Beginning its second season this week, The Retro Report is a video series that looks at reporting from the past to re-examine its accuracy, and follow up on what happened after the media moved on. Bob talks to Retro Report publisher Taegan Goddard about the stories the Retro Report has looked back on.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, Retro Report commences its second season. The short Internet videos revisit big news stories from the past and we report them, juxtaposing original archival footage with fresh interviews of the principals, a process that tends to alter or entirely dislodge age-old perceptions. Taegan Goddard is the publisher of The Retro Report. I asked him about an episode from the first season, focusing on the bizarre and infuriating case of Tawana Brawley.
TAEGAN GODDARD: So you'll remember that there was a young woman up in Upstate New York who accused police officers of brutalizing her, raping her, assaulting her in other ways. And, to her defense came a group of lawyers; the most prominent one was the Reverend Al Sharpton.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s all rushing back, the memories of that case, in which Sharpton and a couple of associates took this invented story and made all sorts of just unbelievable allegations against officials of New York State, against a dead state trooper.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Sharpton called Cuomo a racist, compared Abrams to Hitler and said Brawley would go to jail, rather than cooperate with the investigators.
TAEGAN GODDARD: What Retro Report did is we actually went and interviewed the Reverend Al Sharpton and got him, for the first time in years, on the record about this story and about what he thought about the story and his role in it.
BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, he was penitent and - filled with shame, right?
TAEGAN GODDARD: Not exactly. I think he pretty much stuck to his guns.
REV. AL SHARPTON: I think a lot of the rhetoric, including mine, went too far. But I think that there’s a difference between the rhetoric and the reason we got involved.
TAEGAN GODDARD: He says it’s hard to judge something that happened so many years ago, but that's really what Retro Report tries to do, is to take a look at these stories and look at what happened years ago. And while we don't necessarily draw a conclusion either way, when this story came out people on both sides of the issue took aim.
Sharpton supporters came out and used this reporting to try to make their case, as well as Sharpton's detractors. But, at the end of the day, it is one of these stories, over the course the last 20, 30 years, that really impacted the way Americans view race in this country.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a whole long list of similar stories in which our recollections of what happened back when don't necessarily jibe with our understanding of the issues today. There's Y2K. There’s the so-called “crack baby epidemic.” Retro Report invites us to view these stores in a new light but doesn't necessarily state its conclusions.
TAEGAN GODDARD: You know, that’s right. I mean, what we’re trying to do is to bring the reporting up to date. In many cases, viewers are left with the wrong impressions. So take the crack baby story. In the 1980s, you had government officials, you had Bill Bennett, the drug czar, you had Nancy Reagan, the First Lady talking about this crack baby epidemic in the cities.
[BEEPING SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER]
SPOKESMAN: Ccocaine, crack. If you use drugs while you're pregnant, your baby can die.
TAEGAN GODDARD: You had a scientist at the time who actually said that these babies would become a drain on the social infrastructure of our inner cities,that they would never grow to be normal functioning adults. Well, here we are, in 2013. Look back at this. What happened to the crack babies? We haven't heard much about it. We interviewed the scientist who did the study, who – where many of these forecasts were based on, and he admits it was a faulty study. He admits that the shaking, the violent shaking that you saw on these videos on the evening news was more due to the fact that these babies were born prematurely, because mothers who are using cocaine frequently give premature birth, than it was to the effects of crack or the effect that these babies were actually addicted to crack.
And if you actually go forward and do the studies today, you find that pregnant women drinking alcohol put their fetuses at much higher risk than actually smoking crack. Crack really wasn't as bad as, as everybody made it out to be, but the video footage really was overwhelming and led us to a conclusion that really was not true.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, we've discussed the first season. The new one breaks this week. What old stuff is gonna be new again?
TAEGAN GODDARD: We led off the season with a story about the Yellowstone fires back in the 1980s. You had a situation where for decades federal policy was symbolized by Smokey Bear, who would try to encourage people to not use campfires and to not light matches in our national forests.
BOB GARFIELD: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” We heard that for, for about four decades.
TAEGAN GODDARD: And this was the message. But, at the same time, you had federal policy which limited the number of intentional fires that may have been set, because fire is a natural process of the forests. It clears out some of the underbrush that kind of grows up. But with this federal policy, you had decade after decade of this underbrush growing and growing and growing. And it became a tinderbox, and in the 1980s, we had massive forest fires because of this. And so, it’s just an interesting look at a story in which people's perceptions about what caused forest fires and that forest fires were always bad under all circumstances wasn't necessarily true.
BOB GARFIELD: Your sponsor is the New York Times. I'm curious how the New York Times stands the test of retro reporting, as you go ahead and to put the series together?
TAEGAN GODDARD: The New York Times, and all newspapers, are seen as that first draft of history. But it is just a first draft, and so, we reporting these stories, looking back, learning new lessons from them is really an important part of really understanding the news. And so, the New York Times instantly took to what we were doing and wanted to be our main distribution partner. So we’re happy to have them. They provide a lot of knowledgeable viewers and, actually, we get some very interesting debates every Monday when we release one of these videos.
What's fascinating about it is that long form videos, 10- to 14- minute serious videos, actually can go viral. It's not just cat videos on YouTube that go viral. Retro Reports have gone viral, because even if we didn't know each other 20 or 30 years ago, we have shared experiences through the news. We remember these stories. We remember them dominating the headlines. And it’s very exciting for people to talk about these things that they had as a shared experience. The nostalgia is a very powerful thing. And we all want to find out what happened.
BOB GARFIELD: Taegan, thank you very much.
TAEGAN GODDARD: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Taegan Goddard is the publisher of The Retro Report. You can find the latest episodes of Retro Report on the New York Times website or on retroreport.org.