Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why leftist academics hate the media

(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.


Ancient Dan said...

Academics are a precious lot and once decades ago, knew there place,
out of the way of the practicall things in the world
I am surwe they wrecked the last government
AncientdanSo its no surprise they
have destroyed the honest craft of journalism which once required people to go around the real world and write about what you found.

Marty said...

Karl, you actually don't explain "why" "leftist" "academics" "hate" "the" "media".
In fact, AncientDan kind'a sums up your argument:
"Academics are a precious lot and once decades ago, knew there place,
"they have destroyed the honest craft of journalism."

Paul Walker said...

"Academic institutions provide a cosy environment in which neo-Marxist ideology, however bizarre, largely goes unchallenged because it is widely shared."

Me thinks you should try the economics departments (and others) of many of our academic institutions. Check out the blogs Offsetting Behaviour, Econlog, Cafe Hayek, David Friedman and many others.

Ayrdale said...

The Marxist march through the education system seems to have worked a treat doesn't it ?

Ancient Dan said...

Ancient Dan is so old that he remembers what the journalism trade was before the turned it into tripe.

It was a sort of apprenticeship, court runs, sports runs, business rounds.

Young people mentored by cynical old bastards learned about humanity, the good the bad and the maudlin.

When you send impressionable 18 year olds to do media studies or journalism at varsity they fall into the hands of Gramsci's children and innocent as they are imbibe a toxic brew of the "competative society".
They don't use the word class anymore.
They start with the assumption that the pie is static. Therefore anything that business gets is theft from the workers, business corporates are evil and can make citizens purchase goods against their will.
So you have these people commenting on society who will tell you all about the workers in Wainuiomata but have never been their, who are experts on the workers but who have lives of priveliege on the taxpayers back.
It's very weird.
Ancient Dan was in radio and in a press bureau, decades ago.
The most pernicious curse I hear these days is:
Minister, industrialist or MP or expert gets 8 word, yes 8 words on a topic,then trev or Trevess bumbltwit with the Media Studies degree and 2 years expericne of life will coment for the next 90 seconds on the ministers 8 words tearing it to shred and substitutiong the latte socialist gospel of the week.
Its rather despiriting
I commented on my blog that the last government wern't socialist wreckers but academic wreckers.

Thank the great god of the internet for blogs.
And also we shopuld send a leg of lamb round to the remaining sane ones like the lad du Fresne here and keep them going

yesom said...

A couple of points Karl.First a typo .You noted academics "snug" othodoxy .I am sure you meant "smug' No?
Your post reminded me that a well known Victoria political scientist took a good part of last year off lecturing to complete a study of the 2008 election.
It will be a good read I am sure but it may have been even better had he lowered himself to talk to the National Party !Its true,at no time did he bother to talk to the people actually running the campaign.Scared of the inevitable result ?

Karl du Fresne said...

I can see you think I meant smug, since they are that too. But I deliberately used "snug" to denote the comforting cosiness of the academic cloister.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Dear Karl,
I’m not quite sure why I’m responding, but there comes a time when one has to do something about the blindingly obvious. Karl, this work of yours that in its latest iteration goes under the title ‘Why leftist academics hate the media’, and which from the very start (your attack on me following my comments on the sale of Trademe to offshore owners) has been little more than the ritualistic sticking of pins into ‘straw academics’. It started out being just ridiculous. Now it is just sad and pathetic. Frankly, before you make any more of a fool of yourself, it would be wise I think to take a deep breath or nice long mountain bike ride into the Wairarapa hills. But I guess I didn’t need to say this because I’m doing what’s expected of me - taking you too seriously! This ‘work’ has never been serious – has it? Its purpose has never been to debate anything. Its purpose is simply to create a particular certain kind of reaction and academics are pretty reliable on that score. They tend to be rather sensitive types and given their relative autonomy can create some time to respond to your pin’s prick, so to speak. But let’s be clear. The straw academic (the jargon-wielding, Marxist, authoritarian) you are holding up for examination is your own creation. It bears no resemblance to those colleagues I work or engage with. Your creations are worn out archetypes from the 1970s and 1980s. They are the kinds of creatures that news editors imagine live in the universities and which they use to deal with the complexities that universities exhibit. So why in your retirement would you rely on these hackneyed characters? Why would you make these sad creatures your targets? Perhaps it’s hard being a retired ex-editor, out there on the lifestyle block, pension in the bank, the appointments diary lying empty. Is it possible to make a change here? My hope is that sometime soon (before the editors of the newspapers that currently provide you with space turn it over to the next generation of ex-editors) you take another look at your caricatures of academics and universities. Perhaps you might even go and meet a few of them - get a feel for what they are actually doing. Actually there are some precedents for such a change in your work. Recently you wrote about the jobs summit (March 8, 2009) and informed your readers at your surprise at finding that unions and employers representatives were not engaged in the ritualistic battle between ‘rigid ideological positions’ that you had expected. Rather they were both interested in the same thing – protecting jobs. This column highlighted two things. How out of date your expectations and caricatures are, and how you are prepared to have them challenged – that’s encouraging. Can we have some more of that please? Here’s how it might go. Next time you feel the urge to wheel out the keyboard and the straw academic dolls that are lying around in your imagination, what about visiting a few actual academics – talking to them, spending some time in their classrooms, getting a feel for what they are actually doing. If you’d like an invitation –something for the diary – I’d be happy to arrange it.
Craig Prichard, Massey University, Palmerston North

Marty said...

Well said Craig

yesom said...

Craig you probably dont know it but your rant just proved how right Karl was.You didnt make a single valid point,just an endless litany of personal attacks which probably caused a riot in the staff club.You should quit before you rally give thin skinned academics a bad name