The worst I have seen so far: Lehrer isn't a trained journalist. Though an Ivy League graduate with a substantial publication record, Lehrer didn’t go to school to study the Five W’s and the Inverted Pyramid. Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of this claim—journalism school graduates fudge too, and many good journalists don’t have degrees in the field—it still smacks of elitism, and an effort on the part of professionals to guard their privileged enclave.
Saying Lehrer licked the bottom of the barrel for want of journalistic training is like saying Enron imploded because Ken Lay lacked an MBA. The problem is not what training the guilty party had or needed; the problem is the lack of a moral core to push back against frankly banal pressures. Keeping going, or increasing the pace, provided more rewards, both to Lehrer and to Lay. Without a ringing conscience to stop them, both succumbed to ordinary temptations.
Jonah Lehrer received success worthy of somebody with twice his experience. Not only did he achieve the sought-after sinecure of a New Yorker staff writer position at the improbably young age of thirty, he made more money for one or two speaking engagements than many newspaper reporters net in a year. He owned a historic Los Angeles house at an age and in a time when many of his peers struggle to make rent on one-bedroom apartments.
This pressure does not excuse his behavior. Rather, his rush to the top without stopping to earn his chops reflects worse on his actions, not better. Newspapers have provided journalists with the best training grounds. But Lehrer made his name as a blogger, and blogs don’t reward long attention spans. My own 750-word target, a lingering remnant of my newspaper days, pushes the limits of web audiences’ likely perseverance.
Throughout history, the best reporters were not trained journalists. Many had degrees in other fields, including Tom Wolfe (American studies), Bob Woodward (History), and Anderson Cooper (Political science). Barbara Walters, Brit Hume, Helen Thomas, and William Shirer studied English. Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, and William Randolph Hearst never completed degrees. HL Mencken, Margaret Fuller, and Mark Twain never went to college. Ambrose Bierce never finished high school.
But today, most reporters go to journalism school. Just as business school graduates make lousy entrepreneurs, and film schools produced tediously self-conscious “cinema” of the 1970s, journalism graduates have a spotty record. As we saw in the Scooter Libby or Anthony Weiner scandals, trained journalists tend to robotically parrot press releases. Real breakthroughs come from engaged outsiders. And conventional newspapers keep boarding up their windows.
Meandering through the journalism department at the university where I formerly taught, and for whose newspaper I wrote in grad school, I was shocked one day to notice the emphasis in publicity. The honorary society for journalists had one dinky poster, but the advertising program had a whole wall of awards, flyers, and bulletin boards. The message to journalism students was clear: you exist to hold the space between ads.
|Woodward and Bernstein|
As I said before, this stew of forces creates an environment in which scandal becomes nearly inevitable. We will almost certainly see more spectacular flame-outs in the near future, as we struggle to balance the demand for constant content with the ease of instant verification.