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Journalism’s Ivory Towers

In a recent essay entitled “The Resentment That Never Sleeps,” New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall explains how a lowering of social status among non-college-educated white Americans has increased that demographic’s anxiety and helped fuel the populism that made possible Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Reporters at many of America’s most prestigious journalistic outlets have echoed these sentiments. But none of those reporters ever seems willing to acknowledge their own complicity in the situation. Plenty of jobs that once used to require no university degree or special certification now do. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of American jobs requiring state certification has risen from one in 20 60 years ago to one in four today. Technically, journalists do not require a university degree in order to practice their trade. Practically speaking, however, they do. No-one who writes for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or any other major US journalistic venue lacks a college degree. In fact, to write for one of those publications, you’d better make sure that your university degree comes from a highly prestigious institution.

The New York Times has more regular op-ed columnists who are transgender (Jennifer Finney Boylan) than who lack a college degree (none). Transgender people make up anywhere from 0.6 to five percent of the US population. According to the US Census, 36 percent of Americans have a college degree. So, roughly two-thirds of the Americans you see on the street will probably lack a college degree, but walk into the offices of a prestigious newspaper or magazine, and you’ll find almost no-one other than the janitors and possibly the receptionist from this cohort. That is not to say that legacy publications never provide column space for non-college-educated writers (I have been published by the Times on occasion), just that it is exceedingly rare.

It wasn’t always thus. Many of the most famous American journalists of the 20th century lacked a college degree. And I’m not talking just of ancient fossils who did their reporting back in 1910 or 1920. As recently as the 1970s, when I first became a consumer of American journalism, daily newspapers were filled with the work of syndicated journalists such as Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and Jack Anderson, none of whom possessed a university degree that wasn’t honorary. Perhaps the most storied newspaper columnist in Northern California during the second half of the 20th century was Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, another journalist who never went to college. Visit the Wikipedia page for American Print Journalists, and you’ll find plenty of famous 20th century reporters who lacked a college degree: Ernie Pyle, H.L. Mencken, Harold Ross, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, I.F. Stone, Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, and even Hunter S. Thompson. Not all of these reporters were paragons of journalistic virtue (Hopper and Winchell in particular were egregiously unscrupulous), but the same can be said of contemporary reporters who possess impressive university credentials.

Stephen Glass who famously fabricated many of his stories for the New Republic in the 1990s has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania (as well as a more-recently acquired law degree from Georgetown University). One of his classmates at Penn was future journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, whose December 2014 story for Rolling Stone, “A Rape on Campus,” was so riddled with untruths and bias that the magazine wound up issuing three separate apologies and retracting the story entirely. Jonah Lehrer, a former writer for the New Yorker and other prestigious publications, was found to have plagiarized and fabricated many of the anecdotes in his reporting. Lehrer has a degree from Columbia and was a Rhodes Scholar at Wolfson College of Oxford University. Ruth Shalit, sometimes billed as Ruth S. Barrett, is a serial violator of journalistic norms. Most recently, her story “The Mad Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy-League Obsessed Parents,” published in the Atlantic in October 2020, was found to be rife with inaccuracies and outright deception. At one point the Atlantic appended an 800-word correction to the article before retracting it completely. Shalit is a graduate of Princeton University. Also in October 2020, the New York Times ran a story by Elaina Plott, Yale 2015 and a former staff writer for the Atlantic, in which she quoted two Atlanta-area voters without informing her readers that they were also Republican Party operatives. Dan Froomkin of Salon called out the offense, noting: “The New York Times has been caught, once again, passing off Republican operatives as ‘regular’ Republican voters in an article intended to show how effectively Donald Trump is maintaining his support.” The Times has since corrected the story.

This is not to suggest that contemporary journalists are all highly credentialed rogues and charlatans. Not only are most of them scrupulous in their reporting, they also seem to be especially sympathetic to the plight of America’s various under-classes, including whites without college degrees. But they write about these underprivileged groups as outsiders. Even if the reporter grew up in an underprivileged household, by the time he has graduated from college, he generally finds himself a member of what philosopher Matthew Stewart has dubbed “the New American Aristocracy”—that is, not the much-reviled folks in the top one-tenth of one percent of income earners, but those just below them; the 9.9 percent of the population with advanced degrees and prestigious jobs that pay well but not quite well enough to land them in the uppermost income tier. This makes it difficult if not impossible for readers to get news about non-college-educated white people (or black or Asian or Hispanic people, for that matter) directly from non-college-educated people.

One could probably make a reasonable defense of the practice of requiring news reporters to have a college education, or at least some specialized training. For reporting on complex subjects like Supreme Court decisions or tax avoidance or the latest technological breakthroughs, an education in law, economics, or technology respectively might be helpful (although I often find much reporting on business, law, and tech to be bewilderingly jargon-soaked). But there is really no defense of the practice of keeping writers without a college degree from a newspaper’s opinion pages. It’s not as if you need a college degree in order to write a coherent sentence. In fact, a college degree often seems to be detrimental to a writer’s coherence. In a recent Atlantic essay, Caitlin Flanagan lamented that former president Barack Obama’s criticism of the slogan “Defund the Police” was interpreted by many among the progressive chattering classes as evidence that Obama is indifferent to police killings and racism and other social ills. “No one on Earth can possibly believe that Barack Obama doesn’t care about gun violence, racism, or human suffering,” she wrote. The problem isn’t Obama’s words but the ridiculous way those words were interpreted by journalists and political opponents with elite college educations:

How has it come to this, to a national conversation on urgent matters being reduced to what Wittgenstein would have called “language games”? How could one man making a simple assertion about realpolitik be so wildly—willfully—misinterpreted? Because when the inside joke of critical theory escaped the English department grad-student lounge and kudzued its way all over campus, it convinced several generations that human experience can be understood only in terms of who is powerful and who is oppressed. It was all fun and games when every undergraduate was unpacking this and deconstructing that, but it upended the way language can be used and understood.

She’s right, but only about the graduates of universities. For the most part, people with no college degree remain uncontaminated by the virus of critical theory, so it can’t possibly insinuate itself into their writing.

So much that has been written about black Americans lately has also been written by black Americans. The same is true of gay Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and American immigrants. But very little of what has been written about non-college educated Americans of any race or ethnicity in the last five years has actually been written by non-college-educated Americans. When politically correct American elites want to pat themselves on the back for investigating the lives of the lower class, they usually mention that they have read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance or Educated by Tara Westover. Both of those authors grew up in poor white communities, but both also got elite educations while in their 20s. Vance got a BA from Ohio State and a JD from Yale. Westover has degrees from Brigham Young University and the University of Cambridge, and has been a writer-in-residence at the Harvard Kennedy School. Their life stories are inspiring but not at all representative of the lives of non-college-educated Americans.

When you read the biographies of the young writers for most elite publications these days, they are all very impressive but in many ways depressingly interchangeable. The same handful of colleges, the same handful of majors, and employment at the same handful of publications. When they write memoirs, they don’t write about the hardships of poverty but rather the hardships of privilege. Privilege is in fact the title of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s memoir about his years at Harvard. “But,” the book’s dust jacket flack announces, “the Harvard of his dreams, an institution fueled by intellectual curiosity and entrusted with the keys to educational excellence, never materialized. Instead he found himself in a school rife with elitism and moneyed excess, an incubator for the grasping and ambitious, a college seduced by the religion of success.” Who the hell, upon arriving at Harvard, would be surprised to find elitism and moneyed excess? In Weird, Olga Khazan describes herself as an outsider because she grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant household in Texas. If you grew up Catholic in a Protestant neighborhood (as I did) or Mormon in a Catholic neighborhood, you’ve probably experienced roughly the same feeling of weirdness that Khazan claims has characterized her entire life. But she is an insider’s insider these days, with a BA from American University, a masters from the University of Southern California, and a steady gig at the Atlantic.

Both Privilege and Weird are good books, but neither is terribly exciting. The Wikipedia entries of some of the 20th century’s most famous journalists, on the other hand, read like adventure novels by comparison. Jack Anderson, for example, began writing at the age of 12, edited his high school paper, and in 1940, infiltrated polygamous Mormon fundamentalist sects as a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. He then joined the Merchant Marines and served on cargo ships in New Guinea and India, became a war correspondent in China, and was drafted into the US army after WWII where he served as an armed forces newsman and radio broadcaster. Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker, was born in a prospector’s cabin in Colorado. His family left Aspen for Redcliff and Silverton when the price of silver collapsed, and he ran away at 13 to live with his uncle in Denver. “By the time he was 25, he had worked for at least seven different papers, including the Marysville, California Appeal; the Sacramento Union; the Panama Star and Herald; the New Orleans Item; the Atlanta Journal, the Hudson Observer in Hoboken, New Jersey; the Brooklyn Eagle; and the San Francisco Call. In Atlanta, he covered the murder trial of Leo Frank, one of the ‘trials of the century.'”

It is said that Damon Runyon left school after fourth grade. “In 1898, when still in his teens, [he] enlisted in the US Army to fight in the Spanish–American War. While in the service, he was assigned to write for the Manila Freedom and Soldier’s Letter.” Martha Gellhorn left Bryn Mawr College without graduating to become a journalist. “In 1930, determined to become a foreign correspondent, she went to France for two years, where she worked at the United Press bureau in Paris, but was fired after she reported sexual harassment by a man connected with the agency. She spent years traveling Europe, writing for newspapers in Paris and St. Louis and covering fashion for Vogue.” Paul Y. Anderson was a “pioneering muckraker” who helped break the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s and covered the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis and the Scopes Trial. A congressional committee wrote of his reporting on the former that he “reported what he saw without fear of consequences; defied the indignant officials whom he charged with criminal neglect of duty; ran the daily risk of assassination, and rendered invaluable public service by his exposures.” He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Needless to say, many of the best American journalists of the 19th century—Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce—had even more colorful backgrounds and just as little college education as those 20th century writers, such as Hemingway, for whom they served as role models.

I don’t blame the Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey for not having been born in a prospector’s cabin like Harold Ross. She writes very well about the economic struggles of the working-class without ever having been a member of that class. And I don’t blame her colleague Emma Green for never having infiltrated a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist sect like Jack Anderson. She too writes well about the religious beliefs of poor and working-class Americans without sharing either their socio-economic status or their fervent Christianity. But I do blame them both (a little, anyway) for not calling upon their employer to give a voice to any of the working-class non-college-educated Americans they both seem to care so much about.

One could argue that once hired by the Times or the Atlantic or some other elite publication, a non-college-educated journalist would instantly become a member of the elite and therefore no longer qualified to speak on behalf of the working-class. But handing such a writer an elite title and a decent salary isn’t going to instantly instill a sudden fluency in critical theory or deconstructionism or any of the other intellectual fads that weaken so much contemporary journalism and analysis. If that kind of thing isn’t instilled in a person early and often during their formative years, it tends never to take root in them. Anyone who manages to escape the clutches of the university until the age of 30 is probably relatively safe from being caught up in the kudzu.

 

Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in numerous venues including the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning EditionSalon, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinMims16.