One of the Trump mantras in the current US presidential election cycle is that the system is “rigged.” Part of what Trump includes in the rigging allegation is the behavior of the US media in being bitterly, but not openly, partisan. The reputation of the media in American political theory is that it is a non-governmental check on official political scheming which serves the vaunted public interest in educating Americans on fact and fraud alike. Through the media, the American people, especially as an electorate, can make an informed decision as they exercise their democratic muscle.
A problem with this theory is that the “gatekeeper” role for the media introduces the same risk of regulatory capture that faces an official government agency. If X is the watchdog of Y, then Y has an incentive to exercise influence on X, up to and including implicit or covert control of X, to ensure Y has the maximum opportunity to pursue its own interest without restraint. If journalists are the watchdog of politicians, or of government and the political process as a whole, than people interested in exercising power without restraint via the political process have a strong incentive to try to control journalists.
There’s plenty of evidence, scandal and recent revelations of such influence and control that has come to light recently, mostly via alternative media “institutions” such as bloggers and not-for-profits like WikiLeaks, such that anyone interested in evaluating claims of a “rigged” system can run a simple search and make up their own mind. I don’t really want to go there with this post. Instead, I want to share some brief reflections and anecdotes from my undergraduate education, which included substantial coursework in journalism.
When I went to college, I initially thought I wanted to be a professional journalist. I later came to the conclusion that the system I would be participating in was “rigged”, and that I couldn’t find any heroes to emulate and that it’d be very unlikely for me to profitably, and safely, practice the kind of truth-telling journalism I was interested in, so I decided to abandon that ambition after completing most of the coursework necessary (I did end up completing the degree). Part of my disillusionment came through my experience in my journalism classes.
The very first class I took was an “ethics of journalism” class, which explored this very issue of the role of journalists in a free society, and the special status as gatekeeper assigned to the profession in American political theory. Unfortunately, most of my classes were disrupted that semester because the graduate assistants in the journalism department were on strike and my professor decided not to hold our classes on campus to avoid crossing the picket lines, a decision she made out of perceived solidarity with their plight. On one occasion, class was cancelled entirely because she decided to participate in a protest. While I doubt all journalism graduate students are on strike all the time at all universities in the US, I also would imagine this experience was not entirely unique, and certainly the ethical or political predilections of my professor at the time were not unusual. If this is the mindset and behavior of people teaching introductory ethics courses to aspiring journalists, what do you think might be the impact on journalism as a system in this country?
Another class I remember taking was something like “topics in media criticism”. I think what I imagined the course would be was something like studying news reporting and investigative journalism pieces and looking at how members of the media critically covered certain issues and people, and also how they responded to criticism from those they targeted. Instead, we ended up writing essays about pop culture media through the lenses of things like Marxism, feminism and sexuality.
Things I found memorable and descriptive about the majority of my classmates: few, if any, were double majoring in or had pursued an independent course of study in economics, so they were unfamiliar with even the most watered-down official market-lite basic instruction on the topic, thus making them unfit to cover 95% of what is newsworthy; while they weren’t ascetics, they seemed to accept that they were unlikely to have lucrative careers and seemed suspicious of people who had higher income-earning potential than they; they were definitely not the sharpest, most ambitious students in the school and were closer to being art students than business school students if you could set those things up as two opposite characteristic poles; they were animated by “social justice” issues and assignments, rather than questioning their premises or the validity of that approach; for those who had double majors, they were typically in subjects such as political science, sociology, psychology and occasionally history (ie, philosophically wishy-washy, non-concrete and dominated by Marxist leftover academics); in physical appearance they were often sickly or weak looking, had more body piercings than average and were often disheveled looking, as if they didn’t much care about how they looked to other people; few if any came from true poverty backgrounds, and few came from any wealth, they all seemed “securely” lower-middle class in background.
Putting these three pieces together, a picture emerges. These journalism students were being instructed on their special ethical status and duties while learning from the example of a person whose behavior and loyalties were compromised; they were receiving explicit ideological instruction in their coursework under the guise of some kind of creative criticism curriculum; finally, their personal backgrounds, interest, capabilities and knowledge probably made them unsuitable, on average, for thinking very deeply about key “public interest” issues and their personal circumstances made it potentially easy to tempt or incentivize them in various ways.
Under conditions like these, is it difficult to imagine how journalism, as a profession, might cater to the kind of people who could willfully do the bidding of special interests in a “rigged” system and either not realize how they were being manipulated, or else be eager to take part in such capers?
Of course, it didn’t work on me, but then I decided not to become a journalist!