Al Gore is teaching a class at the Columbia Journalism School. According to the Washington Post’s Lloyd Grove, the former Veep spent much of his inaugural lecture discussing how reporting is akin to the financial instruments known as derivatives. To be honest, I am fascinated by that (and not just because I have long considered non-fiction writing to be extremely similar to deflating current dollars into 1981 CPI-UX1 constant dollars). So I really would like to know why one of the most experienced public servants alive today thinks reporting and derivatives are similar. Seriously, I would.
Unfortunately, my “right to know” is not being honored by America’s foremost journalist hatchery. The school’s administration decided that it would be for the best if Gore’s classes were kept “off the record.” The school’s spokesman, Suzanne Trimel, said that Gore’s class was simply “not a news event.”
This is kind of funny since she told this to the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other organizations rumored to have some sense of what is or is not a news event.
I have some sympathy for Ms. Trimel as I have had a similar experience explaining such things to my dog as “this is not a pork chop.”
But there’s no sense in denying something is not what it is. My dog knows it’s a pork chop. I know it’s a pork chop. We all know it’s a pork chop (and he is prone to giving me that look which says, “your denial demeans us both”). Indeed, one might expect that Ms. Trimel, after reading well over 100 news stories about Gore’s foray into teaching, might concede that yes, this is a pork chop. Or “news event,” whatever, you get me. (Note to self: Don’t write about pork chops when hungry).
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, I think it’s perfectly fine for Columbia to declare Gore’s class “off the record.” Why shouldn’t it be able to? Well, you might say that Columbia teaches, brainwashes, whatever, its students with all sorts of notions about how important it is to “get the story,” how “the people” have a right to know X,Y, and Z, and that journalists are the zealous stewards of that right. But hypocrisy is such a lesser, and so much more obvious, evil of modern journalism.
No, what bugs the hell out of me is what the Columbia Journalism School represents. CJS is the high temple of journalistic smugness. That journalism schools get away with charging smart young people tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to write a topic sentence would merely be a wonderful example of suckers being deprived of their money, were it not for the fact that J-schools propagate a terrible view of what the profession is really about.
About six months ago, I attended a rubber-chicken awards dinner for brave journalists or some such silliness. At my table sat a well-respected and actually very good media critic. I overheard him say something along the lines of, “the problem is that everyone today thinks they’re qualified to be a media critic.” Now, this guy’s a decent fellow but that’s precisely the sort of thing that drives me nuts about journalism Jesuits.
There is perhaps no job that requires fewer professional credentials and less professional training than that of media critic — except perhaps handing out coupons in a chicken suit. I think I know of what I speak. I was once a media critic for Brill’s Content for about two years and I’m still a contributing editor there. I am also the media critic for The American Enterprise and much of what I write for National Review and my syndicated column amounts to media criticism. And still I would assert that the only real mandatory qualification one needs to be a media critic is a desire to criticize the media.
Being a good media critic or a media reporter is an entirely different matter, but the threshold qualifications here are the same as for every other writing job. Are you a good writer, like the inestimable James Bowman? Are you a good reporter, like indefatigable Howard Kurtz? But, good or bad, the only criterion for being a “professional” media critic or reporter is getting paid for it, which, I’m proud to say, puts me in their company.
There Are No Secret Handshakes
I bring this up because such sentiments would be news to pretty much everyone at Columbia Journalism School. J-schoolers would be horrified by the assertion that journalism is neither a priesthood nor a union; it is not a trade guild, a “calling” or secret society of any kind. Journalism is what people who write for newspapers, magazines and other news outlets do for a living. It is broad enough to include everyone from serious, dedicated reporters to people with important hair who read cards from a medium distance in front of a camera. It is no more of a science than car sales or house painting, and the people who do it are not particularly special people, even though that would be news to many of them.
Barbara Walters is considered a great journalist, indeed, one of the greatest — and she asks questions that are, literally, dumber than the sorts of questions a two-year-old asks. Who really gives a rat’s ass what kind of tree a movie star would want to be? And if that’s news — as Ms. Walters and ABC News insist it is — then how the hell can the views of the former vice president on the past election be considered “not a news event.”
But I digress.
Almost all professions show a natural tendency toward trade guildism. Doctors have created a labyrinth of codes, rules, and professional associations for centuries — and not solely to assure the quality of service their members provide. While “maintaining standards” is surely part of it, especially for medical practitioners, there is also more than a bit of self-interested protectionism inherent to even medical “professionalism.” Medical doctors create trouble for osteopathic doctors, partly out of legitimate medical concerns and partly to restrain trade. Electrical unions insist that some guy’s got to be “qualified” to throw a switch (and then get paid for a full day after “working” for three whole minutes).
Years ago in Connecticut there was a broken-down police car on the side of the road. The local cops put one of those cardboard cut-out cops next to it and they discovered that it reduced speeding by some huge percentage because from a distance people couldn’t tell “he” was two-dimensional. In short order the policeman’s union ordered them to remove the cardboard cop because of the insinuation that a real cop could be replaced by a cardboard one.
For a more relevant example, remember the Leonardo DiCaprio fuss? The effeminate nose-picker was signed up by ABC News to ask President Clinton some questions for some environment special. The folks at ABC news wigged out. Why? Well, largely because, I think, they didn’t want to risk the possibility that viewers would discover that the difference between a trained and seasoned journalist and some teen heartthrob with an IQ that barely exceeds the speed limit in a school zone is negligible.
The “professionalism” of journalism has allowed some bigwig journalists to decide that others aren’t journalists. I.F. Stone, a left-wing propagandist who did no original reporting, was considered a saint, but Matt Drudge, who does plenty, is rejected as some alien creature who practices something other than journalism (See, “Why Do Gadflies only Flit Left?“). The reason? Because Matt won’t join the club. Is it shocking that for years many “professionals” pushed for the actual licensing of journalists, so that only the “right” people would report the news? Is it any more shocking that the elite press loves campaign-finance reform for precisely the same reason? The New York Times can’t have average citizens saying what they think, reporting facts, etc.
Doing the Nasty Work
I should also point out that there is a third reason why journalists drench themselves in unwritten codes and regulations. They are ashamed of what they do. Investigative reporting involves doing things most of us would consider repugnant. Hidden cameras and tape recorders, befriending sources under false pretenses, etc. True, we need investigative reporting in a democracy. But “professional journalists” pretend there’s nothing unsavory about the work. And that’s a lie.
60 Minutes has used secret cameras for decades and earned awards and ratings for it. But when 60 Minutes used a hidden camera to snoop on another journalist a few years ago, heads exploded in the hallowed halls of elite journalism. Why? Because we don’t do that sort of thing to our own. We only screw outsiders. Why do you think the media despised Linda Tripp so? It wasn’t just that she made life for Bill Clinton so uncomfortable; she was a scab, using the very techniques that thousands of journalists use each and every day. And she did it to protect herself! Nevertheless, when a private citizen employs such tactics she’s seen as an immoral betrayer of a friend. When a journalist does it, she’s a “news hound” — and an ethical one at that.
“Professional” journalists conceal and justify all of this behind some gauzy veil called the “peoples’ right to know.” But the truth is that, in our system, “the people” don’t enjoy any such thing. Our constitution does not set forth “positive rights.” No, the people — all the people — have the right to tell, not the right to know.
And that’s the real reason the Columbia Journalism School blackout of Al Gore’s class bugs me. It’s just another example of professional journalists depriving other journalists of their rights.
1. This column was supposed to appear yesterday. It was completed on time, but Cosmo the wonderdog had to go to the doctor. He’s fine and I will be supplying a picture soon.
2. By now I hope everyone has checked out the latest redesign of NRO. All criticism should come to me and all praise to Chris McEvoy, our managing editor, who was the foreman and architect of the overhaul.
3. Speaking of criticism, Chris instructs me to tell you that the “E-mail an Article to a Friend” feature is temporarily out of service and will be returning.
4. You should check out some new and returning features, including a new and different Nota Bene and the return of the Cool Site of the Day. Everyday there will be some site that is interesting, wacky, weird, or useful in the opinion of at least some editor at NRO.
5. Lastly, I am pleased to announce that my syndicated column is gaining traction. It just had a successful test in one major East Coast newspaper and it is currently getting a test run in another. I don’t know if I am allowed to say which one it is, but if you do see my column anywhere and you want to keep Cosmo in rubber chew toys, please send what reasonable feedback you can to the paper. I appreciate it. Oh, and if you’d like to see it, here’s a recent one on a similar topic to the above.