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You Know Your History? These Podcasts Aren’t So Sure

In a information launch, the podcast community Wondery performed up its new present “Younger Charlie” with the declare that “many don’t know the largely underreported formative days of the world’s most infamous mass assassin.” (Possibly if you happen to discard the 2013 best-selling biography by Jeff Guinn.) The “What Actually Occurred?” episode revisiting Britney Spears’s 2007 meltdown may be illuminating if you happen to haven’t but digested latest investigative reporting and feminist evaluation on Ms. Spears or if humanizing particulars about feminine celebrities (like that Ms. Spears might be not as dumb as she’s portrayed within the tabloids) strike you as world-shifting.

The style’s potential pitfalls are baked into the Gladwell mannequin. It’s tough for even a storyteller as expert as Mr. Gladwell to engineer shock re-readings of historical past on wildly completely different matters. At its finest, “Revisionist Historical past” turns a dry coverage matter right into a rollicking story — just like the second season opener’s tirade towards golf that unfolds into an appalling exposé of the lengths the rich will go to bend tax regulation their approach.

However at its worst, it drives an anecdote to an unreasonable conclusion. In an episode investigating the disappointment of nation music, Mr. Gladwell performs a Vince Gill observe and opines: “Listening to that music makes me marvel if some portion of what we name ‘ideological division’ in America really isn’t ideological in any respect. How huge are the political variations between purple and blue states anyway? Within the grand scheme of issues, not that huge. Possibly what we’re seeing as an alternative is a distinction of emotional expression.”

Most likely not, although. Typically the counterintuitive take is simply unsuitable.

Essentially the most absorbing entrants to the revised-history style are those that dive into singular historic occasions with nice fashionable resonance, as “Uncivil” does with the Civil Warfare. The hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt make swaggering pronouncements of their work as “ransacking American historical past” and “punching it within the face,” however the concept underpinning “Uncivil” — that the cultural and political elements that divided People and erupted into struggle are nonetheless in play right now — is hardly a Gladwellian counternarrative. That’s an excellent factor. The podcast is sturdily grounded in historic reality, by no means the argumentative whim of its hosts. The stress and drama come from the truth that the true historical past of the struggle, slavery and race in America is consistently being relitigated and rewritten by politically motivated actors.

One latest episode, “The Spin,” jumps off a latest quote from the White Home chief of employees, John F. Kelly, that Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man” who was merely expressing his “loyalty to state.” That view is, because the hosts put it, “an achievement of a P.R. marketing campaign that goes again 150 years,” and the episode succinctly tracks the trouble to paper over the Accomplice pro-slavery trigger with the euphemistic label “states’ rights” — marching from Reconstruction, via the First World Warfare and proper as much as the current day.

Watergate presents a much less simple comparability to our present second. Two embattled administrations 40 years aside are grounded in such particular circumstances, it’s exhausting to hint too many stay historic connections like those unearthed in “Uncivil.” So “Sluggish Burn,” hosted by the Slate reporter Leon Neyfakh, excels by taking a sidelong have a look at Watergate, drawing classes from the expertise of dwelling via a scandal because it unfolds. “We live in a time proper now when it appears like something might occur,” Mr. Neyfakh says within the first episode. “It makes you marvel: If we have been dwelling within the subsequent Watergate, would we all know it?”

An early allusion, within the podcast’s first episode, between the Nixon-era loudmouth Martha Mitchell and the Trump-era loudmouth Anthony Scaramucci feels just a little stretched, largely as a result of we don’t but know the way Mr. Scaramucci’s story will settle within the historic report. However the present wants solely to flick at sure particulars to recommend beautiful and troubling commentaries on our present political and media techniques. Just like the second when Gore Vidal goes on Dick Cavett’s present and gleefully divulges, “I’ve to have my Watergate repair each single morning within the paper.” Or the truth that the early alarm bells rung by George McGovern’s staff have been simply dismissed as a result of he was such a deeply unpopular candidate for president.

These podcasts profit from their depth of focus, which permits for nuances that usually really feel shaved away from the tidier, one-episode historic tales. Not that listeners appear to thoughts, judging by the obtain numbers and starred evaluations racking up all throughout the style. Mr. Gladwell’s books have aggravated lecturers and critics alike for cherry-picking anecdotes and constructing hunches into sweeping pop scientific “legal guidelines.” However the podcast type is sort to the cherry picker. Solely a lot supporting proof might be packed into an audio story.

Much more so than with the written phrase, listeners are made helpless to the host’s narrative, rendered incapable of clicking a hyperlink or checking an index for extra info. And when it’s over, it’s a chore to return and pin down precisely what was mentioned. That every one lends itself to the sort of immersive expertise that makes historical past really feel new, even when it’s not.

Correction: December 15, 2017

An earlier model of this text misidentified the producer of the “Sluggish Burn” podcast. It’s Slate, not Panoply.

Correction: December 15, 2017

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