THE HAPPY DECLINE OF PROFESSIONALISM
Barbara Ehrenreich reports on an address she gave to this year’s graduating class at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The dean, she said, had wanted her to keep it upbeat – no doubt the faculty wanted to simply get the corpses tastefully and efficiently disposed of and get on with summer vacation, hoping – in best Micawber fashion – that ‘something will turn up’ by the time the summer is over.
Ehrenriech wouldn’t go that route. You have skills, she assured them, but nobody knows what to pay you for them now.
Well, yes, But then: what sort of skills have they learned? Surely ‘advocacy journalism’ and the lapdog stenography that panders to all ‘consumers’ by airbrushing stories about all but the most universally loathed targets. Invented to show solidarity with the Identities, within a decade it had skewed ‘news’ into selective and ‘positive’ stories – on soooo many levels they were indeed stories – and added ‘soft news’, which wasn’t really reporting at all. And then – with the Right’s meteoric rise under Reagan – the same courtesy had to be extended to government and foreign adventures.
Readers were no longer seen as Citizens in need of solid information as they were Consumers, waddling along with lots of buying power from all the ‘credit’ that suddenly welled up. One big happy party, with just enough designated ‘outrages’ to keep things spiced up.
Courtesy to government – not what you’d imagine the Framers envisioned for ‘a free press’.
But then Ehrenreich gets closer to the heart of the matter: “Welcome”, she told the grads, “to the working class”.
Because part of the obscene, butter-greasy glow of the Reagan years was the inflation of the status of ‘professional’. Reporters used to be hard-working stiffs, in scruffy clothes but with a great nose for what was really going on and the heart to pursue it. College professors used to wear patches on old sports jackets and drive modest cars (or the egg-like early-60s Volvo).
Doctors used to make house calls. Clergy actually believed in a God. ‘Ordinary people’ weren’t architects who lived in toney burbs and drove flashy foreign sports cars and had a computer (At home! On your desk!); they were working stiffs glad to be out of an era of depression and war and not so unhappy with a certain amount of peace and quiet; happy with a simple Ford or a Plymouth, and willing to leave the Caddies for the bosses and the foreign cars for the Commies.
Ah well . ‘Creative destruction’ made it all better – the story goes. And the creative inflation of credit, and the creative inflation of status.
And that’s where the professionals found their price. Everybody who could do anything was now a ‘professional’. It was a self-esteem thing, and the Left’s ‘sensitivity’ actually worked in Reagan’s furnaces as well: if you felt better about yourself, you would feel better about how things were going in the country, leave the Beltway alone to work its magic, and buckle down to enjoying the good things of American life. City bus drivers began showing up for work in a Mercedes – it was deemed great progress.
It all became so … well, Italian. Over there, nobody is just plain Signore unless you’re looking for a fight. Everybody is Professore or Dottore. The Italians knew how to make do with a little; how to make a little go a long way. And if the brute realities of life couldn’t actually be changed (too many important people had a stake in keeping things frakked up) then at least the little people could smooth the edges by ladling on the honorifics and the sincerely dishonest flattery.
‘Reporters’ became ‘journalists’, learned how to handle a meal where the place settings included three or more forks, and no longer took the bus. It was, surely, only gratitude that as they learned ‘manners’ they also learned politeness, especially towards those who were throwing the dinner parties. Having suddenly been brought into the national country club, they were in no hurry to start pointing out which of their new club-brothers (or sisters) were up to their ears in skullduggery, often involving the public till.
And, if they insisted on salving their consciences, then they could be ‘sensitive’ to ‘pain’ and skew their stories in the service of something ‘good’ – dishonesty in the service of ‘good’ is no vice. Or something like that.
Now the Bubble-fueled fantasy has run out of Bubbles. This is not something Americans have ever had to get used to (and this will be the world-historical mission of this era’s cohort of Americans: to preside over, as Churchill put it when his own moment came, “the dissolution of the empire”). What this generation of Americans will have to face up to is the dissolution of the empire of the American Dream.
What did Germans citizens feel like when they quietly figured out from the ‘glorious’ government newsreels that the Red Army – bulked up to a size the world had never seen before – was blowing through all the stop signs in Budapest and coming West? What did Japanese citizens feel like when they realized that their sons and brothers and fathers were dying of war wounds in places not very far away at all?
The ‘Dream’ – whether the version imposed by the Dems or peddled by Reagan and his spawn – is now revealed as the illusion it has been for so long. Neither the industry nor – alas – the character any longer exists to put a solid ground under any Dream. If a Dream is like a rocket that you launch with high hopes, there is no longer any solid ground from which to launch the thing.
Which should have come as no surprise, since things had been getting kind of iffy for quite some time.
But the ‘journalists’ were far too tasteful and 'positive' to notice.
So what skills does this graduating class have? That’s the first question. The ‘soft news’ and ‘advocates’ still have the advantage of fitting into the last known occupational model that worked – but that was in a time when there was plenty of almost-fake money to fuel their almost-fake professional services.
Maybe there are enough scruffy ones, though, with a grounding in some actual sense of reality and truth, who just get a genuine kick of telling the truth to people who need to hear the truth. Their labors would certainly be useful – at least to those Citizens who still look for the solid information they need to do their Constitutional job of grounding the never-quite-trustworthy government and all its pomps and all its works.
They could ‘report’ the old-fashioned way.
And leave the ‘Dream’ to the factories that have historically made them. Just the facts, please.
And yes, I know, there are no such things as ‘facts’. Well, there may be no such thing as the perfect fact, or at least not one that the human mind can encompass. But that doesn’t mean that there are no facts at all. Just because ‘we’ can’t ‘get there’ doesn’t mean the place doesn’t exist. That’s cargo-cult thinking, no matter how much it’s dressed up as ‘cutting edge thinking’.
We have regressed mightily, and down some very wrong paths.
It’s not enough to exhort “let’s face the music and dance”, as the 1930’s musical did. Better to face the facts and see what can be done with what’s actually left available to Us.
It’s worked before.