There’s a wonderful scene in the 1979 film Manhattan that is parody, but as in most satire, perilously close to reality. Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) are strolling in the Guggenheim Museum when Mary starts rattling off the names of members of what she calls the "Academy of the Overrated." Among the academy’s charter members: Norman Mailer, Gustav Mahler, Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Walt Whitman, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.
Woody is beside himself. He can’t believe anyone would trash those so close to his heart.
Flash-forward to a meeting I attended recently. The journalism school at the University of Iowa is deservedly getting a new building, a marvel of technological and architectural wonders dedicated to teaching the wonders of communication to would-be 21st Century journalists. A colleague and I were selected to coordinate a day-long dedication for the new school, and through the benevolence of a benefactor, have a small pot of money to spend to attract a big-name speaker or two.
As in everything academic, the decision won’t be mine alone. The j-school will be sharing its new space with a hybrid, the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and because universities like to act democratically, representatives from the two disciplines need to agree on who the speakers would be.
On the j-school’s list were such luminaries as Donald Barlett, James Fallows, Donald Graham, Bill Kovach, Daniel Okrent, James Steele and Bob Woodward.
Just as I finished circulating this A-list of names, a young professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature sneered. "Well, I'd hope we wouldn’t invite Woodward!" She was almost spitting.
"What's wrong with Woodward?" I asked, my blood pressure beginning to spike.
"Well, I just don’t think he’s a very good journalist!" the professor snarled.
A momentary pause for anyone who’s been living in a cave: Bob Woodward has taken us into the lives of Americans as diverse as the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton, John Belushi, the former CIA chief spy William Casey, the Supreme Court justices, Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan. With help from Carl Bernstein, he was responsible for showing Richard Nixon the White House door. Woodward has been one of America’s most gifted newspapermen for more than 35 years. He has changed how Americans look at our country and how journalists write about it.
Considering all the above, I stared at this Judas in my midst, my mouth forming an O-shape. I looked around the table for a nibble of support but got none. Just as I was about to jump on the table to protest, my own colleague from the journalism school joined Judas, voicing her assessment of Woodward as an opportunistic sellout.
The emboldened professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature hopped on the thread. "We definitely wouldn’t want Woodward," she said now with finality.
"But then who?" I asked.
"Well, I could see inviting Sy Hershman."
This cinema-and-comparative-literature professor was so chummy with the investigative reporter and New Yorker political writer Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal story, that she was comfortable enough calling him Sy, but somehow couldn’t get his last name right.
The rest of the discussion, as far as I could follow, involved how corrupt journalism is and how complicit the school is to take money from the likes of giants like Gannett, Lee Enterprises and other models of corporate greed.
After gathering my wits, I suggested that we ought to have two separate days of dedication -- one where academics could trash the corporate model of journalism, and another where professional journalists could talk about ways to enhance and improve American journalism.
Absolutely not, the professors around me railed. There should be one and only one program. The journalists (well, maybe not Woodward) should be invited to the dedication to learn from the academics. We need to publicly humiliate, flog and pummel these propagandists. Lock the doors so the lapdogs can’t escape. Call C-SPAN to document the bloodbath.
I’m not making this up.
What’s the lesson? Just another case of academic elitism at its most basic and sniveling core?
What happened is not new or different from how the academy has historically looked at anything popular or successful. Popularity means corrupt, and corrupt means without merit, worthy of scorn -- a ticket into the Academy of the Overrated.
That recent incident recalled a similar instance of incorrigible academic elitism I experienced when I was an untenured professor and about to submit a book proposal to a trade publisher. A tenured faculty member told me, point blank, that if a trade publishing house were ever to publish my book, I should be prepared to kiss tenure goodbye. Naïve and new to the job, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"You mean to say that if a reputable publisher, a place like Knopf, Doubleday or Harcourt, were to publish the book, and if it were to get positive reviews in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a great number of people were to read the book, I wouldn’t get tenure?"
"That’s right," came the acid response from the full professor. "Trade publishers will print anything that’ll sell."
As though writing a book that the lay people read would be bad.
I had never heard of anything so undemocratic in my life. Almost a decade later, I still feel the same way. I understand that there is a place for serious scholarship, which by nature has a limited audience. But I was a journalist, teaching in a journalism school. The definition of good journalism is to break new ground, and in doing so, reach as large an audience as possible. The idea is to discover and inform -- not really so different from the role of a university professor.
I’m glad to report that the full professor soon left the university, the book came out, I got tenure, was promoted, and life has been rosy ever since. But the professor’s elitist drivel still sticks in my craw because his snobbery runs so rampant in the academy today -- as what I experienced with the dopey professor from the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature.
Frankly, I doubt whether Bob Woodward would even want to come to Iowa in the first place. The real action these days when it comes to improving journalism isn’t in the critical-cultural halls of academe. No surprise. It lies with smart, savvy reporters and editors pushing the limits of corporate media ownership by producing the kind of journalism that demands to be disseminated and read, stuff so good that no one can ignore it.
It’s hard to be a journalist today given economic constraints, not to mention a surging patriotic mandate from a large part of this nation that dictates to be critical of the government is to be Un-American. In my mind, to do journalism well today is a form of heroism.
For more than a century, the credo of millions of American journalists used to be “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That magnificent credo still flies proudly at several rarified media outlets. God knows, such journalism is needed today. The way journalism is practiced today at many newspapers and electronic outlets is mediocre, often embarrassing. For many reasons, much mainstream journalism has entered a new kind of Dark Age.
But journalists shouldn’t -- and won’t -- put up with ivory-tower snipers pointing AK-47s at their real-world heads. Few newly minted journalism/mass communication Ph.D.s today have any familiarity with the great journalists of our times -- Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, to name a few. Mention John Hersey, Rachel Carson, James Agee, Lincoln Steffens, H.L. Mencken, Hannah Arendt, Ida Tarbell and you’re likely to get blank stares. Doctoral students today receive few incentives to study journalists. Today’s graduate students in the field study critical-cultural theoretical icons who, I’m afraid to say, have little real understanding of today’s working press.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s so little scholarship that has contributed to improving the quality of journalism. I doubt whether scholars really want to do that, anyway. For most scholars, such activity would be considered beneath them — sort of like publishing a book that people could actually understand.