Journalism and education today, such as they are

Kevin D. Williamson writes about the New York Times 1619 project and draws conclusions about journalism education:

What to make of the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, organizer of the New York Times’ sloppy and troubled 1619 Project, who has been denied, at least for the moment, tenure for a professorship at the University of North Carolina after a pressure campaign from conservative critics? …

It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors of journalism are among the most genuinely worthless specimens walking God’s green earth and that any halfway self-respecting society would exile them to the moon, and I am not at all sure that an advanced degree in journalism is more of a qualification than a disqualification when it comes to instructing students. (Set aside for the moment that journalism is not something that can be learned in a classroom. It is a trade, not an art or a science, and journalism degrees are some of the purest lab-grade bunkum ever produced.) …

And, of course, the more persuasive criticism of Hannah-Jones is about that — her practice of journalism, which is distinct from scholarship, though the two intersect at points. The National Association of Scholars sent an open letter to the Pulitzer committee (who are weasels in full, or at least mustelid-adjacent) demanding that they revoke the prize given to Hannah-Jones, and their account, along with the case made here at National Review and elsewhere, is damning. One of the Times’ own fact-checkers on the project, historian and African-American studies professor Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, warned the Times that key claims of the work were unsupportable. She listed other mistakes that she had communicated to the Times before the project was published but that went uncorrected.

When the Times did get around to amending the report, it did so in a guilty, sneaky, underhanded way — “stealth edits,” or unacknowledged corrections — for obviously political reasons. Donald Trump, running for reelection as president, had made a pet cause of the 1619 Project, some Democrats worried that the 1619 Project was giving him rhetorical ammunition, and the editors of the Times buckled under the consequent pressure. Hannah-Jones did the cable-news circuit claiming, preposterously, that the 1619 Project had never said what it said, and the Times reworked critical passages in an attempt to deny Trump a talking point. This is intellectual dishonesty — it is intellectual dishonesty in scholarship, it is intellectual dishonesty in journalism, and it is intellectual dishonesty in any other context. …

As usual, our focus on the personality in question — on the hate object with a face and a name — leads us astray. As an ideological and cultural matter, how much does it really matter who, exactly, sits in the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism? Because the chances are 104 percent that the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is going to be a semi-maniacal ideologue of approximately the Hannah-Jones kind in any case. The ideology is built into the position, and so is the bias. They aren’t going to hire Charles Murray. The Associated Press is going to go right on being a biased and at times incompetent organization with or without Emily Wilder.

If you want to cancel something, cancel the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in toto. People who want to work as reporters should study economics, history, Victorian novels, French poetry, art, physics — almost anything but what is taught in journalism schools. You can’t go building a bullsh** farm and plant it thickly with bullsh** and then act surprised when there’s bullsh** under foot. In many years of interviewing college students and recent graduates for journalism jobs, I have never once met a journalism major who could tell me what “millage” is, though I have heard them hold forth on privilege and intersectionality and whatever the bullsh** chef’s special is down at the bullsh** market.

A UW friend of mine asked for my opinion about this, 33 years after I departed UW–Madison with a double-major (journalism and political science, which makes me, yes, one of those liberal arts graduates) bachelor’s degree and toward my 33-year career in this silly line of work.

In Britain, journalism is a trade, the sort of thing you get at a British equivalent of a Wisconsin technical college or a community college in other states. That would seem to disagree with Williamson’s assertion about going to school to learn economics (two classes), history (minor), Victorian novels, French poetry, art, physics (negative to the last four), etc.

I was a student of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the 1980s. Highlights included:

  • An assignment to go to a public place and ask 10 random people what they thought of journalism. I hated the assignment, but it served a valuable purpose. If you can’t go up to strangers and ask them questions they may not want to answer, you cannot do this job.
  • The same professor who graded weekly assignments on a scale of 1 to 10, with each error (generally Associated Press Stylebook errors) subtracting one point. He wrote that the piece was actually well written, and too bad about the errors reducing the score to a 7. A light bulb went off in my head. I ended up getting an A.
  • I got a B/C in my Law of Mass Communications course. Fortunately I have avoided doing things in my career (so far) that led to a lawsuit, though I have been threatened. (One thing we were taught: Truth is an absolute defense to libel, and if you’re going to say something about someone’s alleged criminal activities, you better have the criminal complaint as your source.)
  • A broadcast journalism course taught by a Madison TV anchor. That was fun. (The after-final party at Paisan’s in Madison, which included pitchers of sangria, was also fun. After that I decided to go cover a girls basketball game. I finally, uh, started paying attention in the fourth quarter, halfway through which the team I was covering trailed by 12 in the era before the three-point shot. But my showing up was worthwhile because the 12-point deficit led to a furious comeback win.)
  • A TV news class that included my anchoring debut. It’s on a VHS tape somewhere in my house.
  • A public affairs reporting class taught by a New York Times correspondent. The syllabus included a long list of stories we were supposed to cover. At the time I was working part-time at a Madison-area weekly newspaper. I asked the prof if I could submit the stories I was writing for the paper. He said that would be fine. That led me to one of my first career goals, to get paid twice for the same work. That also works well if, for instance, you work for a newspaper covering sports and announce sports on radio on the side.)

The 33 years since graduation have proven that journalism is like most lines of work where you get better at it by doing it. I got hired for my first full-time job because I was getting a journalism degree (which made me, I think, one of the few J-school graduates to have a job lined up before graduating, which made for a pleasant final six weeks of college.)

Journalism classes were about one-sixth of my UW Bachelor of Arts credits. The idea was to be broadly educated in areas beyond my major, which is what Williamson claims to support. It’s difficult to get hired, though, if your employer has to train you from ground zero. (Though I have come to the conclusion that if I had someone with superior work ethic, I could teach them what they need to do. More on that later.)

There was a lot about journalism I learned after I left UW. J-school did not cover such subjects as how you handle threats to your health from people who don’t like your work. (Short term: Carry an aluminum baseball bat in your car. Today, I honestly believe reporters should conceal-carry handguns for their own safety.) The reason more than anything is the reality of learning by doing, or experiencing. Here, for instance.

Back in 1999, the New York Times reported:

This summer, the Reader Inc. Editorial Training Center plans to open its doors in Oshkosh, Wis., to its first class of 20 students. All will be recruited by some of Thomson’s 56 newspapers, all committed to going back to work at those newspapers.

”Our hope is we can recruit some good people with roots in the community,” said Stewart Rieckman, the executive editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern (circulation 27,000).

As soon as traditional journalism-school graduates hit the newsroom, Mr. Rieckman said, ”they’re looking for the next stepping stone.”

Terry Quinn, a senior vice president of Thomson Newspapers, said the program would teach journalistic skills, but also explain in detail the medium’s business side.

Trainees will ”spend a week in their home newspaper office being acclimatized and electronically hooked up,” Mr. Quinn said. ”Then they go for 12 weeks to the training center in Wisconsin and then they go back for a further six weeks’ training” at the sponsoring newspaper.

Their reward, if they make the grade, will be a job at a starting salary of $17,000 to $22,000.

(Side note: I reached that salary a decade before that.)

Michael Janeway, director of Columbia University’s program for Journalism in the Arts, called Reader Inc. ”a shot at short-cutting” a good journalism education. ”They’re rationalizing their own paltry investment in news editorial instead of investing in salaries,” he said.

But Mr. Quinn contends that traditional journalism schools impart a subtle snobbery about small-town journalism that has hurt the profession. ”I call them ‘wannabe’ Woodward and Bernsteins,” he said. ”They turn up their noses at the kind of community journalism that connects with readers.”

Thomson Newspapers, the former (and unlamented) owner of eight Wisconsin daily newspapers, then sold all their Wisconsin daily newspapers to Gannett and exited the newspaper business. I had predicted the sale in print, except I got the order of buyer and seller wrong.

Two decades later, Quinn had a partial point about “‘wannabe’ Woodward and Bernsteins,” except that Quinn’s perspective came from the owner of daily newspapers that had multiples of circulation more than The Post~Crescent, the largest Wisconsin daily Thomson owned. Appleton is not a small town. Small towns do not have daily newspapers. Small towns have, or are covered by, newspapers printed less often than every day that cover things like city council and school board meetings, school concerts, local events, etc.

If journalism had too many “Woodstein” (what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were called by their editor, but you knew that from the movie “All the President’s Men,” right?) types, that would be one thing. Similar to small-market sports teams, the thing for their bosses to do is to get the best possible work out of them to benefit where they are working now, which would have the side benefit of making their résumés look good.

The bigger problem is the J-school graduates who are out to change the world, or so they think. They bring an agenda with them, which is not necessarily (in fact, it usually isn’t) what their audience wants to know about — what is happening in their area in ways that affect them. They also bring with them their generation’s qualities, if that’s what you want to call them, of fragility and inability to cope with people who don’t like them.

I have written often in this space about the failings of those now in my line of work. This piece, for instance, notes my brief days at a daily newspaper. If I may quote myself (and of course I can, because this is my blog):

I worked in a daily newspaper newsroom in the early 1990s, as one of four reporters (in addition to a sports reporter). The number of married reporters in that office totaled zero. The number of reporters with children in that office totaled zero. The number of homeowners among the reporting staff totaled zero. The number of regular churchgoers among the reporting staff probably totaled zero. You can’t cover your community without, to use a cliché, skin in the game beyond a regular paycheck.

That, of course, is advice that late-1980s Steve would have ignored. Late-’80s Steve worked and lived in a community where, it’s safe to say, the number of people like me — college-educated and unattached — could be counted with, at most, two hands, out of a community of more than 4,000. (I dated two of them. Didn’t work out.) Some would also argue that entanglements prevent reporters from being impartial and unbiased. Impartiality is dangerously close to apathy, and eliminating bias is probably impossible among human beings, but being fair is not.

I have had some mentoring opportunities in my career. A local high school graduate who was switching her online college major to journalism asked to do some writing. So I hired her to do such mundane things as covering government meetings, which she did with more enthusiasm than I ever mustered. She got her degree, and she has been a weekly newspaper editor and a TV news producer. She told me she learned more from me than she ever learned in journalism school.

I have spoken to numerous journalism and communication classes about the various adventures of my job. One of those was not the local university’s late communications department, whose chair believed that weekly newspapers were beneath him. I outlasted his career.

There will always be people who don’t like your work, because they don’t want to read what they disagree with. (Mark Twain wrote that if you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you read the newspaper you are misinformed.)

If I were teaching journalism I think I would teach such subjects as:

  • The five Ws and one H, and why “why” and “how” get you the most interesting answers.
  • How to interview someone — have a few things you want to find out, but otherwise have a conversation with your source, and where it goes is where it is supposed to go. Part 2: How to get what you want without getting the phone slammed down.
  • The important things in who and what you’re covering.
  • How taxes work.
  • How your media outlet makes money, and finessing that reality while you do your job.
  • Why cynicism is your friend.
  • You need to learn how to present stories with words, sound and video, because media outlets, even newspapers, use all three, thanks to the Internet.
  • Attribution, or, one way to avoid being successfully sued.
  • Where your opinion belongs, and does not belong.
  • People aren’t going to like you. Get over it, or get out now.

Again, though, you get better at this by doing it, but not merely by doing it, but by having your work professionally judged and corrected. (I suspect that saved me in my early days from unpleasant conversations with people I was reporting on, though I have had at least my share of those over the years.) That is what editors are supposed to do. I sometimes wonder based on what I read if editors (particularly copy editors) exist anymore. Certainly one thing that’s harder to find is living, breathing institutional memory, the people who covered stories years ago and can provide context to current affairs. They get laid off because some suit thinks they make too much money, or they have bad attitudes, or whatever.

A friend of the inspiration of this post posted a photo of a roll of toilet paper, saying it had more use than news reporting today. Today’s newspaper is inevitably the next day’s recycling. The media has such an important role in our lives that it is the only line of work constitutionally protected. But people in my line of work need to listen to their critics, particularly those who don’t get paychecks from media companies. Some of them are too arrogant to do that, particularly to listen to those with a different ideological worldview.

The reason to do this work is because the work is necessary. You will get paid little, a lot of people won’t like you, and a lot of your work will go unnoticed. As John F. Kennedy put it, life is unfair.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s