Journalism

Legislators target UW-Madison and investigative journalism center

Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a motion that would expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and bar university employees from working with the nonprofit.

Debate grows over journalism education

Many journalism educators are criticizing a foundation letter about their field as simplistic and unfair to Ph.D.s.

Ohio State student newspaper The Lantern contracts with Gannett

Gannett will run business and advertising at Ohio State's student newspaper. The university says the deal will allow it to focus more on journalism education, but some students and advisers are concerned.

A new journalism degree from Columbia, with a $150K catch

Cost of Columbia’s new graduate degree in data journalism slammed by journalists.

Wyoming community college to close journalism program at center of dispute

Wyoming's Northwest College, citing budget problems, plans to eliminate journalism program whose encouragement of aggressive student newspaper has nettled campus administrators.

Review of Stephen Siff, "Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience"

If you can remember the 1960s, the old quip goes, you weren’t really part of them. By that standard, the most authentic participants ended up as what used to be called “acid casualties”: those who took spiritual guidance from Timothy Leary’s injunction to “turn on, tune in and drop out” and ended up stranded in some psychedelic heaven or hell. Not that they’ve forgotten everything, of course. But the memories aren’t linear, nor are they necessarily limited to the speaker’s current incarnation on this particular planet.

Fortunately Stephen Siff can draw on a more stable and reliable stratum of cultural memory in Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (University of Illinois Press). At the same time, communicating about the world as experienced through LSD or magic mushrooms was ultimately as difficult for a sober newspaper reporter, magazine editor or video documentarian as conversation tends to be for someone whose mind has been completely blown. The author, an assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio, is never less than shrewd and readable in his assessment of how various news media differed in method and attitude when covering the psychedelic beat. The slow and steady buildup of hype (a word Siff uses in a precise sense) precipitated an early phase of the culture wars -- sometimes in ways that partisans now might not expect.

Papers on experimentation with LSD were published in American medical journals as early as 1950, and reports on its effects from newspaper wire services began tickling the public interest by 1954. The following year, mass-circulation magazines were devoting articles to LSD research, followed in short order by a syndicated TV show’s broadcast of film footage showing someone under the influence. The program, Confidential File, sounds moderately sleazy (the episode in question was described as featuring “an insane man in a sensual trance”) but much of the early coverage was perfectly respectable, treating LSD as a potential source of insight into schizophrenia, or a potential expressway to the unconscious for psychoanalysts.

But the difference between rank sensationalism and science-boosting optimism may count for less, in Siff’s interpretation, than how sharply coverage of LSD broke with prevailing media trends that began coming into force in the 1920s.

After the First World War, with wounded soldiers coming back with a morphine habit, newspapers carried on panic-stricken anti-drug crusades (“The diligent dealer in deadly drugs is at your door!”) and any publication encouraging recreational drug use, or treating it as a fact of life, was sure to fall before J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye. Early movie audiences enjoyed the comic antics of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s detective character Coke Ennyday (always on the case, syringe at the ready), or in a more serious mood they could go to For His Son, D. W. Griffith’s touching story of a man’s addiction to Dopokoke, the cocaine-fueled soft drink that made his father rich. But by the time the talkies came around, the Motion Picture Production Code categorically prohibited any depiction of drug use or trafficking, even as a criminal enterprise. Siff notes that in the 20 years following the code’s establishment in 1930, “not a single major Hollywood film dealing with drug use was distributed to the public.”

Not that depictions of substance abuse were a forbidden fruit the public was craving, exactly. But the relative openness of the mid-1950s (emphasis on “relative”) allowed editors to risk publishing stories on what was, after all, serious research on a potential new wonder drug. Siff points out that general-assignment newspaper reporters attending a scientific or medical conference, unable to tell what sessions were worth covering, could feel reasonably confident that a title mentioning LSD would probably yield a story.

At the same time, writers for major newsmagazines and opinion journals were following the lead of Aldous Huxley, the novelist and late-life religious searcher, who wrote about mystical experiences he had while taking mescaline. In 1955, when the editors of Life magazine decided to commission a feature on hallucinogenic mushrooms, it turned to Wall Street banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson. He traveled to Mexico and became, in his own words, one of “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushroom” -- and if not, then surely the first to give an eyewitness report on “the archetypes, the Platonic ideals, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life” in the pages of a major newsweekly.

Suffice it to say that by the time Timothy Leary and associates come on the scene (wandering around Harvard University in the early 1960s, with continuously dilated pupils and only the thinnest pretense of scientific research) it is rather late in Siff’s narrative. And Leary’s legendary status as psychedelic shaman/guru/huckster seems much diminished by contrast with the less exhibitionistic advocacy of LSD by Henry and Clare Boothe Luce. Beatniks and nonconformists of any type were mocked regularly in the pages of Time or Life, but the Luce publications were for many years very enthusiastic about the potential benefits of LSD. The power couple tripped frequently, and hard. (Some years ago, when I helped organize Mrs. Luce’s papers at the Library of Congress, the LSD notes were a confidence not to be breached, but now the experiments are a matter of public record.)

The hippies, in effect, seem like a late and entirely unintentional byproduct of industrial-strength hype. “During an episode of media hype,” Siff writes, “news coverage feeds on itself, as different news outlets follow and expand on one another’s stories, reacting among themselves and to real-world developments. Influence seems to flow from the larger news organizations to smaller ones, as editors at smaller or more marginal media operations look toward the decisions made by major outlets for ideas and confirmation of their own judgment.”

That is the process, broadly conceived. In Acid Hype, Siff charts the details -- especially how the feedback bounced around between news organizations, not just of different sizes, but with different journalistic cultures. Newspaper coverage initially stuck to the major talking points of LSD researchers; it tended to stress the potential wonder-drug angle, even when the evidence for it was weak. Major magazines wanted to cover the phenomenon in greater depth -- among other things, with firsthand reports on the psychedelic universe by people who’d gone there on assignment. Meanwhile, the art directors tried to figure out how to convey far-out experiences through imagery and layout -- as, in time, did TV producers. (Especially on Dragnet, if memory serves.)

Some magazine editors seem to have been put off by the religious undercurrents of psychedelic discourse. Siff exhibits a passage in a review that quotes Huxley’s The Doors of Perception but carefully removes any biblical or mystical references. But someone like Leary, who proselytized about psychedelic revolution, was eminently quotable -- plus he looked good on TV because (per the advice of Marshall McLuhan) he smiled constantly.

The same hype-induction processes that made hallucinogens seem like the next step toward improving the American way of life (or, conversely, the escape route for an alternative to it) also went into effect when the tide turned: just as dubious claims about LSD’s healing properties were reported without question (it’ll cure autism!), so did horror stories about side effects (it’ll make you stare at the sun until you go bling!).

The reaction seems to have been much faster and more intense than the gradual pro-psychedelic buildup. Siff ends his account of the period in 1969 -- oddly enough, without ever mentioning the figure who emerged into public view that year as the embodiment of LSD's presumed demons: Charles Manson. You didn't hear much about the drug's spiritual benefits after Charlie began explaining them. That was probably for the best.

Editorial Tags: 

Column on program in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School

Whenever young writers have asked for advice over the years, the only thing I could think to tell them was to practice saying, “Where’s my check?” into the telephone, at various degrees of loudness, mixing in suitable expletives if they felt comfortable doing so. “You’ll probably be saying that a lot,” I'd tell them, generalizing from painful experience.

But as accumulated wisdom goes, it’s pretty well out-of-date. Communication by phone has lost much of its immediacy (half the time it involves leaving a message asking, “Did you get my e-mail?”), and besides, much of the work done by a novice writer, if not all of it, now goes unremunerated. Publication is supposed to be its own reward.

Exaggeration? Sure, but it’s how things look to a writer who began publishing at the close of an era when that meant print and nothing but print. Someone starting out today enters a public sphere with a very different composition and structure -- and does so with a tacit understanding that it, too, will be reconfigured over time. We Gutenbergian geezers must adapt to such changes or else forgo reaching much of our potential audience. Writers emerging now, by contrast, face an arguably more difficult problem: establishing a durable public presence (i.e., readership) at all, in an environment where sustained attention is the scarcest of resources.

A recently launched program at the New School for Social Research called Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (henceforth CPCJ) seems designed with that challenge in mind. The course work, leading to a master’s degree, is intended to teach students “to think critically and historically about book publishing and journalism; to learn about the best practices of contemporary reporting and cultural criticism; to appreciate the business aspects of production and distribution; and to acquire an ability to work collaboratively in the writing, editing, design and publication of texts on a variety of platforms, both print and digital.” (The full program launches this coming fall, but three core courses are being taught this semester.)

The head of CPCJ, James Miller, a professor of politics and former chair of the New School’s liberal studies program, calls it “a frankly experimental program” that is off to a quiet if promising start. “The program has only been up and running for a few months, and without much in the way of advertising so far,” he told me in an e-mail. “We already have in hand 12 finished applications, and another 80 or so people that have started apps or expressed interest via e-mail inquiries or visits to our classes this semester.”

The roster of faculty and guest speakers listed on its Web site is clearly the program’s biggest draw for now, and it’s hard to think of anyone more suited to running it than Miller, who has published monographs on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as pieces in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. At a much earlier stage of his career, Miller was one of a number of professors in government who were denied tenure by the University of Texas at Austin -- in part, it was said by their supporters, because they leaned to the left, but also on the grounds that they were writing for the popular press as well as scholarly journals. Such, at least, was the word going around when I arrived as a freshman in 1981, and it tracks fairly closely with what Texas Monthly reported the following year, in a cover story called "The Trouble With UT."

Miller was very much a felt absence among some of us, and when the last of his circle was denied tenure, we ended the school year by occupying the liberal arts office in protest. (You never forget your first political arrest.) By then Miller had joined Newsweek as a book and music critic, and also went on to write "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987) and The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993) and to edit the journal Daedalus, published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

A remarkable skill set, then -- assembled mostly in predigital days but supplemented by Miller’s feel for what the would-be public intellectual, magazine editor or literary publisher would need to know in starting out today.  Part of the core curriculum, for example, is a lab where students can expand their multimedia literacy by learning Adobe Suite, WordPress, HTML, EPUB and so on.

You could acquire some of those tools at one of the city's many journalism/publishing degree programs -- or, for that matter, at the Learning Annex, I suppose. But the instructor for the lab is Rachel Rosenfelt,  a founding editor of the cultural journal The New Inquiry and someone with a deep interest in the uses of multimedia for serious commentary and debate. Another instructor is Juliette Cezzar, an assistant professor of communication at the Parsons School of Design and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts/New York, whose course on the history and theory of publication design also involves studio work. While overlapping somewhat with established programs in writing, publishing and design programs, CPCJ integrates them in a specific and, as far as I know, unique way.

A memo by Miller indicates that the M.A. work culminates in “an individualized capstone project that can take a number of forms: from an edgy short story or long-form book review to a piece of investigative reporting, from a business plan for a new literary quarterly to design work that demonstrates a student’s ability to create an engrossing reading experience and shows an awareness of and empathy for today’s reader of serious writing.”

For a reader of serious writing, it’s good to hear this -- especially the part about students designing “a business plan for a new literary quarterly.” Does that sound crass? Well, someone said that you can tell who the poets are at a party, because they’re the ones in a corner talking about money. (The lack of it, presumably.)

My one major worry is that the program could end up as a conduit supplying still more unpaid labor to the voracious maw of the New York culture industry. At some point CPCJ really ought to offer a course on organizing interns to demand fair pay. It's an experimental program, after all, and that's an experiment worth making. All together now: "Where are our checks?"

Editorial Tags: 

New data show communication faculty jobs are up

While many disciplines continue to face shortages of faculty openings, this one is seeing a surge.

Review of Lisa Gitelman, 'Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents'

Intellectual Affairs

A couple of weeks ago I decided, after prolonged dithering, to rent space in the digital warehousing district known as "the cloud." One of my laptops held at least five years' worth of material -- digital page proofs for books, JSTOR downloads, extensive photographic documentation of the lives of our cats, etc. -- running to about 14,000 files, or more than 50 gigabytes. Having all of it in one place seemed to tempt fate.

It also meant that use of my digital archive was restricted to times when that rather clunky laptop happened to be convenient. The biggest advantage of storing a file in the cloud is being able to retrieve it on any computer or e-reader that has web access. The savings in exasperation alone are considerable. A feeling of creeping senility kicks in when you end up with two or three copies of a paper that you probably already downloaded, but can't remember for sure (so just to be safe...) or spend part of a trip to the library gathering the same citations you collected a few years ago.

The one disadvantage -- in case anyone else out there has a similar digital hoarding problem -- is that first you have to upload everything, and it can take a while. The task does not require much attention. But even with sending batches of a hundred files or more at a time, it took a long weekend. That doesn't count the labor of sorting and labeling the files and weeding out duplicates, which, like housekeeping, is an ongoing process that never really ends.

After this long march into the paperless future, my study ought to look as aesthetically spare as an Ikea store display -- not crowded with cardboard boxes full of documents from projects both in progress and in limbo. But I'm not there yet and probably never will be. With a scanner and a few more weekends, all the files could all be rendered into PDF. For that matter, some of the material that took me years to locate, and not a few bucks to acquire, can now be downloaded in that format for free.

It's the same text, of course, yet somehow not the same document. The PDF lacks the aura of the original: the constant, lingering reminder that, in the past, readers held this specific document in their hands, focused attention on it for their own particular reasons, and decided that it was worth keeping.

Contact with the original document enriches the experience of reading -- thickening it with added layers of historicity. That said, it's also convenient to have a digital version of it on hand, to annotate or to share. But by the time I finished reading Lisa Gitelman's new book Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press), even the humble PDFs downloaded on a JSTOR binge began to seem interesting in their own right as a variety of social and cultural artifact.

Gitelman, a professor of English and of media, culture, and communication at New York University, finds the contrast between print culture and digital culture much less compelling than a series of developments from the past 150 years conditioning how we understand documents of whatever variety, whether published with ink or in bytes. My hunch going in was that the author would give a fair bit of space to one more rehearsal and critique of Foucault's treatment of the concepts of document and archive in The Archeology of Knowledge. The eyes fairly glaze at the prospect.

Instead, Gitelman practices a kind of conceptual archeology without obeisance to the master, in an argument that stands well on its own.

To sum it up all too quickly, then: Discussions of print culture typically concern published matter of a few general kinds, such as books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers -- in short, mass-produced texts through which authors communicate with an audience.

But another category accounted for up to a third of the output of printers in the United States by the end of the 19th century: the "job printing" done for the government, industry, and small businesses, providing them with batches of application forms, tickets, order books, rent receipts, posters, and so on.

This layer of "print culture" was part of the basic infrastructure of modern bureaucracy and of advanced capitalism -- as essential to modernity as the circulation of books and magazines was in creating the "public sphere" (Jürgen Habermas) or the "imagined community" of the nation-state (Benedict Arnold). The concept of "author" hardly applied to the documents turned out by job printing, and they didn't typically have "readers," either, certainly not in the sense a newspaper did. But they were integral to everyday life -- and with the passing of time, they could become historical evidence, the raw material of scholarship.

Here the analysis begins to spin out a couple of threads that, by turns, twist together and move at odd angles to each other. Gitelman goes on to trace the efforts of academics in the 1920s and '30s to develop standards for making scarce primary sources available to the scholarly community (using emerging tools such as microfilm) while also establishing standards for cataloging and citing documents circulating through non-print modes of reproduction (for example, carbon copy or the hectograph).

Marketing of the Xerox machine in the early 1960s originally stressed its usefulness as a replacement for job printing. But by the end of the decade, copy shops were sprouting up around college campuses, precisely to meet the need for small-run reproduction of scholarly materials that American learned societies had anticipated in earlier decades.

By the time you reach the book's final chapter, on the rise of PDF, the relationship between the history of ground-level print culture and that of its Ivory Tower analog seem linked in so many suggestive ways that the advent of digital culture seems like just one part of an intricate pattern. Most of the stimulation of the book comes from Gitelman's narration and juxtaposition of developments across several decades, which unfortunately can't be captured in paraphrase.

It's the first of the author's books I have read, but it won't be the last.

Editorial Tags: 

Ten years after cutting it, Texas A&M will revive journalism program

Ten years ago, Texas A&M cut its journalism program. The job market imploded in the meantime, but the university hopes its interdisciplinary, liberal arts education approach will make reviving the degree a smart move.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Journalism
Back to Top