May 26, 2005

Teaching arrogance…

I don’t like the sound of this:

“Those of us who run journalism schools are confronted with the prospect of ever fewer distinguished media outlets–especially in broadcast–to which we can aspire to send our students to work.”

The quote belongs to Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s part of a group of five deans of prominent journalism schools who are going to spend $6 million over the next three years to figure out how to better prepare students for the new reality (whatever that turns out to be).

I don’t like this statement because it smacks of journalistic arrogance. The plain fact of the matter is that most journalism is practiced at the local level for modest news organizations. That’s where most of our students will go to work. And I think we do our students, and the citizens of the communities in which they practice, a disservice by encouraging (even) our (best) students to believe that good journalism must be practiced at big-time news organizations.

The only size that matters in journalism is community assessment of its quality (does it help do what must be done?) and not its bigness in terms of national influence or circulation.

The loss of The New York Times would be a blow to civic discourse nationally. But the loss of the Springfield News-Leader would be far worse. The Times covers the world. So do a lot of other newspapers. Only one daily newspaper covers Springfield, Missouri. And, frankly, it’s far more important to us here than the Times ever can or will be. People hereabouts deserve good journalism, too. And we who teach journalism should be preparing our students to practice it well at any news organization–especially the small, local operations. Who is the audience for journalism? It’s not that mythical general audience the textbooks mention. That’s just nonsense. The audience for journalism is an amalgam of local communities.

  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that national is better than local.

  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that the audience is “general.”
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to elevate investigative reporting over solid day-to-day reporting.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to value winning prizes for their work.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we fail to teach them what language really is, how it really works, and how people really use it.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that journalists have more First Amendment rights than citizens.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that journalists are responsible for making democracy work.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to ignore the fact that they are players in civic affairs.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them the nonsense of the philosophical ideal of objectivity rather than the objective process of good reporting.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we fail to teach them that the public always knows more than they do.

Give me another few minutes; I can come up with more. But you get the idea. I contend that much of journalism’s current misfortune arises from journalistic arrogance.

So I have a question for my learned colleagues: How will you teach the next generation to be more humble about their skills, more realistic about their socio-political impact, more connected to their communities, and more interested in good journalism no matter where they practice it?

UPDATE (7:10 p.m.): Somewhat related posts here: PressThink and Sisyphean Musings.

Questions (from Jay Rosen) and (incomplete, inadequate) answers:

Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?

No brainer. Of course it is. But so is any civic institution–especially one that asserts for itself rights under the Constitution. I say “asserts for itself” because the reference to “the press” in the First Amendment does not indicate a business or industry as journalistic mythology would have us believe; it indicates a machine that individual citizens and groups may own and use to print stuff that they are then free to distribute to the public.

You cannot observe something without being a part of it. There is no objective point of view. If the press covers politics, then the press is practicing politics.

If so, what kind of politics should it have?

The press should have the kind of politics that any civic institution should have: the kind that preserves its function in society. (Hmmmmmm…it will take a book-length manuscript to explain that one.) If the press sees itself as operating above, for, or outside the public (i.e. lecture), then that will lead to a certain kind of politics. If the press sees itself as operating with the public (conversation), that could lead to another kind of politics. I’ve made my choice of preposition clear. Perhaps we should ask: What kind of politics do we want the press to have?

How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?

No such thing as an institutional “right politics” exists because the press is (?), and should be, a multiplicity of voices and values (professional, independent, and individual) speaking to a multiplicity of individuals, groups, and institutions. I suppose we may know when it works when we have the information and knowledge we need to govern ourselves and act in the world with knowledge of complex systems and interrelationships, i.e. contentions (cultural, economic, historical, political) among individuals, groups, institutions, and nation-states.

One Response

  1. Anna 

    Schell: “ever fewer distinguished media outlets…to which we can aspire to send our students to work.”

    Cline: “I don’t like this statement…we do our students, and the citizens of the communities in which they practice, a disservice by encouraging (even) our (best) students to believe that good journalism must be practiced at big-time news organizations.”

    Anna: “must”? this seems too black-and-white.

    What if it’s empirically true that small town papers _typically_ “put fetters on their reporters and make them bow to sacred cows”? (AJR on Webb) Is it better to pretend there isn’t a difference, and let your alumni smack into reality once they get out, because you didn’t equip them with steering wheel or brakes?

    Ideally you teach the reporter the (subversive?) tools to remake the small-town paper into a bastion of good journalism, but what would those tools be?

    (I do agree with you that it _shouldn’t_ be true – that it shortchanges small communities. It seems where you and Schell differ is that Schell implicitly accepts that he cannot change the structural (economic) bias that makes it true, whereas you’re convinced that reporters can make a difference.)

    (I am, here, assuming that it is true, based on not very much data. How could it be subjected to the discipline of verification?)

    Cline: “We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that journalists are responsible for making democracy work.”

    A: But…? this is teaching them to serve the public, isn’t it? We’re better off with them feeling responsible than washing their hands of responsibility (all Britney all the time), no?
    (what am I missing here?)

    I think your thesis is that the best is the enemy of the good.
    but it makes me nervous when you disparage the former by terming it “arrogance”, if in fact that’s what you’re doing.