Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Most journalism ‘scholarship’ contemptible

SAN FRANCISCO--The professoriate in general and university journalism educators in particular are among the most cautious people in the country. They are Establishment to the core.
No surprise really. Schools, the media and society indoctrinate them in “correct thinking.” Nearly all are bland rather than feisty. Nearly all go along with the status quo rather than point out that the emperor is naked.
The reason is simple. Professors want to stay on the good side of deans. They seek tenure, promotion and merit pay. Radicalism is no way to get them—or to build a career.
Moreover, journalism professors seldom criticize the media because their journalism schools get gifts, endowments and scholarships. If some professor has the temerity to criticize the media, the article is almost never printed in America (except in that marvelous monument to a free press, the Sparks Tribune).
The Cultural and Critical Studies Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, meeting in annual convention in San Francisco recently, rejected my essay entitled “The Glorious First Amendment and Its Betrayal.” The essay expressed regret that few nations have the First Amendment and lamented self-censorship by the U.S. mainstream press.
The point is not the chagrin of a disappointed lover. The point is that of the more than 200 papers presented at AEJMC, only about 10 were worth reading.
Ah, but the critical studies division did accept papers about Korean cable TV, marketing in Bulgaria, Korean ads for mobile phones and billboard usage in Indian elections. All of the who-cares variety. Division members talk a good game about being rabble-rousers but do little rabble-rousing.
The nation is in the grip of unparalled reaction. But few papers and presenters at the convention even alluded to the disastrous Bush administration. Fox TV, where far too many Americans get their “news,” should have been denounced. But, no, that is qualitative research. It is not the quantitative “scholarship” beloved by the AEJMC.
One reviewer who rejected my essay said there was “hardly a word or example in this paper with which he disagreed.” Another reviewer said: “The author does a solid job of summarizing various points about the First Amendment from other authors and weaves together their arguments in cogent fashion…the argument is justified…no significant material has been overlooked…the major scholars are here. We need to have more papers (like this).”
But: no sale despite the praise of the reviewer.
Most journalism professors lack anger and passion. They tease the obvious, emit profound-sounding garbage, measure trivia and contribute little to an understanding of the media. So much journalism “scholarship” richly deserves contempt.
The ruination of the journalism association occurred when the Association for Education in Journalism added mass communication to its name in 1983. This move blessed the chi-squares, who with their mathematical formulas and gobbledygook, turned media scholarship into bogus social science.
Examples from papers presented here: “In an effort to rectify the inconsistencies regarding the relative persuasive effect of gain- versus loss-framed messages”… “This research investigated the impact of normative intensity (i.e., strength of feeling) and crystallization (i.e., level of agreement) regarding communication behaviors”… “This paper uses a Lyotardan-Kuhnian frame to analyze…”
(Frame and framing are the reigning clichés of AEJMC paper titles. As for paper presenters, they cannot utter a sentence without interspersing two or three “you knows.”)
The latest rage in newspapering is civic-public-citizen journalism. Under this inanity, every citizen is a journalist. But instead of a discussion of the pros and cons of people journalism, we get learned papers referring to Cronbach and Varimax and formulas “(r=.30, p < .01)” and “F(1,85) = 9.31, p < .01.”
The whole concept of civic journalism is absurd. Newspaper editors and editors of the opinion sections are often third-raters. Ordinary citizens can hardly be exemplary.
One ridiculous paper presented by the advertising division: “Penetration of Brand Evaluation on Hierarchy of Advertising Effect: a Structural Equation Modeling Analysis.” (Just one of many similar silly titles.)
The truth is that journalism schools should not have advertising and public relations sequences nor should AEJMC have ad and PR divisions. Advertising and PR professors do not pursue the truth. They pursue selling and image-building, hardly the missions of higher education.
Amid the ever-proliferating welter of 31 divisions and interest groups, AEJMC has a few good divisions like history, law and newspaper. But far too many AEJMC papers deal with the absurdities of the Aldine hypothesis, the Habermas theory “of communicative rationality” and “Taylor’s Six-Segment Message” in advertising.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Marshall bests Jefferson

Under the big tent of Chautauqua at Rancho San Rafael Park recently, incarnations of two giants of American history debated judical review and the power of the Supreme Court to strike down unconstitutional laws.
Judicial review is hardly a hot-button issue like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. But it was good theater, an entertaining and informative evening.
Washoe District Judge Brent Adams portrayed John Marshall, great Chief Justice of the United States (1801-1835). Clay Jenkinson portrayed Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), one of the great intellects of American history.
Judge Adams won the debate. Historically, Marshall has long since won. Jefferson’s faith in the people was misguided in his time. Today? It is downright foolish.
The masses are what Mencken called Boobus Americanus. They have the perfect president in Bush: crude, coarse, cowboyish, still an ignorant frat boy at 60 and a worldwide disgrace.
“So few, so much power over so many,” Jenkinson-Jefferson argued. “If the people are truly sovereign and they express their will through representatives freely chosen at frequent intervals, why should appointees serving for life be able to trump that will?”
J-J added: “The people are right even when they are wrong.”
Yes, five unelected people on the Supreme Court can determine the law of the land for 300 million people. But judicial review is essential even when the decisions are woefully wrong as they were in Dred Scott (1857) and Bush v. Gore (2000).
In the misbegotten Dred Scott case, slaves were ruled not to be U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. Moreover, slaves were deemed property protected by the Constitution. In the misbegotten Bush case, five right-wing Republican justices sealed the theft of the presidency.
Then there were the Four Horsemen of Reaction in the 1930s who consistently voted to strike down New Deal legislation.
Nevertheless, judicial review is absolutely necessary to strike down unconstitutional laws of Congress, state statutes and city ordinances. It prevents the tyranny of the majority, measures enacted by lawmakers pandering to voters.
Judicial review is not in the Constitution. The iron-willed Marshall put it there. He had the writing of Alexander Hamilton, the high priest of Federalism, to back him up. Hamilton argued brilliantly in No. 78 (1788) of “The Federalist Papers,” a debater’s handbook for adoption of the Constitution.
Using the classical penname, Publius, Hamiliton wrote: courts must “declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void...The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts.”
Yes, Supreme Court justices are unelected, unaccountable and virtually unimpeachable, But they were not and are not the tyrants that Jenkinson-Jefferson said they were.
Yes, judicial review is troublesome, giving the Supreme Court the power to override the democratric will. Jefferson, a strong republican, found this intolerable. But he was wrong.
Without judicial review we would not have desegregated schools. We would not have the constitutional right to burn the flag. We would not have prayer barred from public schools. We would not have outlawed compulsory flag salutes in public schools. We would not have anti-sodomy statutes barred. We would not have a contraceptive ban struck down. We would not have legal abortion.
Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) was masterful, establishing the Hamiltonian right to rule on the constitutionality of laws. Jean Edward Smith, Marshall biographer, hailed the opinion as “one of the great constitutional documents of American history.”
“The magisterial character of his great opinions has never been equaled,” Smith wrote. “Clear, concise and eloquent, they are in many ways a rarity: legal documents that can be read and understood by the ordinary citizen.”
But Marshall was not the greatest chief justice. Earl Warren was. Marshall ruled for property. Warren ruled for people. The difference is vast in a country where money and property rule. Adam Smith, the prophet of capitalism, spoke of “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence changed that phrase to the more humane “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Reno Chautauquans also saw Charles Pace execute a marvelous tour de force playing both the conservative Booker T. Washington and the radical Malcolm X.
Pace, an American Studies instructor at Centre College in Danville, Ky., made clear Washington’s legacy: the founding of Tuskegee University of Alabama in 1881. He also extolled “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as the American classic it is.
Both men were crucial to their eras. Washington, like M.L. King in the civil rights movement, helped whites think well of blacks. Malcolm X was even more important psychologically: he helped blacks think well of themselves.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Book ‘burners’ still plaguing America

“Censorship under the guise of child protection has been an excuse for not educating children--about media, critical thinking and moral values.”
--Marjorie Heins of the Brennan Center for Justice

Book banning never ceases in America, supposedly the land of the free.
The Dade County School Board voted recently to remove from its libraries a series of children’s books, including one depicting smiling Cuban youngsters wearing uniforms of the communist youth organization.
The book, “Vamos a Cuba” (“Let’s Go to Cuba), was deemed “inappropriate.” Other books removed included several that had been praised by reviewers.
The American Civil Liberties Union, perhaps the finest organization in America, filed suit in federal district court to halt the removals. It cited student right of access to books.
Remember the 1969 Tinker case? Kids in Des Moines, Iowa, protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to class. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote of this symbolic speech:
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” He quoted from the court’s rejection in 1943 of a West Virginia compulsory flag-salute statute:
“That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms…if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”
Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the court in the flag-statute case, said: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”
Remember the 1982 Pico case? A school district in Long Island, N.Y., removed nine books from a high school library because of complaints by conservative parents. One of the books was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a modern American classic by Kurt Vonnegut.
Lower federal courts upheld this strangulation of young minds. But not the Supreme Court. Writing for the court, Justice William Brennan had it right: “Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.”
None of those decisions matter in this so-called free country. Too many Yahoos rule.
Linda Ellerbee, former NBC correspondent and anchorwoman, wrote a moving column about her son who seldom read more than comic books. But one day in school he was assigned a book report.
“The story dealt with a friendship between two migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression, how they had a dream and what went wrong with their dream and why some people’s dreams couldn’t come true and how terrible a thing that was,” Ellerbee wrote.
“He told me about George describing to Lennie the farm they would own one day, asking Lennie to see it with his heart, knowing the whole time what had to happen next…and suddenly there were tears rolling down my son’s cheeks. He could not go on. But he knew. The kid got it.
“Today my son is a writer. More than that, my son is a reader, a lover of words, of ideas and it began with that one bannable book, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men.’ ” (“Of Mice and Men” was among the 10 books most frequently attacked in high school and public libraries in the 1990s. The novella was labeled blasphemous, offensive and racist.)
The New Yorker carried a memorable essay about metaphorical book burning in “The Talk of the Town” (March 22, 1982). The writer visited a library in “a small, neat city” in “another part of the country.”
He was both astounded and chagrined to discover that the local library had banned Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” and “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
The librarian explained that those books were banned “to protect the children.” The stunned author wrote:
“Well, I have spent a fair amount of time protecting children from things--mostly fundamental things like cold, hunger, automobiles, broken class--so I understand the impulse. But I cannot understand protecting children from intelligence, protecting children from passion, protecting children from complexity and protecting children from…the end of ‘Huckleberry Finn’:
“ ‘I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it.’ ”
If his 15-year-old daughter “is not permitted to read ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ she is not free,” the author concluded. Or, as John Stuart Mill put it in his 1859 essay “On Liberty”: “Silencing opinion is robbing the human race.”