(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 27.)
A year or so ago I started what’s known as a blog. It’s an ugly word, blog – the beauty of language clearly doesn’t rate highly on the priorities of the people who run the digital world – but I’m afraid we’re stuck with it.
“Blog” is a contraction of web log, which, for the benefit of readers who can’t be bothered familiarising themselves with such things (and I can't say I blame them), means a personal commentary or journal written on the internet, to which readers can attach their own comments.
I have reservations about the so-called blogosphere – mainly that it provides a platform for toxic, semi-literate ranting and personal abuse, much of it anonymous. Nonetheless it’s a dynamic forum for comment and debate, and for better or worse I joined it.
To get to the point of this column, I recently wrote a commentary on my blog in response to a paper written by a Massey University academic, Dr Sean Phelan. Dr Phelan, who teaches media studies in Massey’s Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, devoted 17 pages to an analysis of New Zealand journalism and its relationship with academia, and to the tension between theory and practice in the training of journalists.
The paper was written in academic jargon of the most pretentiously arcane type imaginable – I commented in my blog that it read like a parody – and demonstrated, as one has come to expect from New Zealand academics, a pronounced ideological list to port on the part of its author.
I don’t have space here to go into the paper’s content, but I decoded it to mean, in essence, that Dr Phelan thought New Zealand journalism students should be taught the theories of Karl Marx and left-wing sociologists and philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, whom Phelan admiringly cited as “critically engaged thinkers”.
Dr Phelan lamented that the teaching of journalism was an “instrument of the existing hegemonic order”, a phrase that sounds as if it came straight from the Marxist handbook. I wrote that he was advocating the politicisation of journalism training and went on: “More specifically, my guess is that he would like journalism students to be inculcated with the view that the news media is a tool of the ruling class, manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit.”
My blog prompted an immediate reaction. The first few responses endorsed my view of Dr Phelan, one commenter (a well-regarded writer whom I would have regarded as vaguely leftish himself) labelling Dr Phelan’s paper “academic claptrap”, and “incoherent posturing”. But then Dr Phelan’s friends and fellow academics rallied to his support.
Two media academics from the Auckland University of Technology tried to put the boot in, but it was like being savaged by goldfish. One was the journalism lecturer Dr Martin Hirst, an avowed socialist who appears to have a highly inflated view of the weight his views carry in the world of journalism. He portentously wrote that he had not yet had time to prepare his response to my blog – as if we were all breathlessly waiting for his Olympian judgment – but warned that it was coming. (Two months later, nothing has surfaced. I’m shaking with relief.)
Another commenter sneered at my statement that the news media functioned as a marketplace of ideas, claiming this was a meaningless slogan typical of “faded old neoliberal ideology”. Really? Perhaps I’m imagining all those lively and informed expressions of opinion and exchanges of ideas – exchanges that help shape public opinion on the issues of the day – that I see every day in newspaper stories, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, or hear on talkback programmes and interviews on Morning Report. Priggish leftists hate this stuff because it permits the dissemination of views they disapprove of.
The same commenter complained bitterly about editors and journalists controlling access to information in newspapers. Fancy that: editors and journalists running newspapers. The cheek of it!
Who, I wonder, does he think should make decisions each day about what goes into the paper? Someone has to. Perhaps he would prefer it to be a state-appointed commissariat, ideally including him.
Left-wing blogger Russell Brown, the poor man’s Bono, got in on the act too, making the extraordinary statement in his blog that I hadn’t read Phelan’s paper. (To all Brown’s other talents it seems we must now add omniscience.) Well alright then, I admit I didn’t read the paper – I made it all up, and by the most freakish coincidence it turned out that the incomprehensible words I put in Dr Phelan’s mouth were exactly those he had written in his paper. What were the chances of that happening, eh?
To get serious, the manner in which Dr Phelan’s colleagues and supporters swarmed to his support (I exempt one or two whose comments were fair and constructive) was telling. Academic institutions provide a cosy environment in which neo-Marxist ideology, however bizarre, largely goes unchallenged because it is widely shared.
It’s relatively unusual for academics to have their snug, self-reinforcing leftist orthodoxy disturbed by outside scrutiny. They don’t appreciate someone picking up rocks in the academic streambed to see what’s scuttling about underneath.
One of their stock reactions to criticism is to cry anti-intellectualism, as one academic did on Russell Brown’s blog in response to my comments about Dr Phelan. But if the word “intellectual” has become a discredited and derogatory term, as I believe it has, it’s entirely due to flaky academics whose heads have disappeared up their own rear orifices.
The subtext lurking beneath the academic response to my blog was a familiar one. Academic institutions provide a sanctuary for many people who feel bitter and thwarted because the world – or in this case the news media – doesn’t conform to their ideological prescription.
They have a vision of a better world which they would like to impose regardless of whether the rest of us want it, and they have determined that the most effective way of achieving this is through taxpayer-funded sinecures in academia where they can promulgate their theories pretty much unopposed.
It irritates the hell out of these people that they can’t control public discussion so that other people can be made to share their worldview. That, in a nutshell, explains why they so deeply resent the news media.