Story location:

August 14, 2005

"Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe" Was the Title of the Panel... the journalism professors' annual convention. "To learn, when you are ready to pass the torch, that some of the best and the brightest don't want your torch, because they think it went out a while ago, counts as a sad day for J-schoolers of a certain generation."

San Antonio, TX: Back in October I accepted an invitation from David T. Z. Mindich, who runs a journalism historians’ list-serve, to be part of a panel at the AEJMC convention, an annual event for journalism teachers. The panel had a clever title, “Things I used to teach that I no longer believe,” which had a curious affect on me and three other panelists. The result was that we each spoke openly of our disillusionment.

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be. Stepp said that is where he placed his hopes.

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that implies.

But for one of Ithaca College’s best students this was a joke. Lynch to crowd: “she gave up a $200,000 scholarship just to get out of journalism.” We let that sink in. To learn, when you are ready to pass the torch, that some of the best and the brightest don’t want your torch, because they think it went out a while ago, counts as a sad day for J-schoolers of a certain generation.

Lynch thought the 24-hour news cycle had trivialized everything; the constant updates demanded by the Web were part of it, she said. For me the story was about her own reaction. “Well, I think you are making a mistake,” the dean in her said, “but I accept your decision and wish you the best.” Could she honestly say—here in San Antonio—that it was a mistake? Lynch sat down with that question hanging.

Then there were the hilarious stories ruefully told by Maurine Beasley, who also teaches at Maryland. (The first woman to gain tenure there.) She’s a past president of the AEJMC, a former Washington Post and Kansas City Star reporter, and a book author. Beasley to pleading student: “It seems me that you’re simply looking for three cheap summer credits, for which you intend to do almost no work.” “That’s it exactly,” student says, “Professor Beasley, you understand!”

Each of her tales showed how a vast gulf was starting to open up between her and many of the students she saw in her classes at Maryland. In some cases, mutual incomprehension had set in. Beasley teaches a course that is featured at other J-schools, “Women in the Media.” It’s basically about what happened when second wave feminism met the American newsroom and media power structure.

Opening up the workplace to women professionals was a key demand for Beasley’s generation; and she has chronicled the fate of that demand in her written work. But now the problems for women were elsewhere, the opening up was considered ancient history, and the J-School students (who are overwhelmingly female these days) were not so much third wave as no-wave feminists.

On my own list of “things I used to teach that I no longer believe,” I had:

What Carl Sessions Stepp and Dianne Lynch and Maurine Beasley talked about in San Antonio was discussed in two earlier PressThink posts, plus the comment threads after. First is my Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion. (June 5, 2004)

Investigative reporting, exposing public corruption, and carrying the mantle of the downtrodden [are taught] not as political acts in themselves—-which they are—-and not as a continuation of the progressive movement of the 1920s, in which the cleansing light of publicity was a weapon of reform—-which they are—-but just as a way of being idealistic, a non-political truthteller in the job of journalist. (Which is bunk.)

In reply came Orville Schell’s “We Have Been Bull-Dozed Aside,” (July 21) in which the Dean of the School of Journalism at Berkeley wrote:

What I worry about is not so much that the next generation of journalists will be swayed by or sell out to press mythology, but that they will end up so bereft of good models and so despondent about the state of their profession that they may lose all hope and idealism. Then what? After all, if you are going to be a journalist, repayment must come in some other currency than dollars. One of those alternative currencies journalism trades in is “able to make a difference.”

What I have lately been trying to say to my colleagues in J-school is clearer to me now, after the panel in San Antonio. Here is what I believe. The official religion has run out of gas. The tribes that are out there chasing Pulitzers and Duponts (plus market share, advertisers and ratings) do not know what to believe about themselves, their future, or their present value in the world. As I wrote in June:

When the New York Times had to decide recently what goods to charge for at, did it choose good old fashioned shoe leather reporting? No. It chose the columnists. The religion we teach them in journalism school cannot account for this.

Similarly, “making a difference” was never a good enough standard for teaching or doing journalism. It was a lazy idea, the press putting one over on itself. For the liberal journalists and professors who were the believers in make-a-difference journalism were babied by their profession, and their J-school training, which allowed them to believe in agenda-less journalism at the same time.

And in fact, they wanted the innocence (we do just the facts journalism) and the power (we do make a difference journalism) but this could never be. We in the J-schools failed to catch that. The people on a mission never got around to justifying their mission in the language of democratic politics. They talked about it as a neutral public service instead, but speaking truth to power isn’t neutral, and making a difference isn’t just a service to others. We in the J-schools didn’t do well with that, either.

Later the language of politics took its revenge, and overwhelmed “mission” talk, which had failed to impress the public, as well, because it was increasingly non-descriptive. Natalee Holloway mocks the mission night to night. Culture war mocks the mission left to right. And in the mutually incomprehensible classroom encounter the mission is clearly expiring. It seems to me we’re better off knowing that. How does it seem to you?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

These notes are for Mark Hamilton (of Mark on Media) who couldn’t be there but wanted to be.

DON‘T SHOW ME THE LOVE… The Anchoress responds to this and other posts she sees as related. “It is the fault of the journalists who have lost control of their own objectivity.” She explains:

If journalism wants to redeem itself, regain some credibility and attract bright, energetic writers, perhaps it needs to rein in its passions a bit, stop continually writing from a place of hate or love and begin to re-embrace objectivity. Or… at least a move to moderation. Can the press still, consciously, force itself to be moderately—rather than stridently—biased? I think that should be do-able. And yes…a thing is always doable if you want it badly enough.

There’s more in her Coupla interesting pieces on Journalism. See also this interview, On the Couch With The Anchoress.

PressThink’s odometer rolled over to a million visits last week, according to Sitemeter. That’s since September, ‘03.

David Wineberger interprets this post:

I want to head off what I think is an unwarranted conclusion based on Jay’s statement that if you put together enough accurate reports, the world is intelligible. The wrong conclusion (not Jay’s) would be that we all come to the same intelligible world. Nope. The PoMos are right: Narratives don’t get built out of facts. Narratives tell us which facts matter. Within a narrative, it’s important that journalistic reports be accurate. But accuracy is not enough to bring about intelligibility or to tear down an existing intelligibility.

As Glenn Reynolds might say: Yep.

Bill Quick at Daily Pundit:

Journalists go to work and do their jobs to earn a paycheck and provide the necessities for themselves and their families. The notion that their job is something intrinsically greater than that is, well, silly. If you don’t think so, ask all the journalists in the US to work for nothing more than the chance to “make a difference,” and see how many you have showing up in the newsroom the next day.

Of course, there will still be many, many journalists who are willing to do exactly that. We call them the Blogosphere. And that is the New Thing that is shattering the clay foundations of the journalism myth.

Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily in comments:

This statement leaves me clueless: “And in fact, they wanted the innocence (we do just the facts journalism) and the power (we do make a difference journalism) but this could never be.” — JR. Where along the way did the facts lose their power to make a difference? See my reply here.

The scary thing is, I don’t necessarily know what to teach instead. Mark Hamilton comments:

I read some despair in that last sentence. And the fact that Jay doesn’t necessarily know what to teach instead makes me feel like retreating to my bed and pulling the covers over my head… I want to fire as many students as possible with a passion for journalism: I want to produce newspeople who are as engaged with the world around them as they are with their craft.

And we can’t do that (or at least I can’t do that) without a grasp of what journalism should be, what of its past is worth keeping and which of its understood principles are no longer valid. It’s no longer enough to repeat old words by rote.

Susan Mernit comments on this post: “Maybe this is the moment that a new journalism can find its way, one driven as much by search results and link laws as by craft. Maybe craft is something more of us can learn to own. Maybe we need to admit the world is pressing re-start and that’s going to be okay.”

OmbudsGod comments:

With all these journalists “on a mission” and “making a difference,” is it any wonder why there is so much bias in the press? Notice that no one talked about fairly and accurately reporting what they see, they would much rather change the outcome. I hope you take a second to stop and let this huge admission sink in. Journalists don’t go into the profession to impartially report what they see, they go into it to steer where society goes.

Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation thinks Rosen has let the cat out of the bag.

Journalism teacher Andrew Cline: “Yesterday, I put the finishing touches (almost) on my syllabi. Jay Rosen’s discussion of journalism education sends me back for another look at them this morning…” Read the rest, and Cline’s earlier post about the AEJMC:

Modern journalism and journalism education just isn’t set up to connect with communities. It’s set up to shoot for the big enchiladas in Washington D.C. or New York…

This is me, in the comments:

Odd: 155 comments, many of them reacting to what I wrote about “making a difference,” but not a single mention of another of my lessons: how I used to believe that reality always bites back, and there are limits to how fungible the facts are. No more.

The Administration of George W. Bush, with its retreat from empiricism, its doctrine of infallability, its hostility to science, its attack on the press, its manipulation and intimidation of intelligence, its philosophy of “we make reality” and the amazing innovation of the Bush bubble (which protects the president from the American people) have forced me to doubt that. Reality can be put to one side, as with the case for war, or global warming, and there are no limits to how fungible the facts are.

These are political innovations for which Bush does not get enough credit. Each one of them goes well beyond what previous presidents—who may have longed for the same freedom from fact—thought they could get away with.

Read the rest.

From a 2002 essay of mine in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Taking Bollinger’s Course on the American Press.” (Before I started blogging or knew about it.)

Think of All the President’s Men and its success in casting journalists as heroes of Watergate, which of course recasts Watergate. Think about polls and the way journalists have helped write them into politics. Bollinger sees how the common practices of journalism—which include common lapses—shape the contours of the public arena and make the world what it is….

What’s different about stepping into Bollinger’s world is that, in it, the press not only observes and reports freely, it acts upon us with its freedom. It’s an institution with a brain, of sorts. It has ideas and priorities—not just information—that it wants to get out into the world. It is always forming, as well as informing, the public, framing debate as it relays the news. It can be reckless and brainless, and must be watched.

Related: See PressThink, Journalism Is Itself a Religion. “The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 14, 2005 1:27 PM