Journalism education, democracy, and the possibility of a more perfect professionalism

Introduction (Note: This is the first part of a multiple-part series that I am tentatively calling “My Fall 2005 term papers”)

A.J. Liebling, the journalist, press critic and general bon vivant, attended the School of Journalism at Columbia University before starting his career. His assessment of his education was famously less than sanguine. He once wrote that “the program had ‘all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A & P’” (qtd. in Remnick, 2004). His comment, while probably unduly harsh, represents an undeniable strain of anti-intellectualism in American journalism. (Liebling, of course, was complaining that Columbia’s journalism program was anti-intellectual, not that the practice of journalism should be.) Michael Lewis, in his scathing essay on journalism schools in The New Republic (Lewis, 1993), quoted one columnist who said, “All we do is ask questions and type and occasionally turn a phrase. Why do you need to go to school for that?” Nevertheless, journalism schools have continued to exist in more than one form for over a century—though the form that they should take is far from settled.

For about the same period, journalists have debated—both actively and passively—whether or not their line of work constitutes a profession (though the first stirrings of professionalism can be dated even earlier). Many prefer to see themselves as practitioners of a craft or a trade. Others believe that as collectors and disseminators of information for a mass audience, monitors of power, protectors of democracy, and an unofficial fourth branch of the government, they deserve the same professional prestige as lawyers, engineers, or architects. Journalists enjoy special protections in the United States, owing to their specific mention in the Bill of Rights; however, it is this special protection that may be preventing them from coalescing into a formal, coherent profession. Journalists cannot control entry into their own body because in the United States, anyone can be a journalist. Therefore, the professionalization of journalism must take place as a socialization process—a process in which journalism schools can play in instrumental part.

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