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

Posted December 15, 2017 3:38 p.m. EST

It’s hard to overstate the impact of “Revisionist History” on the podcast landscape. Last year, its three-minute trailer hit No. 1 on Apple’s charts. The show’s success partly reflects the presence of a celebrity host, proto-TED Talk sage Malcolm Gladwell. When the second season dropped this summer, Gladwell’s return was feted on the morning shows and in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times.

But the real draw is the concept. In the show, Gladwell weaves counterintuitive tales about historical moments he’s deemed “overlooked and misunderstood.” Each episode “re-examines something from the past — an event, a person, an idea, even a song — and asks whether we got it right the first time.”

Now it has spawned its own podcast micro-genre, with seemingly every podcast company starting its own history-bending show. In “What Really Happened?,” documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks goes on what he calls a “rogue investigation” aimed at “unraveling newfound narratives” on pop historical moments. In “BackStory,” historians draw connections between current events and the past, throwing out “the history you had to learn” in favor of “the history you want to learn.” There are new podcasts revisiting a 1990s mass-suicide cult (Stitcher’s “Heaven’s Gate”), Charles Manson’s early life (Wondery’s “Young Charlie”), the Watergate scandal (Slate’s “Slow Burn”) and the Civil War (Gimlet’s “Uncivil”).

The market is suddenly so crowded, new entrants are arriving with increasingly knotty conceits. The gimmick behind “The Thread,” from the digital news site OZY, is to stitch together events decades and cultures apart through a series of historical links and coincidences; the first season carries the listener from the assassination of Lennon (John) to the revolution of Lenin (Vladimir). And “Omnibus,” hosted by “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings and singer John Roderick, pitches the idea forward, billing itself as “an encyclopedic reference work of strange-but-true stories” collected “as a time capsule for future generations.”

The Trump era has had a way of destabilizing America’s narratives about itself — its embrace of the free press, its success as a melting pot and the accessibility of the American dream. It makes sense that podcasters would seize on this moment of uncertainty to try to shop some answers. But is our collective historical knowledge really so backward that we need this many podcasts to straighten it out? And how effective is a narrative twist in a podcast episode at actually illuminating our past?

These podcasters have to make certain assumptions about the listener’s understanding of history before they can claim to upend it. That can sometimes feel less like revealing a hidden truth and more like building a straw man and blowing it down.

In a news release, the podcast network Wondery played up its new show “Young Charlie” with the claim that “many don’t know the largely underreported formative days of the world’s most notorious mass murderer.” (Maybe if you discard the 2013 best-selling biography by Jeff Guinn.) The “What Really Happened?” episode revisiting Britney Spears’ 2007 meltdown might be illuminating if you haven’t yet digested recent investigative reporting and feminist analysis on Spears or if humanizing details about female celebrities (like that Spears is probably not as dumb as she’s portrayed in the tabloids) strike you as world-shifting.

The genre’s potential pitfalls are baked into the Gladwell model. It’s difficult for even a storyteller as skilled as Gladwell to engineer surprise re-readings of history on wildly different topics. At its best, “Revisionist History” turns a dry policy matter into a rollicking tale — like the second season opener’s tirade against golf that unfolds into an appalling exposé of the lengths the wealthy will go to bend tax law their way.

But at its worst, it drives an anecdote to an unreasonable conclusion. In an episode investigating the sadness of country music, Gladwell plays a Vince Gill track and opines: “Listening to that song makes me wonder if some portion of what we call ‘ideological division’ in America actually isn’t ideological at all. How big are the political differences between red and blue states anyway? In the grand scheme of things, not that big. Maybe what we’re seeing instead is a difference of emotional expression.”

Probably not, though. Sometimes the counterintuitive take is just wrong.

The most absorbing entrants to the revised-history genre are the ones that dive into singular historical events with great modern resonance, as “Uncivil” does with the Civil War. Hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt make swaggering pronouncements of their work as “ransacking American history” and “punching it in the face,” but the idea underpinning “Uncivil” — that the cultural and political factors that divided Americans and erupted into war are still in play today — is hardly a Gladwellian counternarrative. That’s a good thing. The podcast is sturdily grounded in historical fact, never the argumentative whim of its hosts. The tension and drama come from the fact that the real history of the war, slavery and race in America is constantly being relitigated and rewritten by politically motivated actors. One recent episode, “The Spin,” jumps off a recent quote from White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man” who was simply expressing his “loyalty to state.” That view is, as the hosts put it, “an achievement of a PR campaign that goes back 150 years,” and the episode succinctly tracks the effort to paper over the Confederate pro-slavery cause with the euphemistic label “states’ rights” — marching from Reconstruction, through the First World War and right up to the present day.

Watergate presents a less easy comparison to our current moment. Two embattled administrations 40 years apart are grounded in such specific circumstances, it’s hard to trace too many live historical connections like the ones unearthed in “Uncivil.” So “Slow Burn,” hosted by Slate reporter Leon Neyfakh, excels by taking a sidelong look at Watergate, drawing lessons from the experience of living through a scandal as it unfolds. “We are living in a time right now when it feels like anything could happen,” Neyfakh says in the first episode. “It makes you wonder: If we were living in the next Watergate, would we know it?”

An early allusion, in the podcast’s first episode, between Nixon-era loudmouth Martha Mitchell and Trump-era loudmouth Anthony Scaramucci feels a little stretched, mostly because we don’t yet know how Scaramucci’s story will settle in the historical record. But the show needs only to flick at certain details to suggest stunning and troubling commentaries on our current political and media systems. Like the moment when Gore Vidal goes on Dick Cavett’s show and gleefully divulges, “I have to have my Watergate fix every single morning in the paper.” Or the fact that the early alarm bells rung by George McGovern’s team were easily dismissed because he was such a deeply unpopular candidate for president.

These podcasts benefit from their depth of focus, which allows for nuances that often feel shaved away from the tidier, one-episode historical tales. Not that listeners seem to mind, judging by the download numbers and starred reviews racking up all across the genre. Gladwell’s books have annoyed academics and critics alike for cherry-picking anecdotes and building hunches into sweeping pop scientific “laws.” But the podcast form is kind to the cherry picker. Only so much supporting evidence can be packed into an audio tale.

Even more so than with the written word, listeners are made helpless to the host’s narrative, rendered incapable of clicking a link or checking an index for more information. And when it’s over, it’s a chore to go back and pin down exactly what was said. That all lends itself to the kind of immersive experience that makes history feel new, even if it’s not.