School for Scandal?

A media critic takes aim at journalism education

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.”

For Scheuer, this passage remains the gospel. He buys into the notion that contemporary journalism schools are “service stations for professional journalism rather than independent centers of critical thinking about media, journalism and society.” He denounces them as “a feeder system for the journalism profession”—a condition that most job-seeking students would not object to, but that some of their high-minded teachers would wish were otherwise. Finally, he argues that most journalism schools “remain stuck in the mid-twentieth century”—an assertion that he surely does not (and indeed cannot) defend.

There are great journalism schools, mediocre ones, and lousy ones. Yes, they could be improved. But most programs are unrecognizable from what they were fifty years ago (if they even existed then), and most avoid narrow vocationalism. I do agree with Scheuer that journalists “must be trained not just as fact finders but as critical thinkers, researchers, analysts and critics.” Yet this is what good journalism schools, located in fine universities, already do.

Unlike the Hutchins report, which offered no ideas for improving journalism education, Scheuer has plenty of suggestions. Journalism education in this country mostly takes place at the undergraduate level—a mistake, in the author’s view. If journalism is to be taught to undergraduates at all, he recommends that the “newsroom model of skills training should be actively discouraged.” I disagree. I believe that these courses, where students receive special attention, do have great value, so long as they do not swamp the curriculum. If done right, the newsroom model teaches traditional and innovative methods of research and allows for close criticism of student work. Few other courses can train students to think fast and become resourceful in quite the same way.

At the graduate level, Scheuer suggests that a master’s degree in history, politics, economics, business, sociology, psychology, or languages “would be more useful than a degree in journalism.” He follows up this suggestion with an even more radical proposal: journalism schools should cease granting academic degrees altogether and stop functioning as a “credentializing toll booth for career advancement and little else.” This shows a bizarre misunderstanding of how universities work. Without degree-granting programs, faculty would vanish, students would flee, and classrooms would soon be shuttered.

When Scheuer sheds his gratuitous rage toward journalism education, he becomes far more constructive. For instance, he sees great potential “for synergy between j-schools, universities, foundations, and research centers, with or without the help of traditional news organizations.”

Scheuer proposes a larger role for the nonprofit sector in the production and dissemination of news. In fact, that larger role has already begun to materialize. For instance, the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (a nonprofit organization for which I served as chair) has worked independently and in collaboration with news outlets on many high-profile investigations for three decades.

To push Scheuer’s ideas further, it is not outlandish to see universities themselves as the alternatives to commercial news providers. The author wants “clean” news—“news that is not influenced by profit, ideology, faith, or any other special or vested interest.” Might not universities be the ideal setting for such “clean” news to prosper?

After all, Scheuer begins The Big Picture by defining education and journalism as the “complementary (if not continuous) foundations” of an informed democracy. Universities are devoted to the production, dissemination, and storage of knowledge. They are repositories of expertise. Peer review, the standard by which universities evaluate quality, might give journalistic practice, and credibility, a welcome boost. If journalists emulate the best that universities have to offer, and if universities take journalism much more seriously, then both endeavors will benefit. 

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Tom Goldstein is a professor of journalism and director of the Media Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. He is West Coast editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.