The Island Now

Professor's Perspective: Lesson for media-academia complex

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Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2016 10:18 am

As the clock approached midnight on Election Day, our collective bubble began bursting and my iPhone began blowing up.

Colleagues from my two professions, journalism and academia, and I were shell-shocked the presidential election didn’t go as expected.

“This is so f---ed up!” texted a journalist.

“Oh my God!” pinged a professor. “We will be the ones ostracized if he wins.”

When Donald Trump’s win was official, another academic acquaintance observed: “It’s an indictment on all of us.”

Indeed, it was an epic failure for the media-academia complex. 

And not just because nearly every poll showing Trump had little-to-no chance of winning was a collaborative effort between media outlets and universities.

Journalists are supposed to inform the public about what’s happening in society. 

Professors are expected to educate students about the real world. 

But, this election, both were out of touch with reality. 

While some correctly predicted the outcome, most of us perished the thought. 

Our hubris may have even suppressed Hillary Clinton’s turnout and mobilized angry Trump supporters.

We need to reckon with our flaws, or risk becoming completely irrelevant in the political process. Here are some ways we can improve:

First, we must stop being insufferable know-it-alls.

As scribes and scholars, we have expertise in a particular beat or field, but that doesn’t make us qualified to determine which candidate is best to lead 320 million Americans, each of whom has many and varied needs. 

Nor is it our job.

Yet, law professor Stanley Fish acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed, it’s “so commonplace for professors to regularly equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue.” 

Likewise — “journalists, at our worst, see ourselves as a priestly caste,” CBS political editor Will Rahn confessed in a column. 

“We believe we not only have access to the indisputable facts, but also a greater truth.”

Trump showed us we’re not as smart as we think. It’s time for some humility. 

As Socrates, a great teacher with a knack for a good sound bite, said: “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

But that’s difficult to realize when living in a bubble.

The election exposed how isolated and insulated we are from the typical Trump voter: a Republican who lacks a college degree and who lives in Middle America, according to exit polls.

By contrast, journalists and professors are highly educated and tend to be liberal, studies show. 

Universities are concentrated on the east and west coasts. 

Meanwhile, “journalism jobs are leaving the middle of the country and heading for the coasts” due to the Internet, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab found. 

We care about different things, too. 

While the media-academia complex fixated on social justice, exit polls showed the most important issue for Trump voters was the economy.

But, as professor Liz Swan decried in Psychology Today, we made “ignorant presumptions about how others are feeling or thinking without even having a conversation with them.” 

Although prejudice may be unavoidable, as professors and journalists we’re professionally obligated to try to be fair.

However, shortly before the school year started, a Gettysburg College political science professor declared in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed that a Trump presidency was “unteachable” and it would be “a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance.”

The next day, The New York Times published a cover story calling on reporters to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using” even though “it may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump.”

Many other journalists and professors adopted this approach, creating an echo chamber and hurting their professions’ integrity. 

Critical thinking, the American Philosophical Association stresses, requires being objective and fair-minded in evaluation. 

“Ethical journalism,” the Society of Professional Journalists asserts, “should be accurate and fair.”

Small wonder that studies show critical thinking among college students and public trust in the media are at all-time lows.

If we want others to support our calls for social justice, we must first be fair ourselves.

Thankfully, some leading media and academic institutions have started addressing these problems.

Even before the primary elections began, the University of Chicago released a powerful statement committing the school to freedom of expression, including “ideas and opinions — individuals — find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” 

Immediately after the election, The New York Times’ publisher and top editor promised to “rededicate” themselves to reporting “honestly” and “impartially.”

Others in the media and academia should follow suit. 

But, a few weeks after the election, it’s clear from perusing social media that many scholars and scribes still haven’t learned much from November’s surprise.

And it doesn’t take a college degree to know what happens when you don’t learn from history.

 

Mark Grabowski

Journalism professor at Adelphi University and former political journalist

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