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Unverifiable

28 Feb

A lot has happened since last I posted here.  I try to keep this focused on culture, and not on politics outside of cultural issues. As readers know, we’ve been kind of hit over the head the past few months. How this has affected culture is beginning to show more as cracks in the foundation.

Today I was listening to the normally great WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, whose local show in New York covers all sorts of issues and local politics.  He did an interview segment with writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon about how parents should or can introduce their children to political issues in these troubled times. Lehrer is also one of the hosts of National Public Radio’s new call-in program, Indivisible, which promises to get people talking outside of their bubble and in the words of WNYC President Laura Walker, “find common ground.” The way that the show is run, and indeed the ultimate direction of today’s interview to me underscored the failure of American liberalism and, in particular, that failure within the press, to address what has happened and is happening in this country and the world.

Lehrer asked about striking the balance between educating children on the significance of the current moment without telling children what to think, or letting them make up their own minds as independent thinkers.  Although I was taken aback by the explicit assumption that parents are not allowed to educate their children about ways of thinking critically, or that taking them to a demonstration might infringe on their rights to think for themselves (full disclosure here: one of the best things my grandmother ever did for me was take me around her apartment building to get signatures for her anti-Vietnam War petition to her senators), Solomon made the good point that parents can reframe the discussion away from telling kids whom to vote for, and towards the implicit moral distinctions made between love and hate, respect and bigotry, inclusion and exclusion, racism, and so on, assuming we choose to live more moral lives.  Like a good liberal, you don’t tell people, even your children what to think, you let them make up their own minds, but you try to instill in them a sense of your own morality or, as Lehrer interpreted it, the difference between good and evil (even as we’ve seen a wedge driven between different takes on “good and evil” in the new national discourse).

Some parents called in and made some good points and asked good questions, including one woman whose 11-year-old son turned to her and said, “They’re all crooks, Mom, even Bernie Sanders.”  (The whole 17-minute interview segment is worth listening to.)  And this to me is why liberalism is losing.  First, on this level, when people get disgusted with the entire political process, and turn away from all candidates as equally bad, we know that benefits autocrats and harms participatory democracy, by definition, really. So low voter turnouts are not politically neutral; they benefit right-wing candidates.  Turning people against politicians – a big part of the current rhetoric of the last political campaign – and encouraging them to sit home does not have symmetrical results for both ends of the political spectrum.  It disproportionately harms those who run on more transparent, egalitarian, inclusive platforms that emphasize sharing of resources, citizen and informed participation, and global sustainability.

But at no point during this interview segment did anyone mention that parents, like the press, have a responsibility to tell listeners, whether children or adults, how to assess fact from fiction, truth from lies. There is much in political culture that is based on “opinion” (whatever that means, which is a topic for another day). But reasonable actions, regardless of one’s morality, cannot be made on the basis of misinformation, whether deliberate or not, or lack of information. And parents, as well as the press and teachers, have the solemn responsibility to teach the young how (and why!) to be better informed or when something is an absolute falsehood.  Truth.  Truth matters.  The American press did not do this until too little, too late, for the most part.  The New York Times and Washington Post seem to have woken up to this now, and some of the Times’s recent editorials, such as this one on immigration, are model summaries of critical thinking and the application of facts to analyze and undermine lies, deliberate lies by our leaders. You can still be neutral while denouncing lies and misinformation.  There may not be one absolute truth, and facts (and their ramifications) may be debatable, but we can’t allow them to be tossed aside as if they don’t matter and just believe the fantasies that tell us what confirms our prejudices. We may not be able to determine with certainty how facts relate to causes and consequences. But the search for that connection is vital to our survival.

Unfortunately, whenever I try to listen to Indivisible (which I feel like calling Unlistenable or Insufferable), it feels as though there were a directive on high from the NPR management never, ever to correct callers’ statements, no matter how blatantly false or misinformed.  Invariably within the first couple of calls, a listener repeats some idea that is demonstrably, empirically false. And the hosts – seasoned NPR journalists – let these falsehoods not only sit there unchallenged, but even gain credibility as they are further distributed over the airwaves.  I’m not saying the callers are unintelligent, or uneducated, or that my opinion is more valid than theirs. We can disagree when we are all speaking from a position of being informed.  But there are times when they express beliefs about social conditions and historical events that are flat-out wrong.  It’s not politically correct to say that, and the shorthand way of dismissing this is to say it is “elitist.”  Yet somehow it would be hard to imagine a patient opining about how to conduct surgery and the doctor having to follow the patient’s instructions because all opinions are equally valid. For example, when people base their opinions about immigration on the belief that immigrants are “streaming” across the Mexico-U.S. border, that crime waves are higher because of immigrants from Mexico or the seven banned countries or simply that crime is at a 50-year high, and not a low, or that Obama increased the debt more than any other President – all measurably false, to remove any doubt – they are drawing conclusions and promoting remedies based on information and ideas that are completely erroneous. Aside from the moral dimension, it’s aimless to discuss whether building a wall is the best response if the so-called need for one can’t even be demonstrated in reality.  If the press isn’t there to report the truth, and to call out misinformation in an adversarial way, who is?

But there remains this need for liberals – and dare I say it, white liberals – to “find common ground” and be reassured.  One problem is, it’s really hard to find common ground when you understand the policies of those people who disagree with you are actually going to cause you harm, if not kill you. This is a loud and clear message coming from Black America right now, whether in the form of two essential and devastating documentaries this season, I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, in the need for discussions of reparations as voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or in the critique of broadcasters like Tavis Smiley, or on a less famous or public level, the lived experience of my students. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the ideal of “common ground” can’t fully be realized while “systemic racism” is a dominant cultural order, let alone one on the rise.

So when Andrew Solomon ends his interview by telling parents that it’s important to avoid heightening their kids’ anxiety, by telling them that things may get worse for the world under the current presidential administration, but “we’re going to be ok,” that to me seems less a prescription for lessening anxiety than a recommendation to teach your children how to practice denial.  That may be not only how we got into this mess, but what will keep us from getting beyond it. It may make for nice parenting, but it is neither good journalism nor sound advice for the future of the planet. If you really believe you’re going to be ok in four years, you’re in pretty good shape, comfortable, sociologically speaking. We have to start by admitting that there’s a good chance most of us are not going to be ok – if you know anything about climate change and its consequences, which is to say, science – and that catastrophes like nuclear holocaust, genocide, widespread gun violence, and ruptured oil pipelines that can contaminate the water supply for millions and wipe out entire indigenous communities, are preventable. But that’s only the case if we come together to start naming the truth or short of that, seeking it out, and cease ignoring facts while our press looks the other way rather than confront dominant falsehoods as is their job.

The Decimation of democracy’s critical class

13 Mar

There are two social institutions whose independence and viability are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and which are vulnerable to structural dismantling in a way that take at least a generation to repair.  They are vital for a democracy precisely because they muster the ability to criticize, question, and push back against Power, against the walls behind which government, business, military, or religious institutions exercise control. These sectors are the press and higher education. They operate, outside the walls, not as isolated voices but as collaborations of research and revelation, networks of thousands of individual voices operating as a chorus with shared commitment to uncovering and approaching the truth and then disseminating their findings to readers, students, and other colleagues.  (And I’m under no illusions any kind of uniformly enlightened academia or journalism – there can always be reactionaries and hacks in any large tent.  But then again the complexity of those sectors make such a spectrum possible.)

It is kind of accepted worldwide that a free press is absolutely essential for that reason, though it is not as widely accepted about universities in that kind of constitutional sense because there are those who believe universities are just for the teaching and mastery of job skills, not for the independent voice of social critique.  After all, freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution, though academic freedom is not.

The press does not exist merely to record and transmit the official story.  Universities do not exist merely to provide job training for future workers who will serve government or business without being called on to make decisions.  The basis of living in a democracy is the right to participate in decisions about the community’s future, and the basis of being a moral and effective worker is the ability to have a say in decisions that affect the corporation as well as the surrounding environment (natural as well as human).  The essence of good decision-making is not just critical thinking but also having a well-developed body of knowledge about the issues before us, knowledge that can be complex but one that includes valid evidence and perspectives, rather than ignoring them.

In this context, it is frightening to read, in a very moving investigative article by Dale Maharidge, that the number of full-time reporters for daily print newspapers in the U.S. has dropped 40% in the past nine years, and that rate may accelerate. (This article is really worth reading, devastating, and was the inspiration for this post in the first place.)  As Maharidge makes clear, it’s not just a question that daily print newspapers are being replaced with Internet journalism, but that older reporters with long and local historical knowledge are being let go while inexperienced younger reporters are stepping in. Second, the web-based news is more likely to be national or global rather than local, and even worse, as Maharidge contends, more likely to be to be centered on celebrity and what is entertaining, rather than on what has implications in people’s lives.  But perhaps most devastating is that this new generation of freelance journalists is being asked to work or write for little or no pay, or at best are paid only for the stories they can sell.  Certainly only in the rarest cases are Internet reporters well-compensated and receiving benefits, although recent unionization at Gawker and other news websites is an encouraging start.  At the same time, the type of stories being covered are changing from local and hard news that require interviewing and digging, to the kind of pieces that are either unquestioning repeats of political declarations by our leaders, or that are entertaining (including fear-mongering as a form of horror-show entertainment).

A 40% cut in practicing, full-time personnel would be devastating to any industry.  Not just for the lives and families affected, but for the loss of output, historical knowledge and knowledge of the craft by the elders in the field, and for the inevitable rush to the center among the survivors.  Picture a fishing vessel facing waves crashing over the sides and sweeping the crew overboard.  Those who want to survive will run towards the safer center and cower, rather than ever risk standing near the edge or exposing themselves to risk of any kind.

That kind of sizable cut would also imply that even assuming the nature of news stories were to stay the same, there would be that many fewer stories exposed by the press because there were more topics than the remaining writers could accommodate.  Imagine a 40% cut in the number of stories about climate change, for example, or remaining reporters now having to cover, say, the environment as well as another beat.  They won’t be able to produce as much, investigate as deeply or broadly, and will also have to master multiple fields with professional sophistication in order to interpret what they are being told. (I gnash my teeth sometimes when I hear even NPR reporters who can’t get the details right in immigration law reporting. And we are all still waiting for just one reporter with evidence to confront Ted Cruz on his oft-repeated claim that Obamacare has cost thousands of jobs.)  Put another way, instead of 50 reporters on the ground covering a war, now there would be 30, or there might be 50 but they have to cover more countries and more conflicts, and obviously can’t be two places at once. Stringers are constrained by having to write what will sell, rather than having the financial support of a newspaper to pay for their livelihood while they dig.  In every case, depth as well as the inductive and experienced knowledge from being on the ground are all sacrificed, and can’t be easily recovered. 

Once the business plan of daily newspapers and the field of journalism in general shifts to such an extent that such a high percentage of practitioners are lost, it’s hard to imagine the equal and opposite reaction on the other end of this.  In other words, the proverbial pendulum may not in fact exist and there won’t be a time when suddenly there’s  40% growth in jobs in declining industries like print media.  Newspapers are shutting down much faster than they are starting up. After all, even if there is a massive rehiring, it will take at least a decade for all the new hires to begin to acquire the kind of experience that presumably makes specialists wiser and more able to develop a network of sources.  (Personal pet peeve: there is nothing I hate more than random “person-on-the-street” sound bites, to get the impressions of either totally uninformed or prejudiced people, and usually just one at that, on the air, especially in lieu of interviews with informed parties on multiple sides of an issue.  But I will return to this in another post.)

The same goes for universities, especially researchers and writers.  Much more has been written on the shift over the past twenty years from full-time faculty, engaged in research and writing as well as teaching, to adjuncts hired to teach only, and at such low wages that they are forced to take on extraordinary teaching loads to make ends meet.

Universities are famous worldwide as crucibles of dissent and of research and science (no contradiction there).  And while teaching the young – not just teaching material but teaching the right to question – can be an exercise in freedom, the time and resources to conduct research is at least equally important.  It’s the R&D division of democracies, if you will, and what company can innovate and respond without investment in R&D?  Wipe this sector out and you wipe out an entire intellectual class (like it or not, for millennia every complex society has had its scholar class).  If governments and church denominations can control universities, especially the time and liberty to conduct research, as well as what is taught and what is disseminated to the public, then the critical potential of universities can be circumscribed.  In its most extreme form, this state or military control can lead to the assassination of university leaders, faculty, and students (for example, the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989).  But there are more subtle and systemic ways as well, for example by tying research funding to military and business ends, cutting government funding, and most recently, filling boards with figures from business, not academia. As many have pointed out, this leads to restructuring the faculty so that the majority of classes are taught by underpaid, contingent workers with neither job security nor research portfolios, rather than comfortably-paid professors with lifetime appointments, institutional memory, and the ability to work with students on social and political issues without fear of losing their jobs.  I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said and documented in more detail by others, both the “adjunctification” of universities, as well as the retreat from enlightenment, if you will, described by Jane Jacobs as well as, most recently, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

In about 25 years, the percent of college courses in America taught by full-timers has dropped from about two-thirds to 30%.   The number of full-time faculty has not expanded with the increase in the population attending college, meaning that student-faculty ratios have increased as have faculty teaching loads.  The emphasis is less on the productive work of professional intellectuals as scholars, and more on providing credits for students to obtain their degrees, and in fields in which they are more likely to be able to pay off their debts, because tuition has outpaced inflation and so college is actually harder to afford now.

As I said, others have written about this more than I, and even I have written here about some of this.  But here’s the significant point: in one generation, American universities have changed to a business model that favors training, employment and paying off debt (for alumni) and part-time, contingent work over lifetime investment in faculty to do work including research, writing, and occupying a critical role in our society. Adjuncts can be outstanding teachers but their job function does not permit them the time or resources to be researchers or voices of conscience. And then, will it even be possible for current graduate students and undergraduates to find full-time careers as scholars and professors?  Some will, but how many – and who – will be sacrificed in the name of competition?  (A little bit like the journalists who are getting laid off.)  My heart broke for the young poli. sci. major from Florida who told Hillary Clinton in the Miami debate that she wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.  Sure, we need people like that, but will there be enough chairs in the market for her?  Or will she invest 5-10 years of her life only to get jobs that pay, total, $25,000 a year with no health insurance?

As for the research itself, why wouldn’t you want to be creating positions for more medical researchers, more sociological researchers, more science researchers, to address the most pressing problems of our time?  After all, if you want to find a cure for, say, colon cancers or dementia, why wouldn’t you want to have more researchers working on this and involving more young people in the research and showing them the ropes?  It’s simple common sense that 200 scientists working on a problem or treatment are more likely to come up with useful results than just 120 could.

It’s going to take a lot more national imagination to figure out a way to restore that intellectual class, including a restructuring of education funding  so that tuition doesn’t become the main economic lifeblood of every college and university.  That not only makes students feel they are “consumers,” it also means there is less money to invest in projects that may or may not produce significant short-term results. Such a renaissance of what universities can achieve for democracy and humanity is years away.  Same thing with rebuilding the journalism industry.  It’s not just local print dailies, but the kinds of stories and reporting, and as a by-product, civic involvement they were able to support.  That means getting readers to be interested in learning what is going on around them, and not just parroting and reinforcing their prejudices or following their favorite celebrities (including news personalities) as news.  Yes, the next generation could take this on, with the help of current (tenured) academics and experienced reporters – if they can find the money to support such work.

Alarmingly, we’re at a historical period when we really don’t have time.  The press and universities cannot be absent at what all evidence suggests is a crossroads in our decisions about how to handle climate change and whether or not to continue extracting fossil fuels.  Unlike past generations, this generation has the unique timing to come along when the decisions we make will affect habitability for the next few centuries, if not the fate of humanity itself.  We don’t have twenty years for universities and the press to come up with a critical agenda of questions and answers to allow us to find solutions and grill our elected leaders to do the same.  The disappearance of universities and reporters as significant critical voices is coming at the worst possible time, and we haven’t even found a way – or the political will – to begin to reverse the trend.

 

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