Sunday, February 20

Noise Machine Watch

The Claremont Institute deems Nicholas Lemann--dean of the Columbia School of Journalism--deficient and says that The Dean Gets a D in Media Coverage 101:

Lemann wonders, finally, whether there is still a large enough public to sustain journalism that is "inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles." This conclusion, that the mainstream press is suffering because people don't appreciate the nobility of its mission, would be easier to accept if Lemann and his subjects were less inclined to treat the intellectual honesty of the press as self-evident. It's hard for mere citizens to revere the boundary between journalism and propaganda, however, when the people who run CBS News disdain it. Americans may be more receptive to bracing journalism than Lemann fears, but they resent being enlightened by a press establishment that wants to have it both ways, to get credit for its ideal of objectivity while taking a "how dare you" posture to anyone who questions its political agenda.

That's not really what the Dean said, by the way, in the conclusion of his New Yorker essay:

Journalism that is inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles, didn't always exist. There is no law saying that it must exist forever, and there are political and business interests that would be better off if it didn't exist and that have worked hard to undermine it. This is what journalists in the mainstream media are starting to worry about: what if people don?t believe in us, don?t want us, anymore?

It's fair enough, as far as it goes, to argue that the integrity of the press is not self-evident, and to cite a handful of counterexamples, some valid, some spurious. It's also an instance of the fallacy of the heap.

It's fair enough, as far as it goes, to satirize the profession for its sanctimony. It's like the copy editor who tells you, voice swelling with pride, that his job is to "preseve the English language." No, you're here to make sure the thing is readable by contemporary standards. That's job enough.

Journalistic ethics are pretty much a matter of rough and ready epistemological quality control: You get several sources, canvass the full range of viewpoints, and fact check and collate all those and all that stuff so you don't get burned for printing something untrue, because your business is reporting as much confirmable information as you can in the little time you have to cover the story

And sure, the notion that the press "speaks the truth to power" is a little bombastic, too.

It's really a simple matter of the government and other large organizations not especially wanting you to have important information that affects you and that you have a right to. Being able to find that stuff out is a useful skill that takes practice and perserverance to acquire, whereas anyone can pass along bunkum and rumor.

Some say journalism is a profession, some a trade. It's really more like a sport: If you do it every day, you build up muscles that enable you to download mass quantities of stuff, sort it out, write it down, and get it factually correct.

Let's leave "surprising and unsettling" out of it for the moment, however, and stick to what "intellectually honest and inquisitive" means in the workaday world. All you have to do is imagine what would happen if the investment fund managers running your private Social Security account failed to be inquisitive and intellectually honest in doing their due diligence on the companies they invested in. You'd be hosed. Reporting isn't really much more thrilling than that. Facts for all: What you do with it is your business.

Marketing, on the other hand, now there's a discipline with delusions of grandeur. Just ask William Voegeli, the very same distinguished "academic fellow" dissing the dean on behalf of the Scarfe-sponsored, "some rightsholders of academic freedom are farther to the right than others" ivory tower:

Bill Voegeli has 22 years of experience in business management, corporate development, sales, and marketing research. His professional background is in finance, market research, and information technology. Mr. Voegeli has been an executive in market and marketing research since 1991, managing internal IT, operations and client services, and responsible for statistical analysis, strategic planning for clients and client training. Most recently, he was President of a specialized marketing research company. Mr. Voegeli's consultation has been sought and utilized by some of the world's most prestigious companies.

He was also working as a program officer for the Olin Foundation back in 2003.

I'd trust this guy to teach a marketing course, but having him lecture you on journalistic ethics is like having inviting the author of "The Turner Diaries" in as a guest lecturer in Holocaust Studies. Don't you love guys from a corporate marketing background--those "political and business interests that would be better off if [honest reporting] didn't exist and that have worked hard to undermine it"--trashing the marketing-infiltrated corporate news industry? It's like the Greeks warning the Trojans about their own gifts. And what if the politics-as-marketing crowd do win? You'll be hosed. And then, my friends, the tar and feathers will come home to roost.

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