Charles Moore's Mailbag

More Thoughts on Professional Elitism and Gatekeeping

Charles Moore - 2002.02.27 - Tip Jar

My article from Monday, The Internet vs. the Consensus of the Competent, drew several interesting responses which you can read below, along with some more commentary from me on the topic, which is one that I rise to easily.

I certainly have nothing against excellence or standards where they are appropriately applied, nor for that matter elitism, so long as it's the benevolent sort that reaches down to give a hand up, rather than the self-serving sort that is oriented toward maintaining gratuitous walls of exclusivity.

And I hate bureaucracies.

Thanks to everyone who wrote for your thoughtful comments.

re: Credentials

From Tim Baxter

As a degreed journalist - well, almost degreed, I split with two classes left to go to work - I have to say that was an interesting and provocative piece there.

I had the good fortune of going to one of the most-respected journalism schools in the U.S. at Arizona State. The journalism program there is consistently ranked top 10, usually top 5. Interestingly, relatively little time was spent on the mechanics or art of writing.

What they did focus on was the craft - learning to write for an audience, how to catch and hold readers with ever-shorter attention spans, and, most of all, how to report what's actually happening instead of just regurgitating someone else's opinion of what news should be.

I agree that the vast majority of what they taught could be learned through other methods, although it would be difficult. I also agree some people leaving the program couldn't write nearly as well as some kids just beginning. Ya just can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear....

Anyway, one of the great things about journalism is that it's very much a "put up or shut up" profession. You can wave credentials around all day long, but it's not too hard for anyone with half a brain to figure out whether or not you've really got talent by what's under the byline.

Hi Tim,

I think we're pretty much on the same page, so to speak.

It would be silly to contend that there is nothing useful to be learned in journalism school, and I affirmed in the article that journalism school will teach attendees skills that will help them to achieve success in a journalistic career.

My beef isn't with people learning journalism skills that way, but rather with the insinuation that one shouldn't be considered a legitimate "journalist" unless one has a journalism degree, a notion that is indeed silly, and in many cases self-serving.

I'm a working journalist, and I've made what passes for a living freelancing for the past 15 years. I've been published for fee in about 50 newspapers. magazines, and Websites, including The National Post, The Montreal Gazette, Canadian Yachting, The Calgary Herald, The Toronto Star, Canadian Business, and Mac Today magazine. I've covered topics ranging from politics, to yachting, to religion, to alternative medicine, to boat and ship building, to computers, to environmentalism, to offshore oil and gas development, to commercial fishing, to culture, to history, and so on and so forth.

Someone - can't recall who - a while back passed on an anecdote about a cocktail party attended by some of the nation's best-known and successful journalists. The question was asked how many of them had journalism degrees. Turns out that only one person in the room did, and he was a lowly and unpublished proofreader. Kind of begs the question as to why there are university majors in journalism at all.

In 1996-97 I served as editor of the Atlantic Canada edition of The Ottawa Times, a small but feisty political newspaper based in Canada's capital. We had four unique pages to fill with regional content in our split-run edition, and we needed some local writers.

The Ottawa Times had high journalistic standards - its style and format were modeled after the Times of London - but only a shoestring budget to pay writers, which presented a problem. Someone came up with the idea of inviting students from a journalism school at one of Nova Scotia's universities to write for the paper. While we could not pay more than a token honorarium, we reasoned that young writers might jump at the chance to flesh out their resumes with clips of work published in a serious, nationally-circulated journal like the Ottawa Times.

We had several bites and eventually did line up a couple of journalism students to write for the Atlantic Edition of the Times. Unfortunately, the quality of material they submitted was so bad that it would have taken us less time to write stories from scratch ourselves than to try to edit their stuff into tolerable prose. These people weren't freshmen, either, but second or third year students as I recall.

Now maybe we got an unrepresentative sampling or perhaps the token fee we were offering wasn't enough incentive for these people to offer their best work, but I remain skeptical. We ran into the same problem with the work of another journalism student from another school in another province. I hasten to add that I'm familiar with the work of quite a number of good journalists who have graduated from both of these schools, but my belief is that they would have become good writers anyway.

Charles

Journalistic credentials

Martin Sørensen

Just my words, Charles!

How on Earth can you have freedom of expression and ask for credentials for writers at the same time?

The alternative would be something like the Soviet Union then or Zimbabwe now.

It is to me reasonable to ask for credentials for work which can be (physically) dangerous if done wrong, or at least to have the result approved by someone with credentials. E.G.: electric installations (we use 230V).

I also prefer that building work is designed by someone with an idea of structural integrity.

An interesting note: In Denmark, we have a Doctor's degree (not the same as Ph.D.) which does not require anything but the production and defense of a dissertation. As an example, a (professional) nurse some years ago became Doctor of Medicine that way. The degree gives the right to lecture at the institution which awards it.

I hold a M.Sc. in chemical engineering, and I know very well that professional disinterest is rarer than most people think.

A good example is the hospitalization and handling of births. In Denmark, there is a move to concentrate births at fewer hospitals, in spite of the fact that no one have been able to show any benefit for the women or the children. The medical careers, though...

The most extreme "backwards" case is the Netherlands, where 1/3 of births take place in the home. The Netherlands also have one of the World's lowest infant mortality rates, around 50-60% of the US as far as I remember... I get carried away.

Keep up the good work, both of you, credentials or not.

brgds
Martin Sørensen

PS: LEM is the only Mac site I check almost every day.

Hi Martin,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the interesting stats on infant mortality. I categorically reject the "consensus of the (supposedly) competent."

Outcomes analysis affords a more lucid perspective and reality check:

We have ceded our personal responsibility for care of our bodies to medical experts. Result? Rates of degenerative disease are worse now than they ever were, despite nominally increasing life expectancy (which doesn't look nearly as impressive when you discount the genuine and substantial decrease in infant mortality, which skews the averages up), and vast numbers of people living in medication-dependent "normal bad health."

We turn over responsibility for teaching our children to educational experts. Result? Between 30 and 50 percent of North Americans are functionally illiterate. We have a population unequipped to think for itself, ignorant of literature and history, and sitting ducks for the cynical manipulations of advertisers, politicians, and other demagogues.

We have defaulted responsibility for maintenance of healthy psyches and repairing personal relationships to psychological experts. Result? General emotional health is alarmingly bad, marriages and family life are in ruins, and suicide is at an all-time high.

We abdicate responsibility for faith to supposed religious experts. Result? The churches are either emptying in droves - the erstwhile faithful repelled by theological higher criticism and moral revisionism - or majoring on the dissemination of religious kitsch and showbiz.

Splendid results achieved by expertise!

Charles

The Internet vs. the Consensus of the Competent

From Algernon

I agree wholeheartedly with your column. I must add that Low End Mac is one of the best sites around, probably because it is written by "amateurs" with amateur concerns, lives, and even equipment.

Hi Algernon,

As my article indicated, I harbor healthy skepticism about credentialed expertise, no doubt stemming partly from a lifetime of being a dedicated amateur and dilettante in an eclectic range of fields. The late Richard Weaver, an astute philosophic commentator, observed that: "The specialist stands ever at the borderline of psychosis . . . Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed . . . suffering from a severe fragmentation of his world picture...."

The cult of expertise all too often becomes an exercise in gatekeeping and contrived professional elitism which requires that confidence in lay-competence must be undermined, and people indoctrinated to hold credentialed expertise in a regard that's inflated out of all proportion to reality.

Specialization is not merely an abdication of intellect, but also a pernicious danger to society. Obsession with isolated parts obscures the whole, inhibits critical thought, makes people moral and philosophical imbeciles, and leads to a fatal confusion of fragmented factual knowledge and ideological formulae with wisdom.

As Theodore Roszak put it in "Where The Wasteland Ends," where everything - everything - has been staked out as somebody's special field of knowledge, what is the thinking of ordinary people worth? Precisely zero. For what do they know about anything that some expert does not know better? There are even experts on their sex life, their dreams, their relations with their children, their voting habits, their morals and manners, their tastes, their needs."

It's way past time we reclaimed the consensus of lay common sense.

Charles

Internet vs. the Consensus of the Competent

From Magilum

I bet the other site was Applelust. The writer was likely David C. Shultz. That guy/site has been decried for its pretension and self-aggrandizement before, by Dave Egger of Mac Monkey. I don't give that site [Mac Monkey] a lot of credit, though I do agree with them on Applelust.

Hi Magilum,

Dave Schultz is a friend of mine, and I've written for Applelust. However, friends can disagree on certain issues and modes of approach.

I expect that Applelust appeals to a certain type of reader, and there's certainly plenty of room for that.

Since I wasn't privy to the exchange beyond what Dan quoted in his column, all I was commenting on was that specifically.

Charles

...consensus of the competent...

From Wayne Preston Allen

Right on the mark. I have been logging the incredibly bad articles I am tricked into reading on the Internet, and every one of them has been produced by a professional writer publishing in a mega-media online publication. They are characterized by laziness and bias, presumably bred by the tech business bubble and its squandered billions....

Keep on truckin...
Wayne Allen

Hi Wayne,

A couple of years ago, Applelinks reader Craig Cox observed that "Having grown up in a newspaper family and working in a real newspaper, I can tell you flatly that there is no integrity in the 'news' media. They constantly suppress news that they determine harmful to their advertisers or doesn't support their utopian view of the world."

"No integrity" is pretty strong, and I have been privileged to work with quite a number of people in journalism whose integrity I respect, but Craig has a point.

"Objectivity" is a great sacred cow and particular conceit of journalists, and the objectivity posture trained journalists are taught to assume is more than disingenuous; it is an extremely handy artifice for camouflaging blatant advocacy and propagandizing behind a smokescreen of faux professional piety. This is something I refuse to do. Even when writing straight news or technical pieces, I never attempt to hide or disguise my voice. I obviously don't think there is anything wrong with advocacy, so long as you do your best to be scrupulously fair, and don't try to pretend that you're merely an unbiased fly-on-the-wall. For all I know flies may indeed be unbiased, but humans aren't, even when they think they are.

Charles

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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