Wild West Journalism

“We’ve lost our way. . .You should go to Law School instead. . . .There’s not that many jobs in journalism anyway.”

So proclaimed keynote speaker M.L. Elrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Detroit Free Press. The occasion? The “100 Years of Michigan State University Journalism Centennial Celebration Conference” on October 23, 2010 in East Lansing. In the audience of about 200 people, most were J-school students.

“I hope the Dean is not upset with me,” Elrick said.

Were we all at the wrong place? Was Elrick only kidding? Yes and No.

“It’s just like the early 1900s,” said MSU J-school Professor Jim Detjen, “it’s like the dawn of the automobile era when hundreds of small manufacturers toiled in Michigan and elsewhere trying to create a new way of doing things. Eventually the Big Three emerged. We’re looking for new sustainable models of doing journalism.”

Today the very idea of “journalism” is up for grabs. On the PBS Newshour of November 10th, Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, referred to our times as a “new kind of wild west atmosphere.” In commenting on the debate over whether CNBC’s Keith Olbermann should or should not be allowed to make campaign contributions she said, “In this current environment, it’s kind of an anything goes. We’re headed toward a different mode of being transparent or figuring out what the new ethics are. And so, right now, we’re kind of looking at little thin slices of defending the turf.”

The New York Times and Washington Post are busy defending their turf — and often the U.S. government’s turf — against the transparency of WikiLeaks as Gareth Porter reported on this site on December 1st. Maybe their editors should have gone to Law School instead.

With the near collapse of the Fourth Estate, some corporations are claiming that they are creating those new models. One model, Patch, was highly visible at the conference. Begun by AOL with a $50 million investment, the idea behind patch is to “return to the roots of community journalism.” They intend to “place 500 patches by the end of the year in cities and towns across the country,” according to Tara Tesimu, a Regional Editor. One trouble? Competition is high and the pay is low. When Tesimu was asked about salaries at the opening plenary session, the conference ground to a halt for a full seven minutes as Ms. Tesimu hemmed and hawed about the inappropriateness of the question. “I’ll get in trouble with my boss.” Goaded by an MSU professor who said it was an ethical responsibility to reveal this, she offered that a new hire would get at least $20,000 a year. The professor responded, “How can our students ever be expected to pay back their student loans at these wages?”

Upset Deans, upset bosses. Self-censorship juxtaposed with free inquiry. Low wages for hard work. Is anthropology much different? Few Ph.D.s in anthropology can expect tenure track academic careers. A sizable number end up as permanent Adjunct professors. Both journalism and anthropology graduates are burdened by staggering student loan debt, with few jobs to relieve it. In fact the message within anthropology usually has a more positive spin, as in “You should enhance your Ph.D. with a J.D., MPH, MD or MBA.” For many it might be best to apply Elrick’s advice to anthropology.

We must study journalism in any case (you can do that on the side without paying tuition). We have no choice. Anthropologists and other critical academics must become involved in the public education arena even if there is little money. It is our responsibility as citizens. For anthropologists, that means we must learn the tools of the new journalism all while being true to the “threatening science” ethic that David Price argues is the essence of the discipline.

Elrick’s Threatening Message

“A hundred years ago the corporations ran America into the ground,” said Elrick. “Politicians didn’t do anything unless there was a check attached. What saved America was journalists. Walking around in their old straw hats journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens told people what was really going on. They were muckrakers. [But today] people are no longer paramount in our business, profits are.”

Elrick is no lightweight. The veteran journalist won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his muckraking reportage in Detroit on then Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. “I noticed one day that the mayor spent all his time texting before a speech,” he said. So Elrick filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests and uncovered a goldmine of corruption. It eventually put the Mayor behind bars, disgraced. But as Elrick shared that day, his principle antagonists were not the Mayor but his own colleagues and supervisors in journalism!

After months of intensive research the Detroit Free Press killed his story, apparently concerned about political and economic repercussions. “Let’s wait until after the re-election,” they told him. “Kwame is 30 points down in the polls. If he wins, we’ll do the story.” Kwame miraculously won reelection. But the DFP went back on their word and killed the story again. Disgusted Elrick resigned and went to Channel 4 in Detroit where he anticipated that they would pursue the story. But soon their executives held a closed door meeting with the Mayor and his staff and afterwards told Elrick that they would not proceed with the story. “Channel 4 had been eunuched,” said Elrick.

Over time Kwame started making embarrassing mistakes in office and the political climate changed. Elrick went back to the Free Press and asked for his old job back. Months later they gave a green light to his sleuthing. The reportage became a national scandal. Elrick’s book (co-written with Jim Schaefer), “The Kwame Sutra: Musings on Lust, Life and Leadership from Detroit’s Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick” (2009) should be required reading for applied anthropologists.

“You’ve got to put your chin out there and take some risks.”

In Elrick I recognized a citizen anthropologist with the heart of a lion. Like Laura Nader, Elrick’s speech shook-up the crowd, taking few prisoners. His message was for the soul of journalism.

Combating Technocratic Rationality

A great many young J-school students seemed oblivious to this speech when I asked them about it. But they were very optimistic about journalism’s future. Largely untested with the civic courage exhibited by Elrick, and generally inattentive to U.S. history, many pointed to the Internet as journalism’s salvation and sought to master its intricacies. Indeed, a key message of the conference was that everyone needs to become fully adept at social media.

“Feeling poor?” the conference brochure asked. Then attend J-School Professor Karl Gude’s “Free (and Fabulous) Online Visualization Tools” seminar. I did. And yes I learned some things like how to edit video (HyperengineAV), Inkscape ( a great clipart library) and Gapminder (which plots the Census as animation). All of these tools and scores more are available on his website at: (http://freevisualtools.wikispaces.com/).

The word on everyone’s mouth there was “brand.” You must become “a brand,” a reliable and predictable commodity like a Coke, an actress or politician. Every aspect of your life is now scrutinized so do not take unnecessary risks. Future employers are looking at you on social media, including email LISTSERVS, your blog(s) and your Facebook page (which should be regularly updated). They should all reflect your brand, “the brand of you.” “You own your name.” At the same time, “always have one foot out the door,” and be busy networking for that next position, since nothing is permanent. One workshop, titled, “Backpack journalism & Visual Storytelling,” pronounced that young journalists “need to learn how to juggle the roles of reporter, producer, web writer and photographer.”


For those journalists interested in earning good money, a participant suggested CIA-type intelligence work for business. Journalists can make up to $400 an hour moonlighting for “Competitive Business Intelligence” firms like Kroll which produces “actionable intelligence that offers clients insight on competitors” (http://www.kroll.com/services/ifai/industry_competitor/). This is similar to some strains of business anthropology. Elrick would have none of it.

Newspaper Culture Dies Hard

I grew up as a newspaper carrier (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin) and reader of three newspapers a day. Back then there was more of a Chinese Wall between the editorial and advertising staffs, allowing more liberal, even “dangerous” knowledge to slip through the paper. Family owned corporations, emerging from the community (like the Bulletin at the time) centralized a talented group intellectuals, offered them job security, and produced a kind of “counter-academic” curriculum that moved me to critical knowledge. Yes, the amount of muckraking was very limited and I do not want a return to that hierarchical corporate model of journalism. Still, the local newspaper became a kind of public square. It was a required focal point for local culture. It offered a kind of holism that bred solidarity. It was an attempt to fashion a wide array of cultural interpretation into my hands all at once. It was nourishing “slow-food” in a fast food culture.

Things have changed. Today anthropologists have to become competent in both investigative journalism and social media. I encourage them to read regularly Poynter Online (http://www.poynter.org/), the Columbia Journalism Review and the Investigative News Network. Also, when looking for jobs, contact ProPublica, an investigative non-profit eager to collaborate with professionals like us to bring our research to the light of day. You might also consider starting your own non-profit news organization. Go to the Knight Citizen’s News Network, Helping Citizens and Journalists Amplify Community News at: (http://www.kcnn.org/launching_nonprofit_news_site/introduction).

Anthropologists and all critical academics need to take their incredible treasure trove of knowledge and find the spaces to communicate to a wider public. Like journalists, they have to “go where the people are.”

Journalism is not dead nor is anthropology. Both are undergoing seismic transformations while under attack from a neoliberal culture that devalues the public and disparages the truth. Anthropologists can learn plenty from journalists and the new social media culture. They can also apply for and win the new journalist jobs. All citizens need to study Elrick, investigative journalism and this CounterPunch site in order to help reclaim America in this New Guilded Age.

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at: mckenna193@aol.com


Elrick, M. L and Jim Schaefer. 2009 The Kwame Sutra: Musings on lust, life and leadership, from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Detroit: Watchmen Ink.

Price, David. Threatening Anthropology McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. 2004 Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, November 2010. Tim Wallace, editor. See:



Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com