There have been many changes in journalism since World War II, but the most striking has come in the resumé of the journalist. Of course, there have always been college graduates in journalism. Even Ernie Pyle, the everyman reporter of World War II, had studied at Indiana. But what we’ve had in the last 50 years is a deluge of college graduates. They have brought some improvements. But they’ve also brought into journalism the culture, attitudes, and arrogance of the academic world.
I don’t suggest that all was sublime before the sheepskins arrived. For every great paper of the past, there were twenty we’d like to forget….But there have been, especially since the sixties, disturbing trends in journalism. Just as Hollywood, in its hiring practices, has replaced talent with education, journalism is in danger of replacing experience with report cards. Journalism is not a profession. There is no specific body of knowledge required, and there is no licensing. What is needed is a sharp set of skills, high powers of observation, and a humility about how much we can understand quickly, and these come only from experience. But when you’ve gone through Yale or Stanford, when you’ve been told how smart you are, when you got 700s on your SATs, you start to believe what mom has whispered in your ear. You start to think that you “know.” It’s a kind of self-inflicted grade inflation. I’m bright, therefore I’m right.
The impact of this attitude has been profound. As reader Sparks said, there has been a separation between journalism and its audience, and I believe it derives directly from the separation between our universities and the nation. College graduates, especially from supposedly elite schools, see themselves as a class apart. They are encouraged to do so, especially by the sixties crowd that still patrols the hallowed halls.
A disconnect is partly responsible, but so is an often misplaced attempt to show “both sides” of a debate. Whether intentional or not, showing both sides can make the viewpoints of a minority of 10% seem equitable to that of the other 90% (via The Remedy):
For example, the most recent Wall Street Journal economic forecasting survey, from July, shows that 49 out of 60 forecasters expect real GDP to grow at an average annual rate of 2%, or faster, in 2007. Of the remaining 11 forecasters, only two expect growth of less than 1%, and only one expects a recession. For 2008, the forecasters are even more optimistic, with none expecting recession.
There are at least a half-dozen other institutions publishing surveys, and all of them report very similar results among the 100 or so active professional forecasters. Except for two well-known economists (Nouriel Roubini at New York University, and Gary Shilling of A. Gary Shilling & Co.), who are not in many surveys, a super-duper majority of professional forecasting economists believe the economy will continue to expand during the next year and have believed so for the past four or five years.
Despite this, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken in late July found that 68% of Americans thought that the economy was either in recession already, or would experience a recession sometime during the next 12 months. Interestingly, this is not much of a change from the past. This same survey question has been polled at least five times since September 2002. Each time a robust majority of between 65% and 85% of respondents thought a recession was either underway or would occur within the year. Americans have been bearish on the economy for quite some time.
So when the media offers the standard Expert A vs. Expert B dynamic, there is no weight given to percentages. The impression is that each represent equal numbers of “Experts” in their field. To this, Richard Reeb adds:
Westbury’s criticisms is not, be it noted, directly merely at the left wing bias of the major media, which can be counted on to give bad news when the news is good, on everything from the economy to the war in Iraq, not to mention congressional investigations of the Bush administration. It goes to the professional perspective of all journalists, who indiscriminately reduce “opinion” to the level of a commodity that sells best when it is controversial. That’s what spikes sales and ratings….For example, if the administration is one of which the media disapproves, presenting an unending stream of negative news can be passed off not as bias but as presenting “the other side” to the administration’s view.
Westbury admits, as he must, that economists can be wrong, so there is warrant in certain circumstances for presenting a minority view. That goes beyond the demand for fairness to the matter of the truth.
ADDENDUM: Additionally, Providence Phoenix editor Ian Donnis thinks the ProJo is engaging in some upper-level, editorial hypocrisy by publishing a critique of an editorial “incident” concerning then-NY Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger Jr. and Rupert Murdoch while it has quashed attempts to to do similar navel-gazing within its own pages.