How Pseudo-Intellectualism Ruined Journalism

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Jimmy Breslin in 1969. (Photo by Bob Peterson/Getty Images.) 

From the editors:

I started as an editor at Persuasion a little over a year ago. The feeling I had about Persuasion then is the same feeling I have now: that this is a jewel and, to some extent, a well-kept secret. At a time when deficits of the media are glaringly obvious—a dearth of thoughtful international coverage; a tendency towards ideologically-bound “spin”—Persuasion tries extraordinarily hard to elevate the conversation. We run sharp, analytical pieces on Guatemala, China, Indonesia, Armenia—you name it. And we are committed to publishing thinkers who are able to get outside the point-counterpoint of so much media discourse and to take a broader view—like in our forthcoming series on liberalism or in today’s piece by the great critic William Deresiewicz. 

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I was sitting across from the professor as she went over my latest piece. This was 1986, Columbia School of Journalism, Reporting and Writing I, the program’s core course. At one point, in response to what I don’t recall, I said, “That doesn’t bode well for me.” I could have been referring to a lot of things; there were so many, in my time in journalism school, that did not bode well for me. One was the next set of words that came out of her mouth. “‘Bode?’” she said. “I haven’t heard anyone bode anything in a long time.” Another was her comment, on a previous piece, about my use of “agglomerate.” She had circled it and written, “No such word.”

But the most important was the intellectual climate of the school as a whole, in that it did not have one. We were not there to think. We were there to learn a set of skills. One of them, ironically, was asking questions, just not about the profession itself: its premises, its procedures, its canon of ethics. I know, because from time to time I tried, and it didn’t go well. This was trade school, not liberal arts school. When a teacher said something, you were supposed to write it down, not argue.

The main thing that I learned in journalism school was that I didn’t belong in journalism school. The other thing I learned was that journalists were deeply anti-intellectual. They were suspicious of ideas; they regarded theories as pretentious; they recoiled at big words (or had never heard of them). For a long time, I had contempt for the profession on that score. In recent years, though, this has yielded to a measure of respect. For notice that I didn’t say that journalists are anti-intellectual. I said they were. Now they’re something else: pseudo-intellectual. And that is much worse.

The shift reflects the transformation of journalists’ social position. This phenomenon is familiar. Journalism used to be a working-class profession. I think of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, icons of the New York tabloids, the working people’s papers, in the second half of the twentieth century. Breslin’s father was a drunk and a piano player who went out for rolls one day and never came back. His mother was a teacher and civil servant. Hamill’s father was a grocery clerk and factory worker; his mother, a domestic, a nurse’s aide, a cashier. Breslin went to Long Island University but dropped out after two years. Hamill left school at fifteen to apprentice as a sheet metal worker, enlisted in the Navy, and took some art school classes later on (he hoped to be a cartoonist). Both were Irish Catholic: Hamill from Brooklyn, Breslin from Queens, long before those boroughs were discovered by the hipsters and the condo creeps.

Coming up working-class, you develop a certain relationship to facticity. Your parents work with their hands, with things, or on intimate, sometimes bodily terms with other people. Your environment is raw and rough—asphalt, plain talk, stains and smells—not cushioned and sweetened. You imbibe a respect for the concrete, the tangible, that which can be known through direct experience, and a corresponding contempt for euphemism and cant. You develop a gut and a bullshit detector, acquire a suspicion of experts who operate at a remove from reality, which means academics in particular. Hence the recognition, in figures like Breslin and Hamill, that the world is chaotic, full of paradox, that people evade our understanding. Hence their sense of curiosity and irony and wonder. At the source of their moral commitments, they had not rules but instincts, a feeling for the difference between right and wrong. For the masses, they felt not pity but solidarity, since they were of them.

That was the profession’s ethos—skeptical, demotic—and you didn’t have to grow up working class (or be a man) to absorb it. Molly Ivins, Nora Ephron, Cokie Roberts, Maureen Dowd, Mara Liasson, even Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, in their own ways: all had it or have it. But none of them was born more recently than 1955. In the last few decades, journalists have turned into a very different kind of animal. “Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession,” wrote David Brooks not long ago, citing a study that found that more than half of writers at The New York Times attended one of the 29 most selective institutions in the country; “we’re an elite-college-dominated profession.”

The result is that contemporary journalists have a relationship to ideas that is more or less the opposite of the old school’s. It begins before they even get to campus. Students at elite colleges are drawn overwhelmingly from the upper classes, with roughly two-thirds coming from the top 20% of the income distribution. (Given the kinds of starting salaries that journalism pays, it’s fair to assume that those who go on to join the field skew even more heavily toward the higher end of the scale.) They grow up not only having little contact with ordinary people, but amidst the class of experts. Their parents—and their friends’ parents and their parents’ friends—are doctors, lawyers, bankers, executives, policy professionals, professors: people who work with abstractions and symbols, not things. They learn to see the world from the point of view of experts, to have faith in expertise, to speak its language and accept its values. Their epistemology is top-down: they start with ideas and come to tangibilities, to concrete facts, only later, through their lens.

Then comes college—and not just college, but the college of today. The college of Critical Theory and “studies” departments. This isn’t liberal arts school, either. You do not start with texts, with philosophy and literature and history, and see what they have to teach you. You start with theories and impose them on texts. You do not argue and debate; you write down what the teacher says. (If you ever do “debate,” you are careful to do so within the parameters laid down by Theory, by the ideology.) You do not think; you are handed a set of abstractions—patriarchy, intersectionality, late capitalism, and so forth—and let them do your thinking for you. Your institution’s goal is to teach you to be not a skeptic, an intellectual, but an activist.

A couple of years ago, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an Ivy League professor said the quiet part out loud. “Not all of our students will be original thinkers,” she wrote, “nor should they all be. A world of original thinkers, all thinking wholly inimitable thoughts, could never get anything done. For that we need unoriginal thinkers, hordes of them, cloning ideas by the score and broadcasting them to every corner of our virtual world. What better device for idea-cloning than the cliché?” She meant academic clichés, having mentioned “performativity,” “normativity,” “genderqueer,” and others. “[W]e should instead strive to send our students forth—and ourselves too—armed with clichés for political change.”

And that’s exactly what has happened, nowhere more so than in journalism. The progressive academic ideology has become the intellectual framework of the field, or at least of its most visible and influential parts: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, et al. More to the point, the field now has an intellectual framework, one that journalists seek, top-down, to impose on the world, on the stories they report. The practice travels under the name of “moral clarity”—as if moral clarity were anything, in this world, besides a very rare commodity (I would love to know what Didion thought of the concept), and as if the phrase meant anything other, in this context, than tailoring the evidence to fit one’s pre-existing beliefs. Facts are now subordinated to the “narrative,” a revealing word: first, because it comes from academia (it is one of those clichés); second, because it’s almost always misused, a particle of garbled theory cloned and memed (as the professor would have wanted). When journalists say “narrative,” they mean “idea.” And it is always an idea they’ve received from someone else.

They think they’re thinking, but they’re wrong. They think that thinking means applying ideas, in the sense that you’d apply an ointment. What it actually means is examining them, reworking them, without fear, without cease. They believe that they are skeptical. In fact, they’re alternately cynical and gullible: cynical toward the other side and gullible toward their own (that they see themselves as being on a side is part of the problem, of course). That is why they’re helpless before the assertions of like-minded activists and academics or of acceptably credentialed experts—incapable of challenging their premises or putting pressure on their arguments. For those who lie outside their mental world, who haven’t taken the courses and acquired the jargon, they feel not kinship but, depending on the former’s demographic category, condescension or contempt.

Few students, at any time, come out of college fully equipped to think. Intellectualism is an arduous, lifelong pursuit—one that involves deep reading, unrestrained debate, and long stretches of quiet thought—and journalism is not a profession that lends itself to its practice. The result is that the kind of elite journalists I’m talking about exist in a state of suspended intellectual development. They remind me of college students: specifically, of Lionel Trilling’s description of college students. “[T]hey respond to ideas with a happy vagueness, a delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalizations, a grateful wonder at how easy it is to formulate and judge.” The difference is that Trilling’s college students were not in charge of creating our primary picture of public reality.

There is no answer here—at least, not one that has a chance of being effected. The profession’s culture needs to change, but changing culture isn’t something you can just decide to do. Outlets should go back to hiring people from beyond the elite, but that would mean paying them more, and financial margins in the industry are slender as it is. Journalists (like academics) should remember what they’re here for: to gather the facts and report them, a task that takes humility and open-mindedness. But journalists are now incentivized to opinionate, and elite training is hardly congenial to the development of those virtues. 

Meanwhile, I have come to recognize the wisdom of the attitude that I encountered back in 1986. Don’t think; just listen and look. Don’t get ideas; ideas just get in the way. Don’t act smart, you weasels. If you were smart you would be doing something else.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. He is the author of five books including Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society.

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