Opponents of Anti-Intellectualism in the American Press: Lincoln Steffens to Jon Stewart

On Saturday, March 13, I presented an abstract toward my dissertation at my favorite conference, the joint meeting of the American Journalism Historians Association and the history division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (a conference that I helped to organize, and will be working with Lisa Burns of Quinnipiac University to run next year). It was the first time that I had publicly presented this proposal. I am working now to turn this presentation into a formal preliminary proposal, but I wanted to post the abstract on the web in the hope that it might generate some helpful comments:

Scholars have long recognized the anti-intellectual strain in American life, at least since Richard Hofstadter’s work on that subject in the 1960s. More recently, journalism historians have begun to view the history of the mass media in the United States through the framework of anti-intellectualism. This paper, which is preliminary work toward a doctoral dissertation, extends that work on anti-intellectualism in the American press through several case studies of moments when individuals, institutions, or social forces seemed poised to introduce a significant intellectual component into mainstream American journalism. This work examines the reasons why these isolated incidents failed to displace the dominant anti-intellectual ethos of the American press. The reasons for their failure can be instructive to journalism researchers, historians, sociologists and other scholars for understanding the anti-intellectual press and its implications for the profession of journalism and for the functioning of American democracy.

The paper summarizes the literature of studies of anti-intellectualism, building on Hofstadter’s definition and historical background of the subject, and taking as its theoretical framework the three kinds of anti-intellectualism outlined by sociologist Daniel Rigney: religious anti-rationalism; populist anti-elitism; and unreflective instrumentalism. The work then briefly addresses the underlying institutional and social influences that led to an anti-intellectual press, notably the commercial nature of the U.S. media system that encourages publishers to aim for a middlebrow market with populist material.

Against this army of anti-intellectuals, several journalists have tried to raise the banner for intellectuals, and their mostly failed efforts can be instructive. This project looks at the story of Lincoln Steffens, then a young city editor at a venerable newspaper called the New York Commercial Advertiser, and his experiment with hiring only college-educated reporters to write creative stories about the city. The enterprise caused the paper to tank within a couple years. The paper also explores the efforts of journalism educators and one of journalism education’s chief benefactors, Joseph Pulitzer, to turn journalism into one of the great intellectual professions. Though Pulitzer and these other educators attempted to establish a model in which journalists would study ethics, law and history to prepare for their careers, an alternate model, stressing vocational training, became the norm instead. The rest of the 20th century saw several other efforts to intellectualize journalism (the John Dewey/Walter Lippmann debate of the 1920’s; the press criticism of Will Irwin, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes and A.J. Liebling). But these efforts largely failed to change the overwhelming attitude of a profession that has always seen itself as a trade. This project closes with a look at Jon Stewart’s press criticism. Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, in which he pointed out that the show’s theatricality stifled real debate, may have led to its cancellation, and an example of effective opposition to anti-intellectualism.

As a preliminary overview, this project attempts to cover more ground than can be adequately investigated in a brief presentation, and the author invites feedback that will help him guide his future research.

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2 comments

  1. […] eye rolls as I described the research being conducted by professors all around me. A strain of proud anti-intellectualism runs strong in the American press, where political reporters casually disdain political scientists, […]

  2. […] tough to research), to Opponents of Anti-Intellectualism in the American Press (I actually wrote that proposal), to a history of press criticism in the second half of the 20th Century (what was to be one of the […]

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