Stuck Inside the Pyramid with the J-School Blues Again
Ah, to be a J-school grad. Indeed, ’tis a world of wonderment, of knowing how to write an inverted pyramid without inverting the pyramid, of knowing how to write a hedder while the world heads right. Now don’t get me wrong, my degree will look good in between the Klee print and the Steal-your-face. What worries me, however, is what my j-school experience says about the state of journalism in the era of corporate media, the era of the bloody murder of Daniel Pearl, the era of Greta Van Sustren having to get plastic surgery to keep her career.
Many journalists tend to over-state the power of corporate consolidation, as if it were a cause and not a symptom. As easy as it is to complain about media-ownership being in fewer and fewer hands, conglomerates have controlled much of the mass media for nearly half a century. The current situation can be attributed to labor’s aquiescence with management–in other words, journalists have failed to organize in a sophisticated enough manner to defeat these forces.
To the current corporatist media mogul, the bottom-line is no different from the bottom line in a coal-mine. Coal workers, however, have more power to threaten that bottom-line, therefore creating an equilibrium in that industry. Thus the coal consumer is served well, while the consumer of cultural industry is treated with kid-gloves, to be protected against information that may threaten advertisers. Indeed, this has far more to do with the somewhat reactionary middle-class culture from which the mass-media picks its journalists than it does with horizontal integration.
Journalism schools at most elite universities have a self-contained process of selection, both in which students are accepted and cultivated and which professors are hired. Entry is not predicated on experience, rather it is predicated upon "good grades," thus narrowing the circle to "mainstream" people, intelligent but without a broad perspective. The Mike Gashers and Norman Solomons of this world are rare, while mid-level hacks concern themselves with the thankless low-paid task of molding young naive minds into stenographers, in hope that a few will transcend this myopia.
This structure creates, however, a reactionary movement of students completely cut off from all political and social struggles, not to mention the slightest hint of countercultural adherence. What is left are genuinely talented and hungry young journalists who are forced to sacrifice their principles, or more often, a smug and cynical, thoroughly bourgeois polity. Thus, the censorship of any form of dissent – intellectual or political – is internalized among the new vanguard of the corporate media.. No legislation is needed when the propagandists are propagandized, so to speak. An illuminating example is my own experience attempting to experiment in what is supposed to be the avant-garde vanguard – the student press.
I traveled down to working-class Swanton, Vermont on the night of November 7, 2000, on which day there was a coup d’etat by the cowboy-faction of the American establishment. With a photographer in tow, I had a unique, gonzo experience getting chased out of American Legion halls for daring to question the authority of the Bush family. I was tarred with racist language while my obviously queer photographer was gay-bashed. Our experience was a microcosm for what was to happen to America – and indeed, has happened to America.
After writing what I dare say was one of the best things I have ever written and submitting it free of charge to the "progressive" student press, I was told by the editor of this apparently "progressive" student newspaper that my writing was "too experimental." Too experimental for the student press? This in and of itself is an indictment of journalism in 2002, in which professionalism is a more important virtue than experimentation.
Frustrated with the structures of mainstream journalism, I turned to web-journalism, the left and the counterculture to publish my work and it has worked out fine and dandy, thank you very much. What worries me, however, is the impression created in the minds of the young and hungry j-school students that they have to sell out or shut up, and that the psychological profile of their readership is of more importance than writing something that has never been written before.
As it is, we’ree stuck inverting pyramids without inverting the real pyramid. What a shame.
Jordy Cummings lives in Montreal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org