Why journalists fear academics

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Journalists fears academics for the latter’s ability to expose them as dilettantes, cheaters, fibbers and fakers, says Mr Denmore.

WHAT'S most likely to keep journalists awake at night? That they will be 'scooped'? Please. In 2012 in the age of Twitter? Hardly. After all, they all copy and paste the same PR releases and transcripts. Nope, what really gnaws at journalists is the fear that they will be exposed as flakes, dilettantes, copycats and pretenders.

In days gone by, this wasn't a big risk. After all, academics for the most part were the only likely challengers to the self-appointed authorial voice of journalists. And we knew these sad, bearded trainspotters were locked away in their ivory towers, working on 6-12-monthly publishing cycles. Worse, their 'copy' – when it did arrive – was impenetrable, heavily footnoted and full of heavily qualifying subordinate clauses. Seven universes away, in other words, from The Herald Sun.

But no more. Digital technology and great new media ventures like The Conversation mean academics can publish just as quickly, just as tightly, and just as relevantly, as the most contemporary tabloid hack, but with far greater authority and without the commercially-driven compromises by which journalism is used as a marketing arm for other content.

Maybe that's what explains the paranoia of The Australian, with its time-honoured, passionately tribal penchant for seeking to destroy the reputations of anyone who would dare to criticise its pompous and self-aggrandising polemics masquerading as journalism.

After all, Murdoch's loss-making broadsheet (circulation 128,000) exists mainly to scratch the itches of grumpy menopausal men and bitter old culture warriors with intellectual inferiority complexes (which is not a bad description of the paper's editorial management, by the way).

The Australian led the charge against the independent media inquiry report, which – given the repeated failure of effective self-regulation – sensibly recommended a government-funded statutory body to force newspapers to properly enforce the standards that they profess to embrace.

Since the report came out, the newspaper has deliberately and calculatedly sought to damage the reputations of academics Margaret Simons, Wendy Bacon, Andrew Dodd and Matthew Ricketson — all journalists who have merely sought to defend the principles of the craft and question the unhealthy dominance of News Ltd. This is what The  Australian's editor Chris Mitchell said:
"Ricketson, Simons and their mate Andrew Dodd [Crikey contributor and Swinburne University of Technology journalism course convener] all worked for The Australian and you would give them barely a pass mark as journalists Seriously. People who I would score four or five out of 10 are trying to determine the future of media regulation in Australia. Everyone in the business knows it is a self-serving joke and these people are dupes for [Communications Minister Stephen] Conroy."

This is classic Murdoch. Paint your critics as elitists and impractical people out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of 'real folks'. It's very hard to fight against. If you dare to question this company and its malignant influence in our democracy, you are decried as an enemy of freedom. They will destroy you, all the while shamefacedly proclaiming they are the spokesmen for 'the people' against the powerful 'elites'.

And their job is made even easier if you are an academic – a public servant, a thinker – not a doer. Journalists naturally resent academics. They hate them for having the luxury of time. They hate them for their tendency not to come to quick conclusions. They loathe them for their peer review and footnoting and referencing and for their disposition for seeing shades of grey where newspapers want to paint the world as Black vs. White.

And many academics resent journalists for their flip self-assurance, their easy superficiality, their cultivation of populism and their penchant for passing off others' work as their own. Influential US academic economist Brad de Long put it this way:
"One reason that we academics tend to judge journalists harshly is because of their excessive claims of originality. We tend to believe strongly that situating your work and your contribution in the ongoing discussion is one of the very first duties of a writer — and a duty that is absolutely essential to any attempt to inform or educate readers. Journalists act differently. They try to make their readers as ignorant as they can about where the information is coming from. In my view, this is both unethical and ineffective: it tends to lead to great suspicion of journalists, and a discounting of what they write."

This is the nub of the problem for the mainstream media in this age. They have nowhere to hide anymore. The source material is all out there. We can see how the sausages are made. And the automatic assumption of authorial authority is immediately questioned amid the messy democracy and instant judgement of social media.

Not only are journalists exposed as dilettantes; they are seen as cheaters and fibbers and fakers. Which is why they hate academics.  And when the academics – many of them former practitioners – insist that journalists live up to the very principles they preach, Big Media seeks to shout them down, besmirch their reputations and say that 'Freedom' is at risk.

Doesn't this seem just a little self-serving to you?

(This story was originally published by Mr Denmore on his blog ‘The Failed Estate’ and has been republished with permission.)  
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