Friday, June 17, 2011
Karl du Fresne: The Subversion of Mainstream JournalismLabels: Journalism, Karl du Fresne
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?
at 7:18 PM