Last week, two well-known figures in the conservative media world -- Roger Ailes, who made the Fox News Channel what it is today, and bow-tied jack-of-all-right-wing-reporting trades Tucker Carlson -- both gave speeches to young journalists on the state of the profession. Although they took place one day and a couple of hundred miles apart, the common message to young people thinking about becoming journalists was strikingly similar. Don't learn too much, and it might be best if you stay away altogether. Especially if you want to make the world a better place.
Carlson, who now runs the occasionally outrageous (not always intentionally) website The Daily Caller after he was bounced from various cable shows, went first, addressing aspiring journalists at the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. The graduate of Trinity College in Hartford told the future scribes that going to college is an expensive sinkhole (news, no doubt, to some of the top scholars who work at Cato) and advised them not to waste time in "some 'government-subsidized college course' or 'underwater basket-weaving for feminists or whatever'they talk about in class."
The nut, whoever, was this:
"You can’t be most things that you want to be. Why? Because you’re not capable of it,” Carlson told the audience. The theme of Carlson’s brutally honest speech could be summed up with this direct quote. “Most people’s voices are not worth being heard."
Ironically, it seems like Carlson's main message was heard (perhaps telepathically) by Ailes, the longtime president of FNC who built the network into America's most-watched cable news outlet, who spoke the next day at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.His first comment to journalism majors was that they should change their major. They may have been flippant -- it's hard to tell with Ailes -- but he was definitely serious about this:
“If you’re going into journalism if you care, then you’re going into the wrong profession,” Ailes said. “I usually ask (journalists) if they want to change the world in the way it wants to be changed.”
I should note here that at least Ailes -- who (and this is a very low bar) has a lot more gravitas than Carlson -- also made a number of good points, if you want to overlook the huge gulf between his words and his deeds during his long second career in TV journalism. He said correctly that good journalists are good watchdogs and he even gave a decent "conservative" example of an area that should be watchdogged -- waste and mismanagement at the UN -- although to my knowledge pundit-driven Fox News has never done a serious investigation of this. And I'm glad we live in a country with press freedom for both conservatives and liberals to launch a TV network.
But actually Carlson's words -- while at first blush more frivolous -- were in the end arguably more honest than what Ailes had to say. The truest words from the FNC honcho were his comment that he doesn't want journalists who "care." Because if Ailes or his reporters really cared, they would be upset that so many Fox News viewers get wrong-headed ideas like blaming Saddam Hussein for 9/11, or watchdog their own shameful record of false reporting on climate change.
And he doesn't want journalists crusading to change the world -- at least not a world in which the laws and the tax code have been so skewed toward the wealthy, where oil companies can destroy the earth with impunity and where illegal acts like waterboarding are cheered. Ailes' influential TV network practices what Tucker Carlson preached -- that it doesn't matter if you want to change the status quo, because you don't even deserve to be heard. In fact, the less educated you are, the better off things would be. For the political right, anyway.
They remind me of the legendary line from Dean Wormer in Animal House, but in reverse. Fat, drunk and stupid is exactly how they want you to go through life, son.
Still, although it was surely unintentional, I think Ailes and Carlson did us all a public service. Because they placed on the table a question that we -- and I don't just mean journalists, but all of us -- should have been debating out in the open for years. Should journalists care? Should they want to change the world as a result of their work. Or should they merely report "just the facts" and give equal weight to every side of contentous issues, and leave the world-changing -- if there indeed needs to be world-changing -- for some other guy.
I am part of a large bubble of professional journalists -- people who came of age during or not long after the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon -- and my recollection is that once upon a time, changing the world was a big motivator for entering the field. It seemed in the early 1970s that aggressive activism had petered out for a number of reasons from the foolishness of the Weather Underground types to the deaths at Kent State, culminating in the defeat of the change-seeking George McGovern. The somewhat romantic version that it was journalists who took down a president and his reign of illegality taught my generation that steely professionalism -- as opposed to fuzzy-headed activism -- was the only way to bring about change that mattered.
What happened next is a long story, but I'll try and stick to the short version for now. The bad news is that many journalists -- especially in the face of a conservative pushback that was partly originated by (irony alert) Roger Ailes -- retreated into a serious misinterpretation of what journalism could be and should be. They didn't change the world but occasionally changed institutions on the margin, and then awarded each other big prizes for doing so. The "best and the brightest" of my journalistic generation could even make big money as part of a Beltway elite, as long as they didn't color outside the lines established by the powers that be. And so the nadir was the run-up to the Iraq war, when stenography of the government's bogus case for a war made careers in Washington -- and wasted countless lives 10 time zones away.
What's the good news? That even after this 30-year beatdown some journalists do care, and in 2012 their courage stands out more than ever. Although I think in past years some award-winning jounalism was written more for contest judges than to engage the American people, there are signs that the Pulitzer Prizes that will be dished out tomorrow afternoon will reward some stories that definitely exposed major wrongs and could even (gulp) make the world a better place.
These are stories that have already won other major journalism awards -- the Associated Press expose of the NYPD's questionable spying on the Muslim community, Bloomberg's "Wired for Repression" series about surveilance technology sold to repressive regimes, the Wall Street Journal on insider trading by government officials, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer (not eligible for a Pulitzer, but winner of a Polk award) on the crushing of a government whistle-blower.
I have a strong hunch that these are exactly the kind of voices that Tucker Carlson didn't want you to hear.
Because despite the best efforts of Carlson and Ailes, there are still journalists out there who give a damn.