How Pseudo-Intellectualism Ruined Journalism

From Persuasion:

I was sitting across from the professor as she went over my latest piece. This was 1986, Columbia School of Journalism, Reporting and Writing I, the program’s core course. At one point, in response to what I don’t recall, I said, “That doesn’t bode well for me.” I could have been referring to a lot of things; there were so many, in my time in journalism school, that did not bode well for me. One was the next set of words that came out of her mouth. “‘Bode?’” she said. “I haven’t heard anyone bode anything in a long time.” Another was her comment, on a previous piece, about my use of “agglomerate.” She had circled it and written, “No such word.”

But the most important was the intellectual climate of the school as a whole, in that it did not have one. We were not there to think. We were there to learn a set of skills. One of them, ironically, was asking questions, just not about the profession itself: its premises, its procedures, its canon of ethics. I know, because from time to time I tried, and it didn’t go well. This was trade school, not liberal arts school. When a teacher said something, you were supposed to write it down, not argue.

The main thing that I learned in journalism school was that I didn’t belong in journalism school. The other thing I learned was that journalists were deeply anti-intellectual. They were suspicious of ideas; they regarded theories as pretentious; they recoiled at big words (or had never heard of them). For a long time, I had contempt for the profession on that score. In recent years, though, this has yielded to a measure of respect. For notice that I didn’t say that journalists are anti-intellectual. I said they were. Now they’re something else: pseudo-intellectual. And that is much worse.

The shift reflects the transformation of journalists’ social position. This phenomenon is familiar. Journalism used to be a working-class profession. I think of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, icons of the New York tabloids, the working people’s papers, in the second half of the twentieth century. Breslin’s father was a drunk and a piano player who went out for rolls one day and never came back. His mother was a teacher and civil servant. Hamill’s father was a grocery clerk and factory worker; his mother, a domestic, a nurse’s aide, a cashier. Breslin went to Long Island University but dropped out after two years. Hamill left school at fifteen to apprentice as a sheet metal worker, enlisted in the Navy, and took some art school classes later on (he hoped to be a cartoonist). Both were Irish Catholic: Hamill from Brooklyn, Breslin from Queens, long before those boroughs were discovered by the hipsters and the condo creeps.

Coming up working-class, you develop a certain relationship to facticity. Your parents work with their hands, with things, or on intimate, sometimes bodily terms with other people. Your environment is raw and rough—asphalt, plain talk, stains and smells—not cushioned and sweetened. You imbibe a respect for the concrete, the tangible, that which can be known through direct experience, and a corresponding contempt for euphemism and cant. You develop a gut and a bullshit detector, acquire a suspicion of experts who operate at a remove from reality, which means academics in particular. Hence the recognition, in figures like Breslin and Hamill, that the world is chaotic, full of paradox, that people evade our understanding. Hence their sense of curiosity and irony and wonder. At the source of their moral commitments, they had not rules but instincts, a feeling for the difference between right and wrong. For the masses, they felt not pity but solidarity, since they were of them.

That was the profession’s ethos—skeptical, demotic—and you didn’t have to grow up working class (or be a man) to absorb it. Molly Ivins, Nora Ephron, Cokie Roberts, Maureen Dowd, Mara Liasson, even Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, in their own ways: all had it or have it. But none of them was born more recently than 1955. In the last few decades, journalists have turned into a very different kind of animal. “Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession,” wrote David Brooks not long ago, citing a study that found that more than half of writers at The New York Times attended one of the 29 most selective institutions in the country; “we’re an elite-college-dominated profession.”

. . . .

A couple of years ago, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an Ivy League professor said the quiet part out loud. “Not all of our students will be original thinkers,” she wrote, “nor should they all be. A world of original thinkers, all thinking wholly inimitable thoughts, could never get anything done. For that we need unoriginal thinkers, hordes of them, cloning ideas by the score and broadcasting them to every corner of our virtual world. What better device for idea-cloning than the cliché?” She meant academic clichés, having mentioned “performativity,” “normativity,” “genderqueer,” and others. “[W]e should instead strive to send our students forth—and ourselves too—armed with clichés for political change.”

And that’s exactly what has happened, nowhere more so than in journalism. The progressive academic ideology has become the intellectual framework of the field, or at least of its most visible and influential parts: The New York TimesThe Washington Post, NPR, et al. More to the point, the field now has an intellectual framework, one that journalists seek, top-down, to impose on the world, on the stories they report. The practice travels under the name of “moral clarity”—as if moral clarity were anything, in this world, besides a very rare commodity (I would love to know what Didion thought of the concept), and as if the phrase meant anything other, in this context, than tailoring the evidence to fit one’s pre-existing beliefs. Facts are now subordinated to the “narrative,” a revealing word: first, because it comes from academia (it is one of those clichés); second, because it’s almost always misused, a particle of garbled theory cloned and memed (as the professor would have wanted). When journalists say “narrative,” they mean “idea.” And it is always an idea they’ve received from someone else.

They think they’re thinking, but they’re wrong. They think that thinking means applying ideas, in the sense that you’d apply an ointment. What it actually means is examining them, reworking them, without fear, without cease. They believe that they are skeptical. In fact, they’re alternately cynical and gullible: cynical toward the other side and gullible toward their own (that they see themselves as being on a side is part of the problem, of course). That is why they’re helpless before the assertions of like-minded activists and academics or of acceptably credentialed experts—incapable of challenging their premises or putting pressure on their arguments. For those who lie outside their mental world, who haven’t taken the courses and acquired the jargon, they feel not kinship but, depending on the former’s demographic category, condescension or contempt.

Few students, at any time, come out of college fully equipped to think. 

Link to the rest at Persuasion

2 thoughts on “How Pseudo-Intellectualism Ruined Journalism”

  1. Few students, at any time, come out of college fully equipped to think.

    I trembled for the future of journalism when my fellow classmates in the program acted as if I’d committed a feat of sorcery by doing a basic bit of fact checking. They were passing around emails of the latest mass panic they were mass panicking about. Step by step I pointed out the details that were “tells” for an urban legend, and linked to original sources that would allow them to fact check for themselves.

    Initially I hadn’t planned to reply at all, thinking that one of them was going to do the fact checking. When I got the nth email about whatever it was, it dawned on me that they didn’t realize how to spot the same tells that stood out to me, or even look into the matter with a 5 minute Google search (when Google was still worth something).

    But to fact check you have to be inquisitive to start with, and be willing to act on it. You also have to have a working knowledge of the world around you, and to be keenly aware of the gaps in your knowledge.

    Or, I’ll just leave this to Dominar Rygel the 16th, who had this exchange with a crewmate who is in shock after they fall victims to an enemy alien’s shrink ray device:

    Sikozu: Don’t you see? No. No! This isn’t happening because it is not possible.

    Dominar Rygel XVI: Your brain isn’t functioning. Do you think this is all just a hallucination? Do you like that explanation better, hmm?

    Sikozu: No, but I simply cannot comprehend…

    Dominar Rygel XVI: Neither can I. Who cares? We’re here, they did it, and that’s that. You consider yourself intelligent?

    Sikozu: Yes, I do.

    Dominar Rygel XVI: Then stop behaving like a child.

    Sikozu: I am not a child!

    Dominar Rygel XVI: No, you’re an infant! You’ve studied but you haven’t experienced. You know nothing of life!

    Sikozu: And you do?

    Dominar Rygel XVI: I’ve been around long enough to know how ignorant I am. I don’t assume the universe obeys my preconceptions. Huh! But I know a frelling fact when it hits me in the face!

    That’s from S4E8 of my current binge, “Farscape.” Episode title, “I Shrink, Therefore I Am.”

    • FARSCAPE is weird. Watchable weird.
      LEXX I found unwatchably WEIRD, of the throw stuff on the wall, without worrying if it might stick.

      Today, online “Fact Checking” is just another propaganda tool so instead of converging fact checks, we have dueling selective fact checks.

      Pox ‘pon both houses.

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