Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Don't Go Into Journalism

AUGUST 8, 2007

By Donald Kaul

The New York Times reports a new and shocking trend at universities: they’re charging extra for courses in lucrative fields, business for example. That’s not the shocking part. Universities have always charged more for graduate courses in fields that promised students higher paychecks when they got out of school. Moving the practice over to undergraduate education is merely an extension of that.

The shocking part is that Arizona State University is charging a $250-per-semester premium for courses in (begin ital) journalism. (end ital)

What do they charge for courses in buggy whip manufacture, $500?

Journalism, in case you haven’t noticed, is in a state of rapidly accelerating decline. It has become obsolescent, which is the term economists use instead of “Dead Man Walking.”

The latest signpost on journalism’s road to oblivion is last week’s sale of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdock. Rupert Murdock! Is nothing sacred?

The Wall Street Journal is one of the crown jewels of American journalism. Despite an editorial page that has yet to enter the 20th century let alone the 21st, it has been a beacon of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. It collects Pulitzer Prizes by the bushel.

Rupert Murdock is an Australian who entered the news business through the medium of supermarket tabloids, the kind that interview space aliens. He owns and directs the Fox News franchise. Enough said.

A.J. Liebling, one of the great press critics of the post-World War II period, once wrote, “A newspaperman’s life is like the plot of ‘Black Beauty.’ Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mush in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expect him to live on potato peelings.”

So too with newspapers, apparently. The Wall St. Journal is the corporate version of Black Beauty. Off his record, Murdock is that mean owner.

It’s not as though it’s a new trend of course. When I entered the business some 50 years ago there were dozens of papers throughout the country with a legitimate claim to distinction. Now there is a meager handful and hardly one of them can honestly claim to be as good as it used to be.

Newspapers always had to walk a line between being a successful business and an institution that served its community “without fear or favor.” As ownership has become more corporate the emphasis has shifted from the journalism function to profits.

Then there’s television. Television was a stepsister to print journalism 50 years ago. Television producers used to read newspapers to find out where to send their cameras. By the time I quit fulltime writing, it was the ink-stained wretches who were trailing the TV people, although they hated to admit it.

And now, God save us all, we have the Internet, which has not merely damaged journalism it has atomized it. It turns on its head the old journalism slogan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own set of facts.” On the Internet there is no distinction between fact and opinion. In that atmosphere, there is no such thing as journalism.

And that is the world that Arizona State is charging extra to prepare its graduates to enter.

If I were running a big university (and I’m available, by the way) I would forget journalism and institute a premium course in handymanship.

You remember handymen, those Jacks (and now Jills) of all trades who could do little jobs around the house? We live in a society where hardly anyone other than a farmer can do those things anymore. There is a great need out there for people who can fix toilets, caulk showers, hang doors, repair screens, sharpen knives, change water filters, make sliding doors slide and fix doorbells. For a reasonable price.

A person with skills like that could clean up.

Are you listening, Arizona State?



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