to thank the famous dead British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. I have never read any of his books, but I like the way his name sounds. Toynbee Toynbee Toynbee. I would also like to thank Aretha Franklin, for obvious reasons. Last but definitely not least, I thank the members of the Downingtown Area Regional Sewer Authority for all that they have done, and continue to do.
Excerpted from Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far), by Dave Barry. Copyright © 2007 by Dave Barry. Excerpted by permission of Putnam Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.