Monday, August 29, 2011

A Degree Of Irrelevance

THERE must be some strange and powerful force surrounding Jay Rosen, the visiting professor of journalism from New York University, whose provincial colleagues’ worshipful welcome to a weekend of chinwaggery in Melbourne, pleasant as it must have been for him, surely sounds any number of alarms – not least for parents contemplating the expense and dubious dividends of equipping their children with the tertiary qualifications deemed essential these days for reporting that cars hit lamp posts, police arrest criminals and footballers kick goals. Many of those kids’ future lecturers, professors, tutors and course specialists were in attendance at Rosen’s presentation, all enjoying what dispatches from the proceedings suggest were rollicking good sessions about the prospects, conduct and trends of an industry purportedly devoted to truth and objectivity. Rosen certainly earned his speaker’s fee, delivering an address that began by bringing a fixation that verged on the theological to some picayune and extraordinarily arcane aspects of the trade he teaches.

ABC’s Insiders is a travesty, that was one of Rosen’s principle observations. Many Sunday morning spectators, the little people out there in Television Land, would be inclined to agree that a former Labor staffer conducting a weekly chorus of mostly Labor sympathisers makes for poor viewing, but that was not Rosen’s objection. Indeed, it became apparent that he sees the near-uniformity of views as one of Insiders virtues.

Rather than the panelists’ bias and the bookers’ habitual stacking, it was Insiders’ very name that drew Rosen’s ire, suggesting to his satisfaction that guests are guilty of seeing themselves as players whose first loyalties are to the game, not to the truth of the game. Sounds good, eh? Helps to frame the gusto with which the likes of, say, Michelle Grattan fixed upon the initial announcement of the now-aborted East Timor Solution as further proof that our PM, despite all evidence to the contrary, is one “devilishly clever” political operator.

But no, that was not Rosen’s point, which he expounded at some length. His vehicle was Texas Governor Rick Perry, now a prime challenger for the right to oust the world’s most famous community organiser from the White House:
The leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, Rick Perry, is emerging as a climate change denialist. We might call this “verification in reverse.” Verification, which is crucial to journalism, means nailing down assertions with verifiable facts. Verification in reverse is taking established facts and manufacturing doubt about them, which creates political friction, and the friction then becomes an energy source you can tap for campaigning. It’s a political technique.
Get Rosen’s drift? Man-made global warming is one of those “verified facts”, so news coverage that accords Perry’s skepticism -- and, by extension, Perry’s candidacy -- the slightest credence is a betrayal of what Rosen inculcates his NYU students to go forth and practice. But surely that could not be the case? While few in Rosen’s audience of academics, students, and agreeable editors are unlikely ever to question the catastropharian creed, and certainly not in public or print, there remains a considerable body of opinion to the contrary. The way to deal with those nuisances, apparently, is to ignore them. Global warming has been “verified” to Rosen’s satisfaction and that of his pals. Enough said.

This perspective is so unsettling in its arrogance, in its presumption to reject all but the entirely subjective, his sentiment needed checking. Perhaps Rosen simply mis-spoke. If so, it would be a grave injustice to convict a journalism professor of advocating ideological censorship.

But no, that is precisely what he meant, as an interview with Lateline’s Tony Jones established beyond doubt: some subjects simply cannot be reported with a straight bat. On Lateline his example was the debate about President Obama’s place of birth, which good, decent, ethical journalists did well to ignore. Here is how he lectured Jones:
JAY ROSEN: …The need for journalists to continuously advertise their innocence is part of why they don't intervene and try and tell us where reality is.

TONY JONES: Can I interrupt you there, because that's precisely what shock jocks do on radio. They push their opinions all day. You wouldn't want someone in my position pushing opinions. What if I were to substitute your phrase for "open-mindedness", for example.

JAY ROSEN: Well, what if you're declaring your open-mindedness about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or not? Right? That's not a matter of opinion. As Senator Daniel Moynihan said, "You're entitled to your own opinion, you're not entitled to your own facts".   When political actors appear in the public stage and appear to be entitled to their own facts, that's a point where journalists have to step in or they lose their authority.
But what of the fascinating facts woven into the debate about the location of Obama’s arrival in the world? The first is that his birth certificate was locked in an Hawaiian safe, where three years of demands to see it met with blanket rejections. What had been made available was what, in Victoria, is known as an extract of entry, which established little more than the future president’s residency as an infant on US soil. The complete document could have been released, as all modern presidents’ certificates were released, without fuss or bother and the controversy put to bed immediately and forever. Yet until recently there was nothing but stonewalling and stalling – a policy that, with the full document now in the public view, strongly suggests Obama’s handlers were playing so-called birthers for suckers. How better to discredit the opposition than by inciting some of its more florid figures to inflammatory and, in retrospect, outrageous assertions. Racism, stupidity, hillbilly intemperance, guilt by association -- they were but some of the tags the birth-certificate controversy helped pin on all critics of the current administration. When Obama’s term ends it may well be that the goad-the-birthers stratagem stands as this president’s sole initiative to achieve its goals.

Rosen believes that, like doubts about man-made climate change, the matter of the missing birth certificate was unworthy of attention. How strange, given that so many interesting insights, debates and journalistic inquiries might have sprung from it. One example: It might have been noted that the “natural born citizen” clause of the US Constitution is grossly unjust and very much needs to be changed. It is entirely conceivable that the ambitious Alexander Hamilton had the right stuff to serve as president, yet he was born on the island of Nevis, near Barbados, and thus precluded long before Aaron Burr ended his foe’s political activism with a pistol ball to the breast. That exclusion of arguably able candidates through more than two centuries of US history is surely a worthy story. So, too, the ban’s practicality. If the president, vice-president, House Speaker and Senate President were all to die, then US law ordains the Secretary of State as rightful heir to the Oval Office. How would that have worked if the German-born Henry Kissinger had been called upon to serve? They would all seem fruitful and fascination avenues for journalists to explore. But not to Rosen, who would prefer silence to the possibility of much-needed reform.

This is how they teach journalism, folks, in a vacuum contained by its leading practitioners’ insularity and conceit, which filled the Wheeler Centre auditorium over the weekend as full and thoroughly as confidence now imbues the Collingwood locker room. Outside, though, where real lives are lived, mortgages honoured and school fees paid, very few were giving a toss, as Australian newspaper’s latest circulation figures attest.

“You want a career in journalism?” a sensible dad might counsel a child fresh from the Rosen lecture. “Newspapers are dying, TV news is all tits and teeth and the ABC can’t even cover an earthquake.”

“Get a real job, one with prospects. What you need to do is teach journalism, not practice it. No future in that at all.”

That Rosen magic appears to have banished all recognition amongst many in his audience that they are teaching an occupation in terminal decline. Even more astonishing, as they applauded his calls for self-censorship and subjectivity, they failed to recognise how much their own digging has steepened the gradient

UPDATE: Conference organiser Margaret Simons, who has been mooning over Rosen like Hattie Jacques for Kenneth Williams in a re-make of Carry On, Professor, explains how her series of gab-a-thons having been going. Few journalists turned up, but that was because Rosen spoke on a, er,  Friday. Few students turned up and this concerns her a little, but not enough to take her eye off what journalistic professoring is all about:

"We could do better with more funds, which we're in the process of trying to get."

Full audio of her quick word with an adenoidal interlocutor can be found here.


  1. PhillipGeorge(c)2011August 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    Professor, always enjoy the fluid florid and ebullient style; and here's the but - the birth certificate is no more going to go away than the grassy knoll shall.

    When did ethnicity start being listed as "African" rather than "Negro". This is 1961 we are talking about! How did chronological numbering start running backwards.

    As unpleasant as facts might be they are still missing.

    Pilate famously enquired "What is truth?"

    If legend is correct he suicided in Switzerland rather than rework his world view. And the West is busying itself with multiculturalism.

    Its truth that strips a man naked - and it is God who covers him with some sense. The truth is out there - we have only seen bits of it with respect to many a subject.

  2. The one thing for which I applaud Barack Obama is not dignifying the paranoid stupidity of the "birthers".

    There are some really nutty people out there; "birthers" are all of a piece with "truthers" and other barking mad individuals like, for example, Gordon Duff of "Veterans Today":

    You're right, Prof, for the wrong reason. The one smart, dignified thing Obama did was not to indulge them.

  3. See what I mean, Prof?

  4. PhillipGeorge(c)2011August 29, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    Anonymous, the only people who have nothing to learn are those who presume to already know. Anomalies make people uncomfortable.
    People avoid cognitive dissonance by doctoring memories to suit themselves.

    you might like to meander through some actual research.

    and if you have some insight into the usage of the word negro on U.S. government documents that may be interesting.

  5. Dear, dear PhillipGeorge, his father was a Kenyan. From Kenya. Africa. As a matter of fact, of the Luo tribe from Nyang'oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province.

    But I waste my time. Peace to you, my friend.

  6. As M Ryutin I failed to get my 'comment' published about the Rosen speech on the Drum today and offer the gist of it here as (perhaps) being relevant to the fawning over this professor.

    Due to his apparent criticism of journalists being classed as political 'insiders', I wanted to know his opinion of the epitome of "insiders' - the JournOlist in the USA, where a large cabal of political journalists got together on an email list to ensure that "The Narrative" was always politically correct. In the case of the JournOlist, this meant that the narative on Obama would never be negative, that certin 'lines' would always and uniformly be applied to conservatives etc.

    I even posed that if he wondered about its exact nature, he could possibly ask if his "my friend Todd Gitlin" could assist him,seeing as Mr Gitlin was a member of the said JournOlist.