The comical world of Karl du Fresne – “Dr Phelan, I presume!”

I have published Sean’s commentary on another exchange with Karl du Fresne because we (Sean and I) think it is important to keep this discussion alive. It began some time ago now with a column by Karl in response to an academic article by Sean. You can find all the backtrack links at the end of this post.

I am happy to host other responses here too. Ethical Martini is part of the historical record for these things and, besides, I’m nearly finished with the book manuscript, so I’m happy for any contributions at the moment to keep the front page fresh. I will be back to full-strength in a few weeks. My publisher wants the MS by Friday 24 July and the book, News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? will be published by Allen & Unwin in October this year (fingers crossed!).

The short piece below was originally published in the Manawatu Standard (June 13) and Nelson Mail (June 17) as a direct response to an earlier column by Karl du Fresne. Since neither paper published it at the Stuff website, I would like to thank Martin for giving me the opportunity to belatedly publish it at his blog. I will be writing more about this brouhaha in time (a more ‘theoretical’ piece, Karl, I’m sure you can’t wait), but this is my tuppence worth for now…

Sean Phelan

Massey University

The comical world of Karl du Fresne

I would like to thank the editor for giving me a chance to respond to a recent column by Karl du Fresne (May 27). I’m sure Fairfax media could run a monthly supplement of columns by people who have been unfairly maligned by a man who seems to treat curmudgeonliness as a vocation.

I was the subject of an article that has since been published at du Fresne’s blog under the headline of ‘Why leftist academics hate the media’. The article was the latest instalment in a soap opera initiated by an earlier du Fresne blog, which lampooned an academic journal article of mine that was published in 2008.

While I don’t have much space to explore the substance of that debate here, it concerns the culture of New Zealand journalism and journalism education. Du Fresne attacked my essay, partly because it critiqued an earlier article of his. He also objected to my writing style, which, in his comic assessment, was ‘written in academic jargon of the most pretentiously arcane type imaginable’.

This whole affair has been comical alright, though not for the reasons assumed by du Fresne. This is because, in his world, what constitutes ‘bizarre’ is the thought that someone might write an academic paper suggesting that the ideas of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, could be relevant to an analysis of New Zealand journalism.

For readers who haven’t heard of him, Bourdieu is associated with ‘field theory’, which is becoming increasingly popular among media and journalism researchers. This theory asserts that society is made up of a number of different ‘fields’, each of which operates according to different cultural norms. Hence we can speak of journalism and academia as two distinct social fields, since both are structured by quite different rules and expectations.

Du Fresne may never have read Bourdieu. But that doesn’t discourage him from dismissing Bourdieu as one of the ‘usual [leftist] suspects’ on the basis of a five minute Google search. What’s more, du Fresne is quite convinced that most New Zealanders will find these ideas just as ‘peculiar’ and ‘obnoxious’ as he does.

Now, I’m not sure what the rest of you make of this, and, unlike du Fresne, I won’t claim to speak for you. But I’m pretty confident that most newspaper readers would be open-minded enough to realise that we may as well close down our universities now if they had to comply with the repressive dictates of people like du Fresne.  His reaction is essentially that of a scared child, who lashes out at anything that is different from their perception of ‘normal’.

The irony here is that du Fresne’s denunciation of me was in response to my suggestion that there is an intellectually repressive element in the New Zealand journalism culture. There’s hardly any need to make a counter-argument, therefore, since he himself does such a superb job of re-illustrating my argument.

Du Fresne’s serious objective is clear nonetheless. He basically wants to shut down a discussion space that others are trying to open up. In fact, that puts it too kindly because, in casting those who disagree with him as hate-driven ideologues, he doesn’t seem to have an interest in civil debate with anyone. Well, if he thinks this strategy is going to succeed, he’s wrong. The discussion about the culture of New Zealand journalism and journalism education is going to continue. He can either engage in a genuine debate or keep repeating himself interminably. That choice is his.

For reference:

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