As our journalistic world implodes, civic-minded folk naturally look to the academy as a potential savior, if not for newspapers per se, then for the collection and dissemination of the kind of news upon which the health of our democracy depends. In this spirit, the Chronicle Review recently published a symposium of nearly 17,000 words in which various experts and interested parties offered suggestions as to how universities might help fill the void left by the downsizing or outright disappearance of almost all of our most important journalistic institutions.
It’s about time this conversation began. The newspaper business model is obsolete and unrepairable. Absent the possibility of profit, universities and foundations are just about the only places that have the funds, the interest and the potential skills to support both the watchdog and informational missions of American journalism. And yet, one can hardly be optimistic about the prospects for such an alliance. While journalism and academia share similar goals, they go about their respective tasks in a nearly contradictory fashion. In the first place, university faculties do tend to be politically liberal, even radical. (What conservatives falsely charge about journalists is actually true of academics.) But university administrations are decidedly conservative when it comes to their own interests. Anything that upsets the alumni–the funding base–is bound to be unpopular. Hence, any honest attempt to report the news in an unvarnished fashion is unlikely to find favor.
Intellectually, journalists and academics are also in conflict. Academics tend to know a great deal about their research topics but offer extremely narrow and carefully hedged conclusions; journalists, alas, take the opposite tack. Sanford Ungar, a journalist turned academic turned administrator, writes in the Chronicle Review of the unease he felt teaching journalism at a university where faculty in more traditional disciplines “got where they were by engaging in lofty research and careful thinking, while I seemed to them to have spent a good part of my life trying to distill wisdom from anecdotes. I knew that they secretly envied my willingness to draw conclusions on the basis of observations, documents, and interviews, but I didn’t dare tell them that I worried sometimes that my journalistic colleagues and I, for all our seeming cocksureness, were on frighteningly thin ice.”
I’ve shuttled between academic and journalistic institutions my entire adult life–as well as think-tank way stations in between–and I’ve frequently been fascinated by the fundamentally conflicted manner in which each profession treats the concept of truth. Academics generally test their truths with relevant counterarguments and footnoted references that can be examined by those with opposing views. Journalists, on the other hand, usually treat anything as true if someone in a position of ostensible authority is willing to say it, even anonymously (and if no one is going to sue over it). The actual accuracy of anyone’s statement, particularly if that person is a public official, is often deemed irrelevant. If no evidence is available for an argument a journalist wishes to include in a story, then up pop weasel words such as “it seems” or “some claim” to enable its inclusion, no matter how shaky its foundation in reality. What’s more, too many journalists believe it is not within their job description to adjudicate between competing claims of truth. Sure, there are “two sides”–and only two sides–to every story, according to the rules of objectivity. But if both sides wish to deploy lies and other forms of deliberate deception for their own purposes, well, that’s somebody else’s problem.
In the main, with the help of my fact-checkers, I’ve tried to uphold academic rather than journalistic standards in my work. But one frequently runs into problems in this regard that go beyond one’s own laziness or lack thereof. First, the world moves too fast for such scrupulousness. Accurate information can take decades to acquire and examine, but politicians, corporations and individuals need to act in the moment. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, an awful lot of “news” loses its value when it ceases to be “new.”
No less problematic, however, is the cavalier attitude that some in the academy have demonstrated in recent decades toward easily observable truths. I attended a conference of intellectual historians at the CUNY Graduate Center recently, where the keynoter, James Livingston of Rutgers University, was riffing on the alleged brilliance of the Matrix and Terminator films. Asked about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, he denounced it as “a lie” because, he said, its portrayal of the American soldiers as decent human beings contradicted the message they received in training to lay aside their human feelings in the service of their military mission. I inquired from the audience whether it had any bearing on the issue that, while Livingston had never witnessed any bomb squad operations in Iraq, The Hurt Locker‘s screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal, had written an eyewitness report on the bomb techs’ lives from the field. As Boal told Alissa Quart of the Columbia Journalism Review, “The milieu and the specifics of the job of being a bomb tech came out of my firsthand observation. There is no way I could have written that screen play without having been to Baghdad and had a nuts-and-bolts view of how bomb techs do their job. This was not public information. There was no other source material to draw on in terms of research.” Livingston responded to my question with an irrelevant story about someone he knew whose son had enlisted in the military. His concept of “truth” insofar as I could discern it was entirely ideological.
I’m not saying universities can’t help with the crisis in a variety of small but significant ways. They can and they should. But we cannot rely on them to replace the honest, disinterested, fact-based reporting structures disintegrating before our very eyes. And so the search continues.