NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who blogs on PressThink, offers an interesting essay, Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion, about journalism school as a seminary of sorts that churns out idealistic do-gooders who pretty much all share the same faith without realizing they belong to a minority faith that often differs radically from the faiths of their readers. (Also see Rosen’s earlier essay entitled Journalism Is Itself a Religion.)
I’m going to show you a passage where I think the religion of the newsroom appears in everyday life. It comes from a piece called The Useless Credential, which ran at testycopyeditors.org. The author, Darryl McGrath, graduated from the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1986, the year I joined the faculty at NYU. She writes:
I would tell the dean that this business does not know what to do with career reporters, the people in their 40s who realized years ago they were never going to make it to the New York Times or win a Pulitzer, but nevertheless loved chasing stories and exposing public corruption and giving a voice to the downtrodden. (Yes, I’m still that idealistic.) We are the journalists who never wanted to move into the higher-paying jobs, like editing and management or newsroom Internet technology, because we absolutely loved being reporters. But as we got older, we realized that very few newspapers wanted to pay a salary that would allow us to continue doing what we do best: report. The journalism school did little to prepare me for this reality.
Which is a good point. Notice how McGrath said she still believed in the religion, despite salaries so pitiful they suggest employers do not. She said she “loved chasing stories and exposing public corruption and giving a voice to the downtrodden.” That’s the lord’s prayer in the mainline church of journalism right there. And I think it’s dead on too when she adds: “I’m still that idealistic.”
Deans of Journalism, scribble a note: Investigative reporting, exposing public corruption, and carrying the mantle of the downtrodden were taught to McGrath not as political acts in themselves–which they are–and not as a continuation of the progressive movement of the 1920s, in which the cleansing light of publicity was a weapon of reform–which they are–but just as a way of being idealistic, a non-political truthteller in the job of journalist. (Which is bunk.)
This kind of instruction is guaranteed to leave future journalists baffled by the culture wars, and in fact the press has been baffled to find that it has political opponents. Well, jeez louise, so did the progressives of the 1920s! As far as the religion knows, none of this is happening. And J-schools–by passing the faith along but making little room for non-believers–are part of the problem.
In the newsroom faith that I have been describing, Watergate is not just a big, big story with a knock-out ending. It is the great redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapon, journalists save the day. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers–and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism–is to my mind a big question. Whether it should continue is an even better question.
More so now that we know about W. Mark Felt. If Deep Throat was not Hal Holbrook but the number two guy at the FBI, was he Woodward’s source, or was Woodward really his agent? Now look at Epstein’s conclusion: “agencies of government itself…” were mainly responsible for getting the truth out about Watergate. Suppose he’s right, more or less. Admitting it would crash a big portion of the religion.
Missionaries, anthropologists, aid workers, peacekeepers, and other such outside agents also frequently end up being used in power plays by rival leaders in their target communities.
The whole essay is worth reading, along with the comments.