In The Big Picture, Jeffrey Scheuer grapples with a highly abstract subject: the intermingled roles of journalism, education, and democracy. The author has read widely and thought deeply about these matters (he is also the editor of a new series on Democracy and the News for Praeger Publishers). And in a rarity for just about any contemporary book touching on the subject, Scheuer takes the enterprise of journalism education seriously. But once he establishes the centrality of such education, he tries to demolish its value. As someone who has spent twenty-five years teaching journalism, I would argue that his smackdown is unwarranted.
Scheuer, the author of a highly regarded 1999 book, The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left, begins his extended rumination with a simple, non-controversial proposition: “What people know, the accuracy and extent of their understanding, bears directly on their ability to function as citizens.”
How are citizens to accumulate this necessary knowledge? At first, Scheuer gives journalism and education equal billing as “democracy’s two great propulsive forces.” Then, without ample explanation, he demotes journalism to a junior role in assuring a well-informed citizenry: “It is the function of formal education, not journalism, to provide us with most of our fundamental understanding. The simpler job of journalism is to help us understand our immediate times and situate them on those intellectual foundations.” Indeed, like A. J. Liebling before him, Scheuer views American journalism as the “weak slat under the bed of democracy,” whose best practitioners exist in a sort of cultural ghetto.
As Scheuer sees it, journalism has fallen down on multiple fronts. He bemoans the shortage of investigative journalism, which he calls “democracy’s alarm system, variously revealing what urgently needs to be known, what is harder to know, what someone in power doesn’t want known, and what should have been known all along.” Here, he suggests, is the real index of a strong news outlet. Yet he does not attempt to quantify the number of these outlets.
Scheuer is even more discouraged by what he perceives as the commercial bias of news—a bias that disturbed early press critics such as Will Irwin, Upton Sinclair, and George Seldes, as well as such contemporary critics as Ben Bagdikian and Robert McChesney. The commercial predisposition, he writes, leads to biases
toward upscale consumers rather than other audiences; toward novelty and shock, sex and violence, and against reasoning, nuance and detail; toward drama and personalities, and against groups or larger causal forces; toward strategy, and against substantive issues; toward simplicity and concreteness and against complexity and abstraction; toward the local or national and against the remote or foreign; and toward the near term and against the long term.
The villain, for Scheuer, is the profit motive, as it has been for the pantheon of press critics. The profit motive, he writes, provides a bias against excellence “because for the most part, excellence does not pay.” Scheuer doesn’t adequately buttress this assertion. Nor, for instance, do I find a bias “toward drama” necessarily a result of the profit motive. And like his predecessors, Scheuer is not particularly helpful in describing who will pay for journalism if private enterprise is eliminated.
For Scheuer, an independent scholar, the commercial framework of news does not lead to news consumers who are “media savvy [and] respectful of the media’s democratic roles as informer, explainer and watchdog.” A natural location for citizens to learn about these things would be universities and journalism schools, and many have begun to require “media literacy” courses. While granting that education is “central to the larger problem of journalistic excellence,” Scheuer nonetheless proceeds to disparage the practices and the very purpose of journalism education.
In much of the book, Scheuer is guided by the 1947 Hutchins Commission Report, “A Free and Responsible Press,” which he finds opaque in spots, but mostly brilliant. Robert Maynard Hutchins, the iconoclastic president of the University of Chicago who chaired the panel, had no use for journalism education. Scheuer quotes approvingly from one passage, in which the authors argue that most journalism schools “devote themselves to professional training, and even there they are not as effective as they should be. The kind of training a journalist needs most today is not training in the tricks and machinery of the trade.”