John Pauly, dean of the Diederich College of Communications at Marquette Colleges, and I walked from our hotel to lunch one day down Nicollet Mall, straight past the bronze statue of Mary Tyler Moore.
But it wasn't 70's television we were remembering. Rather, we were bemoaning journalism's almost childlike refusal, or maybe it's more akin to an allergy, to theory and everything about theory.
Working journalists routinely denigrate two classes of people above all -- public relations people and academics. The first group are ''flacks,'' hired guns, propagandists, craven salary-workers who've sold their creative souls to the devil. That working journalists spend huge chunks of their working days reading press releases and pitch memos, attending press conferences and PR events, and working their public relations sources for contacts and information -- all of this decreases not a whit their condescending attitude toward denizens of the public relations world. Indeed it probably increases their disdain, as most journalists secretly feel guilty about relying so heavily on PR specialists for guidance and information. But here is the really interesting bit: PR in a general sense controls the media because PR operates using a conscious, sophisticated, and road-tested theory of the media and society, while journalism as a profession doesn't, and individual journalists don't.
This is where journalists' knee-jerk disparagement of PR people, essentially an expression of their disdain for thinking theoretically, overlaps with academe. That journalists should disparage academics is at first blush surpassing odd, because they do such similar work, towards such a similar aim. Both journalists and academics to do research into the world in order to understand it. Both are motivated in essence by a burning curiosity about the world and its workings. Both want to objectively understand their object of study, which is the world.
And yet -- is it genetic? learned? caused by sunspots? -- a difference in their essential existential posture appears to ineluctably divide journalists from academics. And this difference has to do with the ultimate value that one camp gives to facts and physical things, and the ultimate value that the other accords to ideas and theories of explanation. One could state the difference this way: for a journalist, facts in themselves possess an inherent, transcendent worth. The one thing that is most desperately needed by all people, a journalist believes, are the simple facts. The damn difficulty of discovering those facts, to a journalist, is in itself a kind of proof of their ultimate worth, and a justification that all procedures and methods of research should serve the discovery and illumination of fact. A journalist sees himself as a heroic figure bringing streams of fresh, clean, purifying facts to the masses of people nearly parched to death by political and corporate propaganda and corruption.
To an academic, this all looks bass-ackwards. The explanation of a fact, and not the fact in itself, to an academic appears self-evidently to be the superior goal. Facts are important, the academic says, but what good are facts without explanations for why those facts have arisen, for how they are patterned, and for what pattern they might take next? A tiny percentage of working journalists, and a tiny percentage of academics to whom journalists have grudgingly accorded respect, have taken the point. The most prominent of the latter group is the late journalism professor, James Carey, who explored journalism's antipathy to theory and explanation in his famous essay, ''The Dark Continent of American Journalism.'' If journalism's goal is to find out ''who, what, when, where, and how,'' Carey said, the dark continent of the profession is the oft-ignored stepchild on the list, the one most times tentatively formulated as ''and, sometimes, 'why.'''
This is far too limited a format to accommodate a thorough -- dare I say rigorously objective? -- consideration of the ''why'' of the journalism-academe gap. But as a journalist for most of my adult life, I am perhaps qualified to offer a personal theory as to why journalists, almost genetically it seems, are inclined to value facts so highly. It is because at some time in their childhood they came to believe that the facts about life were being withheld from them, as candy or toys or parental affection might be withheld. And this withholding of fact, at this stage of life, instilled within them a burning desire, even a rage, to have those facts they desired. The essential immaturity, even delusion, that is part and parcel of this burning desire, in no way diminishes its power as a motivating force. For such a journalist, then, every act of journalism, in which previously-hidden facts are brought to light, is both a greedy personal devouring of a sweetness that's been desired from a primordial time, and simultaneously an act of revenge against those who originally withheld that sweetness from a child.
So there is my theory covering the journalistic side. I couldn't speak for academics. But I have a hunch that in some way, academics in their maturity are searching not for the sweetness itself that originally was withheld, but instead for an explanation as to the why it was withheld. Ideas, anyone?