Friday, June 17, 2011

Karl du Fresne: The Subversion of Mainstream Journalism

Anyone who has followed my sporadic musings about journalism will know that I have mixed feelings about the academic takeover of journalism training. My misgivings start with the fact that I have been privileged to work with, and learn from, a long list of great journalists who had no academic training. They learned by doing.

Prior to the establishment of the first journalism school at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University) in 1967, people drifted into journalism via a variety of routes. Many came straight from school, working their way up from menial jobs as messengers or copyholders in reading rooms. They were generally not the sort of people who had been swots or academic achievers at school but they either had, or soon acquired, the instincts and skills that made them great reporters.

To use a cliché, they had a bit of mongrel in them. They included a disproportionate number of misfits and non-conformists, drunks and womanisers. But they knew how to unearth stories and they were free to develop their own individualistic style and flair.

I’m not totally set against formal journalism courses but I suspect (and I know some other journalists of my era do too) that some of the people described above wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been compelled to complete a one-year course of study first, as is now required. And I wonder how many potentially good practitioners are deterred from entering journalism by the thought of having to jump through academic hoops. The qualities that make a good journalist aren’t necessarily those that produce conscientious students.

I also suspect that the selection process for journalism schools filters out potentially good rough-diamond candidates, instead favouring goody-two-shoes types who tick the right boxes and are unlikely to make waves. You can sense how radically the culture of journalism has changed the moment you walk into a modern newsroom and note all the earnest young faces staring intently at their computer screens. Old hands, accustomed to the shouting and swearing of a previous era, find the silence unsettling.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Warwick Roger wrote a column years ago in which he pointed out that, like me, none of the journalists he most admired had been to journalism school. More recently, Deborah Hill Cone lamented the prevalence of what she called “white bread” journalists and the disappearance of the bolshie eccentrics and lowlifes who populated newsrooms when she entered journalism.

So there’s one good reason to wonder whether the academic teaching of journalism is entirely a good thing. I’m not arguing that it should be abandoned, but I think it would be in journalism’s interests to leave the door ajar for people who don’t necessarily meet the academic test. (I should again point out here that Jane Bowron, whose dispatches from the Christchurch quake zone in the Dominion Post have won her legions of fans, slipped into journalism through the back door when she retrained as a sub-editor after the old Dom’s proofreading room was disestablished. We should all be grateful for the fact that she twice failed to get into journalism school, because I doubt that her idiosyncratic style would have survived the tut-tutting of the journalism tutors.)

That leads me to another of my concerns about journalism schools. They tend to encourage a bland orthodoxy, with the result that everyone comes out writing in much the same style. I search the papers in vain for the individualistic and sometimes slightly anarchic flair that once encouraged readers to hunt out the bylines of particular reporters. When you do find examples of such writing, it’s usually under the name of people who are not trained journalists, like Joe Bennett. I fear that the graduates of our journalism courses have any endearing quirks drilled out of them.

Then you have to look at the people doing the teaching. There are a few very good journalism tutors, usually people who have done the business themselves and teach from experience. But there’s also an awful lot of second-raters – some with minimal practical experience, others with nondescript CVs who have been drawn to teaching as a soft option. I remember years ago being on a selection panel charged with appointing a head tutor at a journalism school and despairing at the pitiful paucity of talent and experience among the candidates.

Even when good journalists become tutors, they almost invariably mutate into academics. Over time, they stop thinking and talking like journalists and lapse into the unintelligible jargon of academia. I reckon it should be a condition of all journalism tutors’ appointments that they be required every three years or so to work for at least six months in a newsroom, just to put them back in touch with reality. Some hope.

If anything, the insistence on academic credentials serves to discourage the appointment of experienced journalists. The appointment system is skewed in favour of candidates with qualifications, such as masters’ degrees and even doctorates, that virtually no working journalist possesses. This increases the risk that over time, the teaching of journalism will become ever more concerned with theory and more distanced from practice.

This suits some journalism academics very well, since it permits the intrusion of leftist ideology into the lecture room. Academics such as associate professor Dr Martin Hirst, who rejoices in the grand title of curriculum leader in journalism at Auckland’s AUT University, approach the teaching of journalism from a highly politicised standpoint. An avowed socialist, Hirst is of the school that believes journalism is all about challenging the established order. He and others like him sneer at the notion of objectivity that for decades has underpinned mainstream journalism in Western liberal democracies.

Media studies departments are even more vulnerable to political contamination. Marxism as an economic theory may be dead and buried, but what is known as cultural Marxism, which applies Marxist class theory to society and culture, is firmly entrenched in academia. Dr Sean Phelan, who teaches media studies in Massey’s Department of Communications, Journalism and Marketing, specialises in “post-Marxist discourse theory” and regards the teaching of journalism as an “instrument of the existing hegemonic order”. He thinks journalists need more instruction in critical (read Marxist) theory.

The extent to which some journalism schools have fallen under the sway of leftist ideology became startlingly evident with the appointment earlier this year of Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury as editor-in-residence at the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec), which teaches the national diploma in journalism. In a press statement proudly trumpeting Bradbury’s appointment, the head of Wintec's School of Media Arts (a person I'd never heard of - nothing new there) said he would be a “mentor and advisor” to Wintec’s current crop of journalism and communications students.

What are Bradbury’s qualifications for “mentoring” budding journalists? You might well ask. I’d describe him not as a journalist but as a leftist polemicist, albeit a very noisy one. (Bradbury has variously been described as “the man who will not shut up” and “the most opinionated man in New Zealand”.) His home, the Listener revealed in a profile in 2005, was decorated with posters of Marx, Che Guevara and Mao, which suggests a man who never matured beyond the undergraduate phase in his political views. If Wintec wants to be known as the journalism equivalent of an Islamist madrassa, it couldn't have chosen a more perfect appointee.

Bradbury probably can’t believe his good fortune at being given a state-funded job in which he can indoctrinate impressionable students. I get the impression, from occasionally reading his blog and listening to him loudly declaiming on Jim Mora’s afternoon panel, that he’s interested in journalism only as a means of advancing a leftist, anti-capitalist agenda. This of course makes him ideally suited to academia, where antipathy toward the corporate mainstream media and all its bourgeois values – such as balance and neutrality – runs deep.

The paradox, of course, is that the same corporate mainstream media will be expected to provide Wintec graduates with jobs, assuming they survive the formidable endurance test of being ear-bashed by Bradbury for a year. Not for the first time, I marvel at the media industry’s benign tolerance of media academics who are hostile to it. Media companies don’t fund journalism courses, but they employ their graduates. This surely gives them some influence over the way courses are run and who teaches them. How much longer, I wonder, will they remain silent on the subversion of mainstream journalism values by leftist theorists?


Kiwiwit said...

Yes, Gramsci would have been proud of what his adherents in NZ journalism schools have achieved. It shows in the inane news coverage we are served up in all media sources. I used to be an avid reader of several NZ daily newspapers, radio and television news shows and current affairs programmes. Now I get all my news, including that about New Zealand, from offshore sources, principally Internet-based. That way I avoid having to read the work of journalists who are invariably politically biased, condescendingly smug, lazy, trite and ignorant.

Anonymous said...

Somewhat contradictory that you're complaining against journalists trained in "white(y) bread" "bland orthodoxy" while Bradbury is neither of these things.

Frankly I think a Marxist analysis shows the real problem: the state pays for journalist "education" so journalist "mentors" are by definition bludgers paid by the state - same as most other teachers in NZ, almost all of whom are hard leftists. As Marx would say: to fix the superstructure, fix the economic relations: stop the state paying for "education".

In this case: stop the false price signals of state education - $100,000 per annum benefits for all those useless leftists - and with people having to pay their own money to become "educated" they'll actually spend it where it makes sense - not on leftists.

John Ansell said...

The same is true of advertising copywriters, Karl.

The agency I worked for in the 80s, Colenso, had a policy of not employing university graduates.

This enlightened policy attracted independent thinkers - people who made Colenso not just the best, but also the biggest agency at that time.

Independent thinking was, and no doubt still is, stamped out by universities. If it was allowed, perhaps they wouldn't be such a pest.

Brian said...

Not only Journalism!!!
Karl du Fresne raise a valid point at the academic take over and subversion of journalism; at the same time revealing a sinister political way of controlling the media, affecting what we read, and eventually what we think.
George Orwell would know how well how “Big Brother” is entrenched, not only into journalism but also into other working situations whereby the demand for “highly qualified people.” Meaning those trained academics, whose theory is perfect, but lack the practical to such a degree that when situations occur demanding action, they can only resort to books for an answer.
Qualifications are necessary especially practical qualifications, such as experience, especially so in physical action type jobs such as in war. Regretfully we have only “Peacekeepers” these days, which can complicate matters unless “Proper political guidelines on conducting such a struggle to avoid civilian involvement have been laid down”:!!
One of the main problems in New Zealand is the dominance of regional area major newspapers, apart from a very few exceptions there is virtually no competition between the major newspapers in this country. Indeed there may be a deal of connivance to ensure each has his own little patch, thus again the advertisers are captives, as well as the general public.
However with our relative small population it seems likely that this situation will remain, ensuring a very healthy financial profit for Newspaper Owners. Their future in a world of ever increasing technology will rely a great deal on the integrity of the Editorial Staff, on how they present and balance both local and world news.
One can but admire the self admiration in the recent headlines in one major newspaper that they are “Newspaper of the Year”, considering the opposition it is a title which might have called for a wee bit more discretion and humility!
The world coverage of news by the media in New Zealand is pathetic, forty or fifty years ago one would have seen first rate Reuters’ articles, news coverage from various countries instead of the bland writing that we read, listen too, or watch on the Television. Of course there are well written articles a few from the Daily Telegraph come to mind; together with those that emanate from the UK Independent. (Rather an unfortunate title for a major daily considering its origin) which always include a rich vein of left wing views to further stimulate our appetite for ”The Truth”.
Still there are alternatives such as the four Sky TV News Channels, which give a reasonable picture of just what is happening beyond God’s Own in world terms. All these help being retired a deal more bearable, especially when sometimes, there is no option but to view the world courtesy of the New Zealand media.

James Ireland said...

I am a Wintec journalism student. I work closely with Bomber, he and I do a weekly podcast. He is exactly the right person for the job as he teaches us how to avoid the mediocrity that you are complaining about. He has had a big influence on me, as before he came along I had been worried about having to follow the same structure of both journalism and future career. Bomber has shown me that I don't have to do things the way I am advised by some tutors.
I think some of your comments are correct, there is too much emphasis on writing to a certain structure with a lack of flair.
I am just about to complete a three year journalism degree rather than just the one year diploma. I think the extra two years has given me the knowledge in critical thinking that will serve me well.

Anonymous said...

Very few news media outlets anywhere in the world promote objectivity or care about facts! And such has been the case for at least a decade. Societal meta-narratives have been supplanted be individual narratives. The individual's story is privileged over proof.

One only has to look at reporting of Middle East affairs to know that historical facts are abrogated in favour of the socio-political agendas of individual journalists and/or their employers. Why do so many journalists support terrorist organizations like Hamas and Fatah? Why do they ignore what their charters say? Why do they jump to repeat their propaganda, even though there is ample evidence of media manipulation? Why do they almost never retract stories that are later proven false? Why do they jump on the terrorist bandwagons so early and so completely? Why do they fail to call terrorists what they are?

Is it so simple that Marxists are attracted to Marxists? Probably not! However, I believe it is a significant factor! And as someone who has undertaken studies in communications to postgraduate level in NZ, I agree with much of what du Fresne has to say.

Furthermore, I think it is very sad that the NZ media allows foreign media outlets to set the agendas by relying on their stories, usually without even cursory checks. The BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, etc, have been repeatedly shown to be heavily biased in many areas of their reportage - even the way they edit their photo and video footage. Yet NZ media outlets spew forth whatever these media outlets say as if it was all gospel truth.

I fear NZ media outlets care as little about the truth as do most media outlets worldwide. But it is not just the media studies departments that are driven by Marxist critical approaches; such are pervasive throughout NZ academia, just as elsewhere in the Western world. No longer do universities foster individual thinking but instead lecturers seek to indoctrinate their students as their followers.

One can blame the media for turning their backs on fact gathering and objectivity, at least as an ideal, in favour of subjective opinions and individual insights, etc. One can blame the media for turning its back on reporting facts, investigative journalism, and allowing reporters and journalists to indulge themselves by writing personal opinion pieces, ie, columns. But in the day of the professional blogger, pervasive amateur 'journalism', and when Western societies have allowed left-wing Marxists and fascists to increasingly capture educational establishments, where does the blame really lie?

Is society largely captured by its media or is its media largely a product of its educational elite?

Anonymous said...

Big Lies are everywhere these days and few are trained or knowledgeable enough to recognize them. What's not said, ie, omitted, is often more important than what is!

I most fear the mentoring of journalism students by their lecturers and colleagues, who invariably these days have developed bad habits. I think writing style is less important. Sure one needs to understand the inverted pyramid, and it would be nice if they could spell and understand basic punctuation, but technology can help a lot in such regard.

Students need to learn basic research skills, and to appreciate that not all information is created equal. Students need to learn to question, which includes being wary of individuals with their own agendas, and to be aware of their own biases and of those around them. Above all, students need to fully appreciate context, whether it is political, religious, social, economic, etc.

And students need to appreciate what most in the West have failed to appreciate, which is that people are not ultimately all the same, and that the Western way of thinking will not ultimately prevail.

Different cultures have different views of the world and ways of thinking, many of which will never conform to the underlying Western paradigm. Many Maori seem to appreciate this, while few non-Maori NZers do. Not only is this important to understand from a global perspective, but also in the face of increasing multiculturalism at home.

Few journalists appreciate the religious dimension. I suspect it is because few journalists are well versed in religion and many are dismissive. But dismissing the religious dimension leads to a complete lack of understanding of many of the world's ongoing conflicts, poor reportage and uninformed commentary. Few journalists seem to appreciate their responsibility to deeply understand when reporting on complex issues. And few appreciate that not only are most people in the world more or less religious in a conventional sense, but also that atheism is itself a religious outlook, and one that many of its adherents advocate extremely.

I would like to see more journalism students not only developing their own style, but also following their own interests and developing genuine expertise in one or more areas, as not even being present at an event can prevent one from failing to see what's really going on and/or being manipulated.

Anonymous said...

On the neo-Marxist subversion of the West; besides reading about the role of Gramsci and the Frankfurt School and the Fabians; you can read about the KGB's role in the book "Love Letter to America" by Tomas Shuman/Yuri Bezmenov. (He was a defector in the 1970's).

Anonymous said...

500 years before Christ, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu formulated the principle of subversion this way:

1. Cover with ridicule all of the valid traditions in your opponent’s country.
2. Implicate their leaders in criminal affairs and turn them over to the scorn of their populace at the right time;
3. Disrupt the work of their government by every means;
4. Do not shun the aid of the lowest and most despicable individuals of your enemy’s country.
5. Spread disunity and dispute among the citizens.
6. Turn the young against the old.
7. Be generous with promises and rewards to collaborators and accomplices.

Sound familiar? About 2500 years later we can read this very same instruction in a secret document, allegedly authored by the Communist International for their “young revolutionaries”. The document is titled “Rules of Revolution”:

1. Corrupt the young, get them interested in sex, take them away from religion. Make them superficial and enfeebled.
2. Divide the people into hostile groups by constantly harping on controversial issues of no importance.
3. Destroy people’s faith in their national leaders by holding the latter up for contempt, ridicule and disgrace.
4. Always preach democracy, but seize power as fast and as ruthlessly as possible.
5. By encouraging government extravagances, destroy its credit, produce years of inflation with rising prices and general discontent.
6. Incite unnecessary strikes in vital industries, encourage civil disorders and foster a lenient and soft attitude on the part of the government towards such disorders.
7. Cause breakdown of the old moral virtues: honesty, sobriety, self-restraint, faith in the pledged word.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about politics ... worry about the shear lack of skills these students pop out with .. lack of communication (both in listening and communicating with co-workers and subjects) .. critical thinking ... logic ... understanding of situations about them .. personal practice .. trade craft .. the list goes on.

As a press photographer I often feel like I am a wet nurse to these pups that can't even get to an appointment with a subject on time. Perhaps is these skills were taught (critical thinking in particular) we wouldn't have to worry about the politics.