We are intellectual prostitutes: Ketcham

I’m partway through a draft of an original blog essay, but don’t have time to finish it. I ran across this piece on TruthDig. So, my reaction to it will have to suffice. H/T to Christopher Ketcham for serving as my inspiration today.

His article, Intellectual Prostitution and the Myth of Objectivity, is a cynical and angry take on life as a writer-for-hire. But it caught for me the rock and the hard place I find between teaching mainstream journalism and teaching critical theory. From a critical theory perspective, Ketcham’s point comes as no surprise. He is, in fact, bang on in allegiance with “what they know to be true” about commercial journalism in general.

Journalists, on the other hand, would probably find this sort of rant offensive and worthy of little internalization.

Many journalists, it seems, still get mightily suspicious of anyone questioning their capacity for objective distance. But in the face of so much empirical evidence to the contrary, I find it harder to split myself in two. This ability to hang on to that ideal and still claim to be an academic expert in journalism never made sense to me. I equated it with contemporary doctors clinging to blood-letting in the face of antibiotics. I felt it was the journalism educator’s responsibility, if she were to become “more scholarly”,  to get her head around the academy’s Top 40. And most in that Top 40 is well beyond traditional positivistic thinking.

But then again, the Average Academic hasn’t necessarily done that intellectual work either. Who reads Foucault for fun when you’re paid to bring Plato or Hume to the masses? And once you do, you start to use phrases like subjugated knowledges and post-structuralism and have trouble reading the paper or watching television without conducting a substantive analytic critique of ruling relations.

The eyes around you glaze. Suddenly, you’re at risk of being part of that irrelevant liberal arts elite.

It is an uphill battle. I’ve tried, as a journalism educator, to work out ways to teach practice through the contemporary lenses of social theory as I’ve become more fluent.  One goal I had in curriculum development was to intentionally open up the entry-level curriculum to anti-positivist and critical perspectives on the social world. Four years later, I find myself marking a few senior essays claiming that the citizen cannot be a journalist because the journalists lacks what (presumably) the student has forked over big bucks to acquire. Training. Professional school. The ability to “be objective”.

Now, it wouldn’t be so bad, but this writing came after ingesting readings from qualitative sociology and symbolic interactionism. I was hoping to map for students a trail of how these other social scientists worked their way from positivistic objectivity through to post-positivism and beyond — in their quests for a more humane, complex and complete picture of ‘what’s happening’ in the everyday world.

Most got the idea. But a few couldn’t shake the belief that the citizens are incapable of delivering “just the facts”.

Antonio Gramsci would love this, I thought. Hegemony 101. Of course, I recall one Well-Placed-Academic (WPA) who fairly barked at me that the introduction of Gramsci’s theory as central to Journalism education (by introducing Hegemony to the lectures in the introductory class) was an “indoctrination”. WPA probably would consider this upper-year vestigial resistance by a few students to be the signs of rational minds rejecting the babble of contemporary ideologues messing up WPA’s academy.

Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway would explain WPA’s attitude by suggesting that the academy was made for guys like him.

And these are just the Battles of the Artsies that I’ve managed to figure out. Hard science, the world that dominates the academy, is still a positivistic enterprise. And my hard science buddies get even less exposure to Liberal Arts or Humanities in their curricula… much less critiques of how science works by people like Harding or Haraway.

So: the Coles Notes version for those who haven’t read them:  H & H are not saying hard science methods are a totally bad thing. They’re just saying there’s more than one way to look at things.

I think the academy is becoming more sensitive to this reality. You can prove global warming to be a scientific fact.  Suddenly, the issue becomes getting people to believe that fact. If you can’t solve the latter problem, we’re all in trouble. Of course, some of us (the hard scientists) will be a tad more bitter as we burn than others.

I haven’t figured out how to get people past the Semmelweis reflex.  Mine isn’t the only research and innovation effort recognizing the oppressive power of old thinking. It makes sense that the critical and emancipatory theorists held a lot of answers for me in that regard. I’ve stopped worrying whether or not that personal interest is “appropriate” to my role. That’s what makes me more of an academic these days, I guess. I’ve fallen prey to a “burning question”. Critics be damned!

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Nobody liked to be criticized. We usually react by labeling the critic with something that explains away our own limitations.

I’m also still trying to figure out if I can continue to see myself as a Journalist while I make this journey to becoming a PhD-holding person. Maybe I’m stubborn, but I don’t want to separate my two identities. I want to bring the Journalist in me along for the ride through the Top 40.

I realize that this means I’m going to sound as grumpy as Ketcham some days about the daily sausage factory that paid my bills for all those years. It doesn’t mean I’m an ingrate or disrespectful of those who still toil away at the broadcasters and papers that treated me like one of their own. On the contrary. I loved being a reporter. I never stopped feeling like one. Even now.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “We are intellectual prostitutes: Ketcham

  1. Dammit! Now I understand why I never became an academic! I’ve only read one of the Top 40 (and all the way down to # 38!).

    Given this whole discussion, and linking both to the “impartiality of the journalistic endeavor” and your example of climate change, I’ll ask one question: which of the following statements, both of which have been written in the media, is correct?

    1) The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.
    2) Global average temperatures have been stable or slightly declining since 1998.

    Physician, heal thyself (but skip the blood-letting).

    And ease up the $398, 327 words… my dictionary is on fire.

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