Journalists Rock! Journalism Sucks!

By Robert Jensen

Published in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Why media activists should love the players and hate the game · March, 2012

At an antiwar conference with predominantly left/progressive activists, I began a talk on the failures of contemporary news media by asking how the group felt about teachers. There was a resounding cheer and calls to support teachers.

Then I asked how they felt about journalists— and the reaction was mixed. Some people booed, others laughed, and one person shouted out, “I like real journalists!”

Those responses weren’t surprising, given the role of an uncritical corporate news media in building support for the United States’ imperial wars of the past decade. Journalism routinely has failed to hold power accountable, especially in foreign policy and war, sometimes in ways so irresponsible as to be complicit in warmongering, as in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But such legitimate frustration with and anger toward the news media shouldn’t undermine thoughtful analysis. We on the left need to think more carefully about our critique of corporate news media, and a comparison of journalists with teachers can be helpful.

Those of us who believe in importance of quality public education are quick to reject the demonization of teachers, recognizing it as part of a right-wing strategy to privatize the education system. But in offering that support, we need not pretend there aren’t bad teachers in our educational institutions.

I have logged 20 years as a student in public education—12 years in schools and eight in universities. In that time, I had teachers who were burned out, teachers who likely were never competent to begin with, teachers whose main interest was coaching. I had a couple of teachers who, for lack of a more graceful term, had about as much sense as a bag of hammers. Those substandard teachers were the minority; most of my teachers ranged from hard-working and decent to gifted and brilliant. But those teachers’ great work doesn’t mean we have to pretend there aren’t bad teachers.

The same can be said of journalists. I have spent my adult life working as a journalist or teaching journalism, and all that time I have also been an avid reader of journalism. I have seen incompetent, lazy and stupid journalists. But the majority of the working journalists I know, like the majority of teachers, fall somewhere between hard-working and decent to gifted and brilliant. Like teachers, most journalists are motivated by ideals about the importance of information in democracy and give it their all. I have tremendous respect for both crafts, and I like most teachers and most journalists I meet.

The term “teacher” can mean everything from the frontline K-12 public school teachers to university professors. It also arguably could include former teachers who have become administrators. When most of us express our support for teachers, we tend to think of the folks in the trenches with the heavy workloads—lots of students, lots of grading and lots of paperwork.

The intensity of my support certainly changes as we move up the ladder; I’m typically more fond of working teachers than of high-level administrators who enforce the rules and policies that I’m often opposed to.

The same can be said about the news business. I’ve worked in the trenches of journalism at mainstream newspapers and know firsthand how hard those frontline editors, reporters and photographers work. I typically am fonder of those journalists than their bosses.

The management-level editors I worked with were, at best, a mixed bag; many of them identified with the wealthy and privileged above them rather than with the ordinary people below them. The managers often enforce rules and policies I’m opposed to. Likewise, I find little to respect in most of the highly paid television talking heads, whose compensation appears to be in inverse proportion to their ability to deal intelligently with important issues.

Too often, our critique is reduced to simplistic attacks on “the media,” as if that term describes a unitary group of people. We don’t talk about public education in that manner, but rather distinguish between the different kinds of work people do in the system. We should treat journalism the same way.

This shift, from a focus on individual teachers and journalists to an analysis of the nature of schooling and journalism, should start with an assessment of the ideological framework within which teachers and journalists work. There are two pillars of that ideology in the contemporary United States—the naturalness of capitalism and the nobility of U.S. dominance in world affairs.

Journalists will report on the worst excesses of capitalism and will include in economic stories the range of opinions voiced by those who accept the naturalness of capitalism. Likewise, journalists will report on the failures of U.S. policy abroad and will include the opinions of those who accept the nobility of U.S. dominance. But more radical critics of those two claims are, for the most part, invisible or caricatured in corporate news.

Some journalists recognize that there are legitimate challenges to those ideological claims, and the intrepid among them may try to work such ideas into a story through the strategic use of sources. But those rogue actions, however noble, don’t alter the overall pattern: Journalism reproduces the dominant ideology.

The same is true for public education. Those same ideological claims define the framework within which most teaching goes on. The textbooks reflect the ideology, and the vast majority of teachers don’t question it. Some teachers incorporate more critical material into their classes, but those rogue actions don’t alter the pattern. When I ask college students what kind of alternative viewpoints they were exposed to in their K-12 schooling, most say such critical ideas were never addressed, though some report that creative teachers found ways to present those ideas, usually looking over their shoulders to try to avoid trouble with administrators.

Both journalists and teachers work under a professional code that stresses neutrality. The goal is to avoid injecting personal biases into the story or the classroom, and to present ideas and information in a straightforward manner without prejudice. In some ways, that’s all for the good—most of us don’t want journalists or teachers who proselytize for particular political positions. We want information that is, to the degree possible, the product of rigorous critical thinking, not unquestioned allegiance to a politician, party or political program.

The problem with these professional codes is simple: Neutrality is an illusion. Teaching and reporting require countless decisions involving judgments that can’t be reduced to purely professional rules and procedures. Even the language we use conveys judgments; think of the difference between describing waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” or “torture.” Neither term is neutral, nor is any other term. The use of language to describe the world always involves judgments.

Both professions claim to offer rules and procedures that guarantee objectivity. But within the narrow ideological framework described above, objective practices tend to reproduce the conventional wisdom of the dominant culture. When journalists and teachers play that objectivity game by the rules, they may appear to be neutral, because they present the world as most people are used to seeing it presented; when they break out of that box, they seem to be bringing in personal biases. In both cases, practitioners tend to internalize the rules of the game, often taking pride in their ability to play by those rules. Those who challenge the rules risk being punished by the managers of the system.

Individual biases in either profession can undermine the quality of what students and audiences learn; there are bad teachers and bad journalists who ignore their responsibility to be rigorous critical thinkers, a problem on all sides of the various political fences. But the most serious problems result not from individual misconduct but from the collective failure that is built into both systems.

On the left, we are generally good at looking beyond the conduct of individuals and focusing on systems and structures of power when we want to explain how the world works. When we critique the corporatization of our school systems—both in the way schooling is designed to produce compliant workers and consumers, and the way schools are organized around corporate norms—we focus on the failure of the institution, not on teachers. We don’t blame the folks in the classroom, for example, for the system’s obsession with standardized testing, which is undermining real education.

Yet when progressive activists critique journalism, too often they vent their hostility on individual journalists. Why should we blame working reporters for the failure of the objectivity routines they are forced to adopt by the institution? Are frontline journalists to blame for the way the demand for profits drive the decisions of corporate managers?

This is important not just to ensure we develop the correct analysis, but because we need to build relationships with journalists in our organizing work. Too often I have seen activists vent their anger on working journalists in ways most of us wouldn’t dump our frustrations about the school system on working teachers. I’ve heard progressive activists arrogantly tell reporters to “stop lying,” as if the problem can be reduced to corrupt working journalists intentionally deceiving the public. The frustration that produces that venting is understandable, but that kind of anger rarely makes good strategy.

I don’t offer this advice from above—I feel the same frustrations when I read a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times, as he spits out the conventional wisdom of centrist politics in the United States as if it were a new gospel, in analyses that manage to be simultaneously banal and self-aggrandizing. Like many, I have shouted at a television set, as if the journalists could hear my complaints about the superficial stupidity of even the best of broadcast and cable television news.

So, to help those of us in progressive political movements stay focused on the importance of institutional analysis rather than complaints about individual failures, I want to propose a new slogan:

Journalists rock! Journalism sucks!

Working journalists often do the best they can within institutions that place severe limits on them, in much the same way that teachers struggle. Journalists and teachers rock. The problem is the corporate and corporatized systems within which they work. Corporate-commercial news media and corporatized school systems suck.