Old habitus die hard, diehards just get older. Goldfish bite back

For the record, I started on this post way back at the end of March. I last worked on it before today on the 2nd of April. I was hoping to wait till I had more time, but some things just can’t wait. I have broken my vow of silence, now it’s back to the garret.

I’m prodded into action this afternoon by an opinion piece Savaged by blogosphere goldfish from Fairfax columnist and avowed curmudgeon Karl du Fresne attacking left-wing academics in general and those engaged in critical media studies in particular.

The original post was a response to a piece by Karl attacking Massey University media studies lecturer, Sean Phelan for writing an academic journal article critiquing a culture of anti-intellectualism in the New Zealand media and commenting on the state of journalism education in this country. Both of these are areas of professional concern for me, so I eagerly read both pieces with some interest.

I have now ingested all of this material and, I intend to get my goldfish teeth into some serious chewing on some big ideas. This is actually a high stakes argument. Not on any personal level, but in terms of defining and debating some important issues about journalism in New Zealand and about the philosophy of journalism more generally.

I don’t think it’s a simple binary argument either. There are many nuanced positions, it’s just that Karl du Fresne has nailed his colours to a particular flag and let go a broadside at his perceived ideological foes.

I suppose he should expect some response and as he points out, mine has been a while coming. I haven’t been idle in that time, several plans are afoot to further the discussion, but I guess a more immediate response is necessary as my name and Sean Phelan’s have again been dragged through the mud on the bottom of Karl’s size nines.

I have to say that Sean’s original piece, published in Studies in Language and Capitalism,  seemed reasonable to me. He correctly identifies the tension between journalism in the trenches (so to speak) and theoretical discussions of journalism (in its good and bad aspects). That is, tensions between “practice” and “theory”, or between the “profession” and the “academy”. Karl du Fresne’s responses actually underline that point rather nicely.

Old habitus die hard

Sean describes Karl’s position as being driven “a logic of ideological fantasy” and argues that it is almost the default position of the New Zealand journalism profession. Yes, Sean uses some jargon words; this is inevitable in an academic article, but they are defined in context.

One of the words is “habitus” a term found in the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu describes journalism as a “field” of social activity and action that is historically constituted and related to other “fields”, such as arts, industry, commerce, politics, religion and cultural production.  None of that is hard to understand, nor is it fancy theory with no connection to the real world. It is a fundamental tenet of the sociology of professions and it is grounded in materialism – the simple idea is that being determines consciousness. Or, put another way, that we think what we think because of our social upbringing and the circumstances of our lives.

So, “habitus” a term that Rodney Benson and Erik Neveu suggest “may be off-putting to Anglo-American [and Kiwi] individualistic sensibilities” (2005, p.3). Nevertheless, they continue “the notion of habitus expresses a reasonable hypothesis: that an individual’s predispositions, assumptions, judgments, and behaviors are the result of a long-term process of socialization”.

This socialisation begins in the home, extends through schooling and education, it is open to modification and is ultimately “shaped by one’s location in the social class structure” (p.3). Because it is a socially constructed field, journalism is constantly subject to change and the tacit presuppositions that may be its foundations at a particular point in history (such as the idea of objectivity, or partisanship) will shift over time – under pressure from within the field and from other related or adjacent fields. This is not rocket science.

Rather than attempting to engage with Phelan’s thesis, du Fresne’s response was to ridicule and parody Sean’s style and to launch personal attacks on those whom he was seeking to criticise. He continuously counterposes his own “commonsense” view of how the media works – a simple free market, editors give audiences what they want model – with the more complex approach taken by academic media studies. The dis-ingenuity of this approach is quite simply that Karl gets to interpret what Sean and other media academics say and thereby put his own spin on their work.

Inevitably it’s a spin that supports Karl’s no-nonsense approach by distorting the work of his opponents, as in this example:

“Mainstream journalistic identification is clearly aligned with a particular conception of democracy that has been hegemonized in capitalist liberal democracies,” [Phelan] writes. (Translation: the proletariat has been suckered by vile robber press barons.)

and this one:

[Phelan] continues: “I am suggesting that the relationship between academic field and journalistic field imperatives is imbalanced under a hegemonic ‘training’ regime that is structurally precluded from assessing journalistic practices from a theoretically-informed distance.” (Translation: dammit, why can’t I fill students’ heads with the tortuous theories of people like Bourdieu?)

The “translations” are provided by Karl (du Fresne, not Marx) and serve to poke fun at the serious issues Sean is raising and to belittle any attempt at tackling the issues of substance.

Mainstream journalism is aligned with a particular view of democracy as practised in capitalist nations and this is an issue for discussion amongst journalists, academics and the general public. There has been a one-sided emphasis on technical training in New Zealand journalism education for far too long. Importantly – and Sean’s thesis here is also correct – critical reflection on the practice of journalists, by working reporters and by trainees has not been encouraged under that system.

The tension between the academy, the Journalists Training Organisation and some industry heavyweights is real and it deserves to be talked about, analysed and questioned. Karl du Fresne is up to his neck in this debate and has been for some time. He represents the views of what I might politely call the “old guard”, but he is perhaps even a little too extreme for some of them.

If Karl’s point, in attacking Sean and I and others who dare to challenge the orthodoxy of 20th century thinking about journalism, is to win the argument and shut down a debate moving in a direction he doesn’t like, well he should come out and say so. He should not hide behind his jokey-blokey facade of standing up for the ordinary against a horde of imaginary Marxist baby-butchers descending from their spooky ivory towers to ravage the sacred earth.

Perhaps we should expect no better from Mr du Fresne. He is capable of raising, in serious argument, the  suggestion that Karl Marx is akin to a mass murderer “whose theories probably killed more people in the 20th century than any other single factor” (Du Fresne, 2009).

This is, of course, an indefensible assertion really. Particularly if one calculates the death toll from two world wars that were fought around totally different ideological positions and the mass murder of civilians by regimes supported by such bulwarks of capitalism as the United Kingdom and the United States. One thing you can say about Karl is that he never lets the facts get in the way of a good piece of invective.

My original (April 2009) piece responding to Karl’s first post  started like this:

My old frenemy Karl du Fresne’s up to his usual tricks, disembowelling academics who dare to question the inviolable truths of “Journalism according to Karl”.

That he takes such delight in slandering public intellectuals – while feigning surprise that people might think he is one – is not surprising really. Karl is really old skool. I mean really, really old school.

Bless his fraying rayon socks, Karl still firmly believes in objectivity, despite its tarnished reputation. I’m sure he tells his grandkids that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are real too.

It seems that Karl doesn’t like academics much. He wrote in his original attack on Sean:

Phelan’s paper confirms much of what I have been saying and writing about academics for years.

Really? And Karl thinks other people might have a “highly inflated view of the weight his views carry”?

Well it certainly seems Karl doesn’t like a particular type of academic, notably those who he disagrees with and particularly those who challenge his commonsense view of journalism and journalism education. He doesn’t have many complimentary things to say about me either. But, as we’ll see, he doesn’t mind academics who seem to agree with him.

I want to take you through this Kiwi version of “media wars” and to also draw your attention to Karl’s own theoretical disposition. Because, you see, for a man who claims to have no truck with the  academic study of journalism – because we theoreticians have an agenda – Karl has a fairly well developed sense of theory himself. He also has an agenda, though he would deny it.

Yes, I know, I did point this out to Karl several months ago, here, here, and here too; so I won’t re-hash those arguments. Suffice to say everyone, including Karl, has ideas in their head, these are what we call theories.

So, you see, Karl has a theory of journalism. He calls it the “marketplace of ideas”. He supports the capitalist model of news production, though he calls it the “free market”. This is already a highly theoretical construct, but to Karl it just seems like common sense. That’s because, the whole idea of common sense is a theory too.

How do I know Karl has theories in his head? I know because in 2005 Karl wrote a pamphlet, for the NZ Newspaper Publishers’ Association, called The right to know: News media freedom in New Zealand. I’d been meaning to read it for a while, so before sitting down to write this post, I did.

It’s not a bad read. It is a Cook’s tour through the history of New Zealand journalism and talks at length about how lucky we are that we have a free press. It’s full of commonsense too.

So let’s see what Karl’s got to say for himself.

The right to know begins with a theory about the press in New Zealand today and Karl’s definition of a ‘free press’.

A cynical view, frequently heard, is that it means freedom for media proprietors to publish or broadcast whatever is likely to generate profits. It’s a hopelessly skewed definition yet it contains an element of truth. (p.3)

In Karl’s view the right to make profits is an “essential element of a free news media industry”. It certainly is a right enjoyed by media owners and shareholders and in managing their business in the interest of shareholders, media companies are free to downsize when times get tough (like they are globally in the news industry today).

However, there are opposing views, equally as valid, such as the argument put by American media scholars John Nichols and  Robert McChesney in a recent article published in The Nation.

Communities across America are suffering through a crisis that could leave a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake. It is not the economic meltdown, although the crisis is related to the broader day of reckoning that appears to have arrived. The crisis of which we speak involves more than mere economics. Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States. (The death and life of great American newspapers)

This is pretty strong stuff and one might expect Karl to have some sympathy for this argument. After all, in The right to know, he argues:

...freedom of the news media in the classical philosophical sense – the freedom that  pioneering pubishers and journalists fought for in the 18th and 19th centuries – is about far more than money and profits…it is about…the right to be informed on and to debate matters of public interest and importance. (p3)

That’s as far as I got, other pressing matters interrupted. I did finish reading Karl’s booklet and interestingly he spends a lot of time praising a whole bunch of 18th and 19th century thinkers – a bit like Marxists referring to Marx, I guess. I will come back and do a thorough review of Karl’s pamphlet, but don’t hold your breath this time Karl, the last time I saw you, you were already the colour of apoplexy.

The difference is that we’ve moved on and Karl hasn’t. He offers no more contemporary theoretical arguments and doesn’t engage with any changes in theory or thinking since the turn of the last century. Make that the century before the last one.

Poor old Karl, he’s stuck in a time-space vortex and continues to “do the time warp again”. So, let’s leave aside Karl’s pamphlet for now. I don’t have my annotated copy to hand and time is pressing.

There is one point that I wish to pick up from Karl’s March post though. His charge that Sean wants to politicise the training of journalists:

What Phelan is really advocating here is the politicisation of journalism training.

I’ll come back to that in a moment. But first here’s a quote from a piece by political writer and Fairfax columnist, Chris Trotter, about journalism and journalism education:

Journalism has always been a political vocation. The first newspapers were highly partisan affairs, financed (and often also written) by individuals who wished to influence local and/or national affairs…. Think of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – owner of The Sun and Fox News….The idea that journalists should always strive for “objectivity” would be laughed at by such men.

Chris’s article was quoted at length by Sean because one of the points of his piece was to show that, despie their obvious political differences, Trotter’s and du Fresne’s arguments end up being rather similar in tone and intent. I have my own issues with what Trotter wrote in his column, particularly with the next sentence:

Sadly, anyone entering today’s journalism school with Mr. Murdoch’s partisan spirit would soon have it beaten out of him by his teachers.

My point here is in fact that what Karl’s seemingly stumbled into is a much more complex and much more real debate than he seemingly realises. Karl’s is only one view and in his, now several, pieces on it he has tried to paint it as a David and Goliath struggle, with him in the role of David.

This is fantasyland. And here’s an example from Karl’s blog that highlights what I mean:

On the other hand, it’s important that people understand how academia has been infiltrated – a loaded word, I know, but justified in this context – by people who have ideological barrows to push, and who have no qualms about using their sinecured positions in taxpayer-funded institutions to disseminate ideas that most people would find either peculiar or obnoxious, if only they could understand them.

Here again the rabid populism of the orthodox media pulpit. Karl recognises that “infiltrated” is a loaded word. Yes, it implies some sort of conspiracy that needs to be rooted-out by right-thinking  men (armed with pitchforks and burning fags perhaps). And the subtle blowtorch of disparaging comment is applied to public education and public discourse: “sinecured positions in taxpayer-funded institutions” and of course the inscrutability of academic language.

In his most recent piece “Savaged by blogosphere goldfish“, (I’ve got the version published in the Nelson Mail on 27 May), Karl again goes on the attack against universities and academics with their “snug, self-reinforcing leftist orthodoxy”:

Academic institutions provide a cosy environment in which neo-Marxist ideology, however bizarre, largely goes unchallenged because it is widely shared.

In other words, universities are full of conspiratorial left-overs with no role in the real world and, as institutions, universities are largely worthless. You don’t believe me, well you better believe Karl:

Academic institutions provide a sanctuary for many people who feel bitter and thwarted because the world – or in this case the news media doesn’t confirm to their ideological prescription.

Well this is news to me Karl. The news media fits very well my ideological prescription. It is shaped by market forces and the rule of capital and it performs just as I expect it to almost every day.

And if one were to do some sort of textual analysis on Karl’s work in this area it would be easy to argue that the bitter and thwarted feeling comes across loud and clear in his writing.

Karl seems “irritated” that he can’t just control this debate and he feels “bitter and thwarted” that we won’t just go away quietly once he’s pronounced from his own sinecured “sanctuary”, his platform in the Fairfax press.

In fact, I think Karl’s deeply distressed that the world doesn’t “conform” to his “ideological prescription”. He would rather just be allowed to “promulgate his theories unopposed” and he thinks he can make this happen by attacking his opponents personally, rather than actually picking apart their arguments.

So, let’s get to the argument

The point that Karl repeats in his Goldfish column is that Sean’s writing is inpenetrable jargon. By positioning himself as “everyman” – if I can’t understand it then you’ve got no chance – Karl is framing academic discourse as elitist and beyond the ken of mere mortals. It is, by this reasoning, therefore of very little real value. It becomes the self-serving chatter of an out-of-touch academic elite.

Well, actually Sean’s article is actually quite readable. Yes, I know, I’m one of those self-serving academics who would say that. But in fact the whole thing is relatively straight forward. In fact it concludes on a reasonable and collegiate tone that directly contradicts Karl’s “us and them” characterisation.

Sean is basically suggesting that working journalists and journalism scholars should actually be working together to advance the cause of journalism at a time when the news industry is in trouble and that journalism’s role in advancing democracy should remain at the core of the partnership:

This reconstitution of academic field identities needs to be done in a way that is not dismissive of journalists’ positive ideological identification with democracy. Nor should it speak over the self-interpretations of journalists themselves; or be conveniently misread as the view that because journalism students should read Bourdieu, they should write like him also. (Phelan 2008)

This is a reasonable suggestion and it animates the work we are doing at AUT through both curriculum redesign and in the development of meaningful research projects. It is not to position journalism educators as the opponents of industry, but neither is it to position us as the servants of industry. This position is put rather nicely by Canadian journalism educator Mike Gasher, quoted in Phelan:

Rather than serve the news industry, a function that journalism schools have come to take for granted…. they should instead position themselves as serving journalism in all its bourgeoning forms; that is, journalism schools must make a distinction [italics added] between the news industry and journalism (Gasher, 2005, p. 665).

In this context we retain and wish to strengthen our relationships with the news industry; both in terms of pedagogic importance – as avenues for the training and socialisation of our young journalists – and in terms of partnerships to deal with the many issues of technological change, the impact of the recession, emerging new business models, the interface of journalism and social networking…the list is almost endless. There’s plenty of common ground for collaborative work here.

Instead of positioning journalism scholars as the enemy – Karl’s default position – our interest is actually cooperation and dialogue. So instead of launching unsustainable accusations – such as that we want to “politicise” the journalism curriculum – it would be better if Karl would just calm down and engage in a reasonable dialogue.

The politics of journalism and journalism education

The suggestion that the politicisation of the curriculum in journalism education is a new thing is just plain wrong. As Chris Trotter notes, journalism has always been political and so too has journalism education. There are some very good sources on this, including a PhD and subsequent journal articles by Nadia Elsaka and also a very recent PhD by my AUT colleague (since retired) Dr Ruth Thomas.

In the past, the politics of journalism – and by extension journalism education – have been the politics of the status quo. That is, the theory that has been taught is Karl’s favourite “free market of the press” argument. For too long, it has been an unstated and untested assumption in journalism and in journalism education that this is all there is to it. The assumptions of politics and economics underlying this “free market” theory were never challenged.

But the whole free market construction of the news media is a relatively modern invention that coincided with the rapid growth of industrial capitalism in the 20th century.  It’s no coincidence that its founding documents are the tracts of Karl’s “good” public intellectuals, the bourgeois revolutionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries;  Thomas Paine and co. It’s also no coincidence that the free market model became the orthodoxy around the same time that newspapers began to be mass circulation commodities that were reliant on attracting a mass audience to secure market share and advertising revenues.

Today this model is weak, broken and, in the view of some, beyond repair. The decline in the traditional news media model of free market economics is even thought to be terminal. Instead a whole new programme of theorising, modelling and arguing for change has emerged. Karl du Fresne seemingly has nothing to say about this, preferring to live in a mythical golden age of steam radio and fresh newsprint.

No amount of head-in-the-sand denial and repetition of “always was, always will be” by the likes of Karl du Fresne can actually alter the historical facts.

The whole edifice of objectivity ( a sacred cow to Karl, but  which is thankfully crumbling)  is also part of this free market delusion. There’s plenty of stuff written on this debate  outlining why it’s a failed model and why journalism should find another moral framework – which Karl studiously ignores in his attacks on my credibility.

What’s interesting is that Karl has now three times repeated his observation that I don’t believe in objectivity in journalism. He leaves it at that, as if I’ve somehow broken one of journalism’s 10 Commandments. But at no point does Karl offer any kind of reasoned defence of objectivity. He doesn’t set out to prove  a case positively, he just assumes that because he declaims capital O objectivity is the mantra and I’ve expressed some doubts about it that he can cast me out of the temple.

I’m not the only apostate on the question of objectivity. It’s not as if I’m a lone heretic. The challenge to the orthodoxy of objectivity is a broad church itself and many fine, respected and senior journalists around the world, as well as a large number of journalism scholars (nearly all former or practising journos themselves) are questioning the wisdom of the elders on this issue.

Let me just give you a few examples of the breadth of the “objectivity” debate from a speech I gave a week ago at an Amnesty New Zealand seminar:

“We are at a stage in British journalism where any sense of a moral context is starting to vanish. If things are going to improve, we have got to get back to that.”

BBC journalist John Simpson, 2006

Beyond the concerns about the mechanics and economics of journalism is the fact that news can make a difference in people’s lives. From that basic truth rises a moral mandate that journalists and  news consumers should recognise.

(The Global Journalist, Philip Seib, 2002, p. 3)

My emotional and intellectual response to Hiroshima was that the question of the social responsibility of a journalist was posed with greater urgency than ever.”

Wilfred Burchett 1980

Remember that Wilfred Burchett visited Hiroshima a few weeks after the atomic bomb devastated the city and he wrote his story, published in all the major newspapers of the world, as a “warning”. He did not write an objective piece about the bombing of Hiroshima, maybe Karl would have; quoting official sources that the radiation sickness was not a result of the nuclear explosion. How can you be objective about mass murder?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University developed the thesis of “public journalism”, in part as a response to the question of what is journalism’s moral mandate.

Rosen called for a redefinition of the role of journalists and reporting to include the concept of doing public work. That is, journalists should re-evaluate the traditional professional ethos of detached observer, based on objectivity and balance, in favour of participating in finding solutions to civic and social problems. He describes this as encouraging journalism towards “living in the present” (Rosen, 1993).

Journalism becomes important whenever we have difficulty grasping the present–that is, the world we’re creating for ourselves as we move through time…Thus the deepest ethic for which journalism stands is not a tenet of journalism, but of enlightened humanity: it states that we should not live in ignorance of our true circumstances, or pretend that what we see in front of us is all that’s occurring in our world.  (Rosen, 1993, p. 27)

For Rosen, this means a challenge to traditional journalistic ethics and it also mean reconstructing journalism as “primarily an act of persuasion” (Rosen, 1993, p. 29).

The public journalism movement—as it was called—did not really succeed. It was perhaps an idea that peaked too soon. In some senses it was also overtaken by technological change. Rosen moved on to become a champion of citizen journalism, enabled by digital means of news production, greater audience engagement and the anarchic distribution system of the Internet. It is instructive that Rosen subtitles his PressThink blog with the tagline: “ghost of democracy in the media machine”. Have a look Karl, you’ll find plenty there to disagree with and lots of fodder for your next curmudgeonly column.

However, the basic principles that Rosen was expounding in support of public journalism, are, in my view, still relevant and worth revisiting. To put Rosen’s “public journalism” another way, it is what the eminent British journalist Martin Bell calls the “journalism of attachment”, rather than feeble attempts at objectivity, which is, in and of itself, a form of in-built and largely unconscious bias.

[more on Martin Bell: The moral purpose of journalism]

There’s another deep philosophical argument: Is the conscience of the journalist easily equated with the broader public conscience?

In this context, one of journalism’s most important roles is that of awakening the public’s conscience. Journalists must decide when the alarm must be sounded and how best to do so.

(The Global Journalist, p.4)

I’m sure Karl du Fresne would take issue with this material and so he can; the point of putting it down here is to demonstrate that for all his bluster about “avowed Marxists” and their ilk, there is a solid body of knowledge in journalism education that backs the approach that I and others take in relation to objectivity and other moral / ethical issues.

You see, Karl would rather you only believe what he tells you and take his word for it when he writes:

Unsurprisingly, Phelan emerges as an opponent of the notion of journalistic objectivity and endorses comments made by Auckland University of Technology journalism associate professor Martin Hirst, an avowed socialist who, in the course of an exchange with me last year on this issue, dismissed the idea that journalists can and should strive to be neutral.

The trick here is that Karl has moved from “objectivity” to “neutral” as if they are the same thing. And he’s got to get a better line in insults. How many times now Karl have you described me as an “avowed socialist”? So what? You are a died-in-the-wool supporter of the free market. What’s the difference? We hold differing views about the world, get over it.

Objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. And this comes up all the time in journalism. The most objective of reporters is not necessarily neutral. Just listen to the reporters talking about politics, or go back and replay some of the budget coverage from earlier today. Or do a study of how crime is reported.

Objectivity is not just about giving equal time to two sides of an argument, or standing behind a veil of ignorance to present just the facts. There is a rich tradition in journalism and media studies research and from a range of political inflections, that questions objectivity from both philosophical and empirical perspectives. The fact is that it is not working any more. There are too many unspoken and unquestioned assumptions hidden in a supposedly objective perspective on the news.

Most importantly, academic studies have shown time and time again that objectivity is about reliance on official sources and taking politicians at their word and not going to the slightly less mainstream source. It’s also about the unconscious and subliminal “free market” ideology that underpins not only Karl’s argument, but also most journalism that’s practiced today.

In a sense, there’s no room for neutrality in journalism – at least on big stories of political importance.

But don’t just take me at my word, do your own reading and research, like I have done: Philip Seib seems to recognise my point too, arguing that journalists who claim to have “no interest in outcomes” are “disingenuous”.

As a practical matter, objectivity is an illusion; choices about what to cover, as well as how to cover, are not made in a moral vacuum. Why bother doing journalism if there is no intent to provide the information that will affect how people think about things?

(The Global Journalist, p.8)

And so to Mr Trotter

Neither of them is going to like me saying this, but Karl du Fresne and Chris Trotter have a lot in common when it comes to actually (mis)understanding what happens in the journalism classroom. As Karl noted approvingly in his original post on Sean’s paper:

Phelan also addresses himself to a column in which my fellow Dom Post contributor Chris Trotter argued that formal journalism training, as opposed to the on-the-job training of the old days, stifles what might be called the gut journalistic instinct. “Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get ‘C’s. Rule-followers are rewarded with ‘A’s,” Trotter wrote. In this I believe he was spot on, as he is often is when he gets away from his nostalgic yearning for the heroic working-class struggle.

In fact, Chris had a muddled approach to understanding the actual teaching of journalism that goes on in most journalism schools. While it’s obvious to say that they’re all different and that there are ideological variations across the political spectrum amongst both staff and students, it is totally untrue to say that “Rule-followers are rewarded with ‘A’s and that “unorthodox ideas” are marked down.

You see, Karl and Chris approach the issue from opposite ends of the spectrum, but they meet in a big hole they’ve dug themselves, right in the middle of the road.

It’s worthwhile reproducing the whole quote from Chris Trotter that Sean uses in his article, then I can explain what the issues really are:

The owners and managers of our daily newspapers, like so many employers, are routinely astounded by the failure of our tertiary institutions – including, unfortunately, our journalism schools – to turn out graduates who can think independently and write clearly. Even more worrying… is that so few of these graduates have anything they want to say. Journalism has always been a political vocation. The first newspapers were highly partisan affairs, financed (and often also written) by individuals who wished to influence local and/or national affairs…. Think of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – owner of The Sun and Fox News….The idea that journalists should always strive for “objectivity” would be laughed at by such men. Sadly, anyone entering today’s journalism school with Mr. Murdoch’s partisan spirit would soon have it beaten out of him by his teachers….The “professionalisation” of journalism, with its university degree courses and formal examinations, has come at the expense of what was formerly a “learn as you do” training regime run by the media itself. It may have been rough and ready, but this “on the job” education with its practical rather than theoretical emphasis, produced highly experienced journalists with a shrewd understanding of what motivated the prime news drivers in their communities. The state’s takeover of journalism training, while relieving the news media of its in-house training costs, has tended to favour theory over practice. Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get “C”s. Rule-followers are rewarded with “A”s. Hardhitting and crusading journalism struggles to emerge from this environment. (Trotter, 2007).

This is a jumble of ideas, populism and misconceptions casually stirred together to produce an unpalatable stew.

Take the first contradiction between Chris and Karl’s positions:

“…the failure of our tertiary institutions – including, unfortunately, our journalism schools – to turn out graduates who can think independently and write clearly.”

This is a complaint that we don’t turn out independent thinkers that is supported by the idea that “anyone entering today’s journalism school with Mr. Murdoch’s partisan spirit would soon have it beaten out of him by his teachers”.

Yet, it is precisely this kind of critical independent thinking that Karl du Fresne wants excised from the journalism curriculum. Karl doesn’t want any kind of critical examination of what journalism is, could be or should be. He wants all that gone in favour of technical training only. Karl has initiated a rogue’s alliance here on the principle of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. I’m not sure Chris would agree with this position.

The second point is also interesting in what it tells you about the ideas of both Karl and Chris:

“The professionalisation of journalism, with its university degree courses and formal examinations, has come at the expense of what was formerly a “learn as you do” training regime run by the media itself. It may have been rought and ready, but this “on the job” education with its practical rather than theoretical emphasis, produced highly experienced journalists with a shrewd understanding of what motivated the prime news drivers in their communities.”

At this point you can see why Karl thinks that, despite his leftist tendencies, Chris Trotter is a good bloke. You see, from this statement Karl can take some comfort in his anti-intellectual stance. The problem is that Chris Trotter did not, when he wrote this column, actually know or understand anything of what we do in the journalism curriculum. He makes a series of bold allegations without any real evidence.

We do not over-emphasise theory in our courses, not even in universities. There is a healthy mix of practical and theoretical work and the majority of it is based around practical work in reporting, writing, interviewing and technical skills in print, broadcast and online media. In their final year at AUT, for example, journalism majors in our Bachelor of Communication Studies degree take one theory paper and seven journalism papers.

Sure, they have to write the occasional essay about ethics and they have to sit a media law test and they also do tests in accuracy, grammar and maths. However, there are no “formal exams” and there is not a “theoretical emphasis”, unless of course you mean the theory of shorthand, which is also tested several times in the students’ final year.

But no mind, a curmudgeon like Karl can jump on this second-hand emotion and, without bothering to find out what’s actually in the curriculum, or bothering to have the courtesy to ask any of us what our politics might be, he can presume that we a bunch of Marxist theory-wankers. The fact is that all of us, in my experience, who teach journalism for a living, have had good careers in the news media. In New Zealand, ess than a handful hold PhDs (though thankfully the number is growing) and none of us ram our own views down the throats of students.

In fact, we encourage critical thinking and engagement with the media issues of the day. We insist that they listen to Mediawatch and that they follow debates and arguments about the future of journalism in these troubled times and we ask them to make up their own minds about ethical issues.We teach them to discover and justify their own views over time.

This last bit of Chris’s piece is the most muddled, but I’m not sure it’s such music to Karl’s ears:

The state’s takeover of journalism training, while relieving the news media of its in-house training costs, has tended to favour theory over practice. Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get “C”s. Rule-followers are rewarded with “A”s. Hardhitting and crusading journalism struggles to emerge from this environment.

The “state” has not taken over journalism training. Much of it takes place in publicly-funded educational institutions, but so too does the training of engineers, doctors, teachers, psychologists, lawyers, architects, nurses and food technicians. Why should journalism be any different. But Chris’s point about “relieving the media of its in-house training costs” is another argument all together.

If you read Nadia Elsaka’s scholarly (don’t worry Karl, the language is even simple enough for a curmudgeon like you) treatise on the “professionalisation” of journalism education in New Zealand, you will see that what happened here mirrors what also happened in many countries in the early 20th century. Newspaper proprietors wanted their reporters to have a quality education. The earliest journalism curricula were totally academic and theory focused. Some included Latin and most included philosophy and literature.

Why was this move embraced by news bosses? Well the most convincing argument I’ve read is that journalists were getting bolshie and delving into the Marxist literature and working class political  movement. It’s no coincidence that journalists’ unions were also formed around this time. In the US it was the age of muckrakers and independent journalistic investigations into big oil and the Chicago meat markets. This did not suit the class interests of the proprietors or their cronies in the oil and meat business, so they shunted their reporters into university courses to get the rough edges and leftish sentiment stripped off them.

I know Karl, this is not what you wanted to hear, but take your fingers out of your ears and stop with the “la la la-ing”. You’re disturbing the goldfish.

The shift to a more technical form of journalism education really only began much later in the 1960s and you can read all about this, in the New Zealand context, in Dr Thomas’s excellent thesis The making of a journalist: The New Zealand way.

And yes, Chris is right,  it is cheaper for the “free market” if journalists are trained at their own – not the state’s – expense. Let’s not forget university graduates leave their education with a huge debt that takes years to re-pay.

The final point though, that is insulting in its imputation, is that we favour some sort of orthodoxy and punish free-thinking students.

Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get “C”s. Rule-followers are rewarded with “A”s. Hardhitting and crusading journalism struggles to emerge from this environment.

Chris and Karl can’t have it both ways. If we’re not teaching critical thinking, but we favour theory over practice and we’re a bunch of unreconstructured leftovers from the 1960s (unlike Karl and Chris who are both…well, you get the point) where the hell are any “unorthodox” ideas likely to come from? Surely from the Marxist hangovers.

So, is the point that we only give our fellow-travellers ‘A’ grades and the bolshie libertarians and free-market radicals only get ‘C’s? That’s so far from the mark it’s laughable. And why are we getting the blame for the lack of crusading journalism?

Believe me, that’s all that a significant number of our students want to do. The self-selected choices boil down to a couple: sports, fashion or being the next John Pilger. Some even fancy themselves as being able to remake the Gonzo dream.

And you know what I say to them all: “Good luck, work hard while you’re here, pursue your dreams and when you leave, don’t let old avowed curmudgeons like Karl du Fresne spoil your day.”

I won’t go into the reasons why investigative journalism is lacking, but suffice to say, it’s not our fault. The economics of the free-market in ideas has something to do with it and so to does the hegemony of reality TV and “personality” news. Nicky Hager talks about the corporatisation of the public sphere and the sickening amounts of spin being digested by all of us, and he’s right.  If you want to know more about that go and read some good books.

  • Nick Davies – Flat Earth News
  • Derek Underwood – When MBAs rule the newsroom
  • Neil Henry – American Carnival
  • Robert McChesney – Communication Revolution

And check out the latest journals too, Journalism Studies, Journalism, Australian Journalism Review and our very own Pacific Journalism Review.

The debates about objectivity and the future of journalism are alive and well too all over the blogosphere and even an old curmudgeon like Karl can work out how to use the interwebs. After all, even if he grumbles about it, he does have a blog.

I’d like to leave you with one point that Sean made in his article which sparked this whole argument:

one doesn’t have to look very far to point to the persistence of a delimiting conception of the relationship between the journalistic field and the academic field which, despite the incoherence of the different journalistic discourses, remains embedded in the assumption that ‘theory’ – however it is to be codified – is the enemy of practice.

For the benefit of Karl and any dribblejaws who have bothered to read this far (the rest of you I’m sure have no trouble, so sorry) let me roughly translate this.

The line which separates most old school practitioners from the emerging scholarly study of journalism is the hostility of the former to theory. This can be characterised in the binary incantation:  “theory” is the “enemy of practice”.

Now I know that not all working journos feel this way. We even have some who, by exercising their freewill, have come to a decision to study for a Masters degree or PhD and I know that most journalism educators don’t feel this way either. Let me just remind you that most of us on the teaching side have been in the newsroom and we interact with our students every day as editors and colleagues in journalistic endeavour. Te Waha Nui, for example is an award-winning publication, both in print and online. In fact, during semester TWN online is updated daily with news stories produced by students working in a real newsroom environment and supervised by real journalists (who also happen to be lecturers and researchers). So Karl’s characterisation of us and the suggestion that we don’t know what journalism really means is just a demonstration of his own prejudice and ignorance.

There is no wall between theory and practice; just as there is no wall between the hack and the hackademic. The whole point of education is to demonstrate this. If you don’t understand the theory of shorthand, you can’t reach 80 WPM. If you don’t understand in theory how journalism works, you’ll never master the inverted pyramid, let alone “crusading journalism”. If you aren’t willing to participate in the ongoing discussion about what journalism is and what it should or could be, you won’t ever be a good reporter.

Ensuring our graduates’ critical engagement with the craft is essential to the future of the news industry. After all, one day this year’s graduates will be in charge of newsrooms in New Zealand and around the world. They will shape the future just as curmudgeonly Karl did back in the golden age.

They will have a golden age of their own, despite the best efforts of some to turn back the clock and hold back the river.

This is not the last word on this. Till next time.

3 Responses to Old habitus die hard, diehards just get older. Goldfish bite back

  1. [...] no joy so far.  For a very rich and full dissection of Karl’s efforts, here is my colleague Martin Hirst.  I don’t have much to add to Martin’s comments except that I do wish people like Karl [...]

  2. Greg Treadwell says:

    Here’s Robert Fisk – interviewed by a NZ student journalist – on objectivity:

    Journalism school – oh, you’ve always got to be 50/50. Half your report has to be on one side and half on the other, right? Well, that’s okay if you’re covering a football match, or a public inquiry into a new highway around Auckland. But the Middle East is not a football match. It is a massive human tragedy.
    You must ask why [an incident occurred] and most journalists don’t want to. They want to ask how and who. And then they say, ‘We will let the reader decide’. But the reader is not bloody well there.
    Look, I think we should be objective and unbiased – on the side of those that suffer. That’s our job.

  3. [...] This is a remarkable turn-around. Just two weeks ago, Karl wrote a piece that appeared on his blog with the headline Why leftist academics hate the media. It was a strident attack on people like me who talk about McChesney in flattering tones. My reply is here: Old habitus die hard… [...]

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