Posted in Journalism by Chris Burkett
Listen to Representative Mo Brooks' response to a question from MSNBC's Contessa Brewer. Then think about the real significance of her question, which reflects the Progressive belief that one must be an "expert" to hold valid opinions.
Contessa Brewer? Who is she? Matter of fact, who cares.
She is a standard-issue TV news commentator except that she is cuter than most. But she clearly does not have a degree in economics, nor does she do her homework. (Maybe her degree is in Communication and I wonder what "high honors" are in that field. This clip is all I have seen of the interview, but I wonder if the whole thing went as badly for her.
The irony about journalism and expertise is that the journalism schools have stressed method as expertise, but are ignorant of anything else outside of that narrow mindset. Dedication to "getting the facts" is useless without understanding of the fundamental principles and constitutional structure of American government, not to mention economics, morality, religion, the arts, etc., In other words, any reasonably intelligent persons can do journalism as long as they adopt the right pose as "neutral observers." They aren't happy with the limitations of that pose so they slide over into subtle and not-so-subtle advocacy of the political viewpoint to which they have not given very much thought and which they take entirely for granted.
I am told that is true in the field of education, too. I used to hear that from my friends in the MAHG program. Those friends were teachers who knew or sought to know more thoroughly the subjects they were teaching. That's why I like them so much.
One example of the other kind: I taught in a small high school with a teacher who said he was trained to teach anything, although his certification was in Physical Education. "As long as I have a textbook, I'm fine." He wasn't. As in journalism, method is nothing without informed content: nothing beats knowledge.
Do you have any examples of journalists who actually are or were "neutral observers"? My father tells me that when I was young, I was asked who my heroes were and I answered "Chet Huntley and David Brinkley". Dad was delighted; he thought they were always right. I figure that's why I thought they were heroic. My perception at the time was that they handled information with care and intelligence. Maybe they didn't and were as slanted as anyone today, but if so, they were slanted in a way that seemed straight to me, because my dad said they were right.
But who is worth listening to today?
Interesting that you should bring up Huntley and Brinkley. As a young Goldwater supporter, I came to loathe that NBC program, no less than the CBS and ABC versions. I remember that Brinkley openly mocked the U.S. policy of non-recognition of the Communist China because "it was there." Huntley's facial and expressions and tone of voice indicated how he felt about Goldwater. My dad got upset with me because I contradicted or criticized H & B, who he just thought were giving the news.
At the 1964 Republican convention, President Eisenhower got the biggest ovation when he denounced "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators." Left wing journalists acted as if persecution was in store for them, but in those days there were no alternative networks, and the "Fairness Doctrine" had effectively shut down conservative talk radio. (The requirement that critics had a right to reply convinced broadcasters to save themselves money, time and trouble by ending "controversial" programming.)
Years later, when Brinkley at ABC made time for conservative commentators like George Will on his Sunday morning This Week progam, he was seen in a new light. But I remember the younger Brinkley, and he was indistinguishable from all the rest of them. Only Howard K. Smith at ABC dissented from the party line in those days.
See, I needed that perspective. I had to go look up the Fairness Doctrine (1949-1987) because while I remembered the controversy of its repeal, I never knew the where or when of its origin. It must have influenced how my whole generation saw/heard the news. And it must have been born of the myth of objective journalism. The Murrow school used tone and inflection -- I can remember Chet Huntley's delicately raised eyebrow -- we watched the news at dinnertime and those guys were part of the evening meal experience. Did they understand that they were in our homes with us, bringing the world into an intimacy with our little families? They were the autocrats at our dinner table.
My dad, at 84, scolds me for forsaking the TV experience which he thinks of as enculturating. It probably is, which is as good a reason to avoid it as I can think of. He sees its purpose as effecting the "giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests." and removing the cause of faction.
That's exactly it, that bit about "giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests." The journalists are today's theoretic politicians, as I discuss in the Afterword for "Taking Journalism Seriously." They presume to rise above mere partisanship for a clear view of "public affairs" (as opposed to mere politics). Of course, their idealism degenerated into cyncism, neither of which is of practical value for a good citizen seeking to do his or her duty.
Journalists will never be neutral brokers of the news. The only real hope is pluralism in media outlets (which talk radio and Fox News have gone a long way to provide). The balance is in outlets rather than within them.
Speaking of how not just journalism but television in general can provide common opinions, passions and interests, see LBJ's statements on signing the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967 at http://www.cpb.org/aboutpb/act/remarks.html.
Johnson says the use of Public Broadcasting must be apolitical, and should "help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens." But it must also be "long on enlightened leadership." How these are compatible is beyond me, unless the role of enlightened leadership is to define the objects of public debate, i.e., to proscribe what is acceptable or not acceptable for public debate. So long as one stays within these appropriate boundaries (that is, agrees to certain common opinions) one may be "apolitical." To venture outside of them is to be partisan and biased. Journalists in general have taken on the task of providing this "enlightened leadership."
And by the way, I seem to recall that the "Greek marketplace" of ideas was not all that open. They killed Socrates, after all, for challenging the traditionally accepted opinions of Athens.
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