Even When It's a Mistake, It's Still Erasure

In Depth
Even When It's a Mistake, It's Still Erasure

Here’s a bad look: A radio segment by three men on the history of America’s government-fostered tobacco dependence, without once mentioning by name the woman whose book formed the basis for the entire segment.

The Lily reported on the glaring oversight in a recent episode of Here & Now, a joint radio show from NPR and WBUR. This particular segment featured an NPR host and regular guests professors Nathan Daniel Beau Connolly and Edward Ayers, who are also hosts of the (very good and respected) radio program Backstory. They had been prepped by Backstory researchers using the forthcoming The Cigarette: A Political History by Sarah Milov, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. Connolly shouted Milov out on Twitter afterward. But during the show itself, she got zero mention, and neither did her book.

“Every single word they said was from my book,” Milov told The Lily. “Then I got to the end of a nearly 10-minute segment and did not hear myself credited at all.” What’s more, Milov is up for tenure—“You could say I’m at a critical stage in my career,” she told the Lily, and having her research picked up somewhere on NPR is particularly meaningful right now—while the Backstory professors already have tenure.

“I do not believe that anyone acted out of any sort of malice in this,” Milov told The Lily—instead suggesting that the omission was systemic and partly tied to media’s uncertainty about how to properly cite history. Backstory’s digital editor and strategist, Diana Lynn Williams, told The Lily that it’s fairly common practice to boil information from several sources down, then present the info without specific citations: “If I read five books on the subject, I’m not going to say on air that I read these five people’s books. Historians [on our show] are distilling the scholarship that’s available to them.” And Connolly told The Lily: “When we were initially figuring out the format [for the shows], we would occasionally say, ‘so-and-so’s scholarship says this,’ but a lot of stuff would end up getting cut in the interest of time.”

But in this case, Milov’s book was far and away the primary source, and Williams apologized: “Somewhere along the way we dropped the ball.” Both WBUR and Backstory have also acknowledged publicly the mistake. The story is a wonderful example of the ways that fairly simple mistakes, ones made without any outright ill intent, can add up to erasing a woman’s work. And that erasure can have major consequences, particularly for someone up for tenure, where the perception that one’s work is important and influential can be make or break a career in an academic labor market that is ruthlessly competitive. It’s impossible to say if it’s gendered or not, but the results are the same, regardless. The whole thing could have been avoided in the first place by booking Milov herself.

However, in an ironic twist, the controversy itself has resulted in significant publicity for Milov’s book. The Cigarette—which sounds really, really good, and has a frankly incredible cover—is out in October.

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