Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Which Is More Important: Teaching or Politics?

It’s galling to (1) find oneself quoted positively in a story posted on David Horowitz’s propaganda site (though they now seem to have taken the story down: It can still be found at its original home) and (2) to see oneself criticized by someone as dedicated to the protection of academic freedom as I am. But that’s my situation this morning.

To me, it points out that our continuing problems of both negative perception of academia and our failures to take care of our own house are no nearer solution, thanks to the Ward Churchill affair, than they were before. If anything, they are worse.

The essay that Horowitz briefly hosted (I hope it was taken down because I am mentioned, but I suspect they hadn’t bothered to get permission) is by KC Johnson, a professor of History at Brooklyn College. Titled “Ward Churchill and the Diversity Agenda,” it originally appeared on a website of the conservative Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute called “Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities.” It uses the Churchill firing to continue the case for reform in our universities—something I agree with, though the Manhattan Institute people are not those I would like to see formulating that reform.

I would rather see progressives do it, for their liberal ideas fit better with the underlying concepts of “liberal arts” (see Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?). But progressives, like John K. Wilson (who wrote the other article, titled “Ward Redux”), seem to have fixated on First Amendment rights to the point where they are doing no more than chasing their own tails. Certainly, they aren't contributing to the needed debate underlying future reform. They refuse to admit, for example, that Churchill was (and is) a problem for academia and continue to try to defend the indefensible. This does not help at all.

Wilson writes, in response to my assertion that Churchill had no business teaching, that “Churchill’s popularity among many students shows that it was a disservice to fire him.” Rapper 50 Cent is popular with students, too, but that wouldn’t earn him a place among the faculty.

Certain competencies are required for college teaching, among them proficiency in research (for the type of teaching Churchill was doing, at least). Even the kindest look at Churchill’s record of publication and research shows that he does not possess these competencies. Therefore, popular or not, he should not be teaching. It is a disservice to our students to claim otherwise—and an opening for legitimate criticism that we in academia are not performing the tasks of self-oversight we have taken on.

Wilson goes on to write, concerning the dubious process of Churchill’s initial hiring, that “Despite all of the accusations, no one has actually proven that Ward Churchill is not a Native American.” Well, no one has proven I am not, either.

Churchill is member of no tribe and can show no ancestry within a Native American group. The burden of proof of his authenticity rests with him, not with those who doubt him. He has yet to show anything that places his background within a Native-American community. Here again, with this spurious and laughable defense of Churchill, Wilson is making us in the progressive movement within education look bad--like we are clutching a straws to defend the indefensible. His defense of Churchill on the grounds that no one has proven a negative only makes it clearer that he cares more about keeping Churchill in his job than about education and honesty.

At the end of his article, Wilson makes the astonishing claim that, in the 1950s, “colleges thought that they could protect themselves from outside intrusion by sacrificing a few radical professors to the witchhunt.” This, as anyone knows who has either studied that time or who lived through it, is nonsense. And Churchill is not being sacrificed. There is no gain from his firing for anyone; no one thinks his going will ease the pressure on academia.

By any rational standard of evaluation of competencies (including by degrees or by proof of competency in their stead), Churchill should not have been teaching, let alone a tenured Full Professor. He got away with what amounts to a scam for almost twenty years. Yes, it is true that the means by which the scam was uncovered were highly questionable (every bit as dishonest, in my mind, as Churchill himself), but that does not mitigate Churchill’s “crimes.”

As a primary goal of an educational institution is education, we cannot go about defending the “right” of unqualified people to teach. No matter what else one might say about the Churchill case, it is unfair to our students for us to ignore this basic truth of our profession.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Last Thoughts on Ward Churchill?

Well, as expected, Ward Churchill was fired yesterday. I don’t know how I feel about it. Certainly, I have never been a supporter of his, but the whole brouhaha disturbs me greatly. Academia had let itself slip into a spot with no room for a graceful exit.

Everyone seems to “know” the “truth” about all of this. John Wilson, writing at College Freedom, for example, seems sure he’s right about the allegations against Churchill:

All that has been proven is that Churchill made some dubious claims in his writings without any real evidence, and that he engaged in ghost writing for some other academics.

As I assume Wilson has done, I’ve read the report of the first committee that investigated Churchill—but I am not convinced that it is as simple as Wilson makes it out to be. Churchill certainly did produce questionable scholarship, may have plagiarized, and certainly wrote articles under pseudonyms that he later used to validate points in pieces over his own name. But that’s not the whole of it.

Still, had Churchill committed the “crimes” he was “convicted” of in one of my classes, I would not even have brought him before the university, but would have worked with him personally. I would have tried to teach him what good scholarship is, helping him learn that one does not decide an answer first and then twist “facts” to support it, that one makes all use of outside material absolutely clear, and that one’s own earlier work is not sufficient as documentary proof in later work (though it can be referred to).

So, I’m not sure Churchill’s scholastic offenses alone add up to transgressions warranting termination.

On the other hand, I don’t think Churchill is exactly the sort of person I want to see in a college classroom.

We, as the academic community, have a certain responsibility towards our students. When one of our colleagues is shown, even belatedly, to be undeserving of his or her place before the chalkboard, we do a disservice to the students when that professor is not removed.

But it gets more complicated.

Another problem is that the University of Colorado at Boulder is not exactly innocent in the Churchill situation. It wanted a Native American for the position Churchill was hired to fill. Is it any wonder that Churchill, who certainly looks like he could be Native American, claimed that he was? He could not have gotten the job otherwise, no matter how stellar his other qualifications might have been. So, the University is complicit in at least one of his lies. Also, the University turned a blind eye to complaints about Churchill’s scholarship for a minimum of eight years; its tenure and promotion committees had also failed in their duties. If the University had done its job, there would have been no need for an outside hue-and-cry to spark an investigation.

The University comes off badly in l’affaire Churchill from every angle. It should not have caved to the pressure to investigate Churchill for political reasons (it should have done so for other reasons, but much earlier). When it did cave, it should have had sense enough to turn the investigation over to some sort of neutral agency. And it should have made sure that there was no place for anyone with a political axe to grind to have anything at all to do with the ultimate decision on his retention.

None of the University’s failures, however, justify retaining a professor in the classroom who is not qualified. And Churchill fails to reach minimum standards on a number of levels of scholarship and honesty. It’s an outrage to our students for us to force on them instructors who do not meet standards—for any reason. In this case, the outrage goes back to Churchill’s initial hiring—and is not mitigated by the passage of time.

As I said above, I would deal privately with Churchill’s crimes, were he a student of mine. But he is not—he is (or was) a colleague with responsibilities not only for setting a good example for his students through his own research but for judging their research. There is also a question of honesty, here, that is extremely important to our position as role models: Even if the university “forced” him to lie to get the job, Churchill is the one who lied—and there’s a pattern in his past of dubious statements,one going back years. Mount Holyoke College suspended Pulitzer winner Joseph Ellis for lying to his students about his “experiences” in Vietnam. Should Churchill, whose fabrications certainly go beyond those of Ellis, not face sterner penalties?

Ellis, at least, had a strong track record of scholarship of the first rank.

None of Churchill’s defenders, as far as I know, has addressed the question of whether or not he should be in the classroom. They focus on the politics (his supporters even wore tee-shirts yesterday making that point)—and they are right: The reasons for the investigation into Churchill were of a reprehensible variety.

But that does not mean that Churchill belongs in a classroom.

Since returning to academia (just six years ago), I’ve been astonished by “our” lack of willingness to look to ourselves and the weaknesses in the ways we (as faculties) evaluate ourselves and govern ourselves. Hiring and promotion policies are arcane, often dishonest, and an almost deliberate bureaucratic nightmare.

Three years ago, I began to talk and write against David Horowitz and his attacks on academia—and started to see that our own policies are actually helping him in his campaign… as is our instinct to circle the wagons whenever we are attacked, protecting our own even when they aren’t worth of protection. It made me furious: Rather than helping protect us from attack, our own policies were actually making us more vulnerable.

We, ourselves (academia), have insured that there could be no good resolution to the Churchill case. With Churchill gone, a slight bit more control is ceded by the universities to the politicians. However, if Churchill had stayed, we would be doing a disservice to our students and making it appear that the David Horowitz’s and Anne Neal’s of the world are right, that the universities are controlled by a cabal of leftists—again ultimately ceding control to the politicians through renewed negative perception of us, through showing ourselves living down to expectations.

Personally, though I am not happy about it, I would rather see Churchill gone than stay. His firing, in my view, does less damage than his retention.

We, the faculty, need to reform our hiring and promotion processes, however, to start to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

This isn’t over. Unless we do something to clean our own house, there will be another Ward Churchill, and our independence will be once more slightly chipped away, no matter the outcome.

Oh, That Silly Little Horowitz

David Horowitz is at it again. Actually, he never stopped. I simply got bored with him and his predictably ill-thought comments and his dying campaign to bring legislative control to public universities through his Newspeak-named “Academic Bill of Rights.”

Today, his target is Free Exchange on Campus, “a coalition of faculty, student, and civil rights organizations working together to preserve the free exchange of ideas on college campuses” where I’ve been blogging recently.

Which, of course, is why I’m responding to Horowitz today, rather than simply rolling my eyes, as I usually do when I visit his website.

As usual, Horowitz starts off by deliberately confusing the meaning of “academic freedom,” something he does regularly. As usual, he extends it to students without any rationale. He writes of “the academic freedom of students to be taught by professionals who are scholars and not proselytizing ideologues.” Actual academic freedom, though it certainly pertains to students, is a compact between the universities and their faculties. Students have the right to be taught by ‘professionals’ and not ‘ideologues,’ but that is not academic freedom.

Oh, well. Some people never learn.

Furthermore, Horowitz, though he has been trying for years, has yet to establish that ideology spills over into classrooms in any significant way. He doesn’t really want to, either. If he were serious about discovering whether there is actually a problem, he would spend time in classrooms—which he does not. All Horowitz has managed to show is that many of us professors express our ideological views outside of the classroom, which is our right both under the tenets of academic freedom and the First Amendment.


In the post today, Horowitz accuses Free Exchange on Campus of racism, saying it is opposing “what Brown v. Board of Education was about, and it […] what Martin Luther King preached” by opposing a ballot initiative in Missouri that would “remove racist practices from Missouri public institutions by passing an initiative that prevents discrimination by government on the basis of race.” That’s not quite it, though: This is an anti-Affirmative Action initiative aimed at tying government hands when it tries to redress racial inequities.

In other words, the ballot initiative is itself racist, for it uses the fiction of a level playing field to insure that one race is not aided in its quest to reach that level playing field. Horowitz and Ward Connerly (who introduced the initiative) somehow pretend that there is no difference in starting place between members of different races and, therefore, that the law has no business considering race.

What makes me roll my eyes about this is that it is another attempt by Horowitz to paint another his own color. He writes, “the Free Exchange/Daily Kos leftists who are totalitarians to the core and want government and other political agencies to determine how our students think and which students are to receive privileges.” Anyone one who reads Free Exchange on Campus or Daily Kos (and doesn’t get their impressions filtered through Horowitz or Bill O’Reilly) knows that the opposite is the case. In fact, it is Horowitz who advocates totalitarianism (he always has, from his Stalinist youth onwards) and who wants government to determine how people think. Why else would he want legislatures to control our universities?


Saturday, July 21, 2007

What About the Next Ward Churchill?

[The follwing was written for Free Exchange on Campus about the case of Ward Churchill, who will probably lose his job teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder tomorrow.]

It’s rather too easy, when looking at the Ward Churchill situation, to get caught up in the question of the man himself. I’ve done so, as has just about everyone who has argued the issue—regardless of stance. But it's not the man that's important. Instead, it's how we, as academics and others concerned with our universities, react to accusations against members of the academic community.

There are two issues we should be addressing, neither involving the particulars of the case: First, is the motivation of an investigation into an academic's professional behavior significant to any community-wide defense of that academic? Second, are academics policing themselves adequately enough to justify their insistence that others keep their hands off of academic freedom?

Arguments over Churchill, whether between a David Horowitz type and an academic or between those within academia who see a witch-hunt and those who see simply a cad brought to rights, have been going on for well more than a year, now. Indeed, though his guilt or innocence should not be the point of the broader discussion (few of us are really in a position to judge), there are those on all sides who try to make Churchill and his presumed guilt or innocence an emblem for their greater argument about academia.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, for example, plasters his picture over the cover of their screed against professors entitled, not surprisingly, “How Many Ward Churchills?” On the first page of the report, one finds this (over the name of Anne Neal, the organization’s president):

Is there really only one Ward Churchill? Or are there many? Do professors in their classrooms ensure a robust exchange of ideas designed to help students to think for themselves? Or do they use their classrooms as platforms for propaganda, sites of sensitivity training, and launching pads for political activism? Do our college and university professors foster intellectual diversity or must students toe the party line?

Suddenly, Ward Churchill is no longer even the professor whose inflammatory statements led to an investigation that found questionable conduct in other areas. Suddenly, he’s the standard to which our universities have fallen, one of propaganda instead of teaching. This is a mis-use of the Churchill controversy for political purposes well beyond the actual case, taking perceptions of the man and generalizing from them.

Suddenly, Ward Churchill is being used as a knife to attack what Neal (like Horowitz) see as a leftist dominated academia that has fallen far away from education.

Naturally enough, those within academia have fought back.

Some have decided that the best way of countering the attacks is to defend Ward Churchill on the grounds that the investigation into his activities was politically motivated. To them, it’s less important that he did something wrong than the fact that he was investigated because of his political activities. In a letter to the University of Colorado Board of Regents last week, Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Executive Director, and Cathryn Hazouri, Executive Director of the Colorado ACLU wrote:

We believe the poisoned atmosphere in which this investigation was launched, and the circumstances under which it was initiated, have irretrievably tainted the process. The investigation of Professor Churchill’s scholarship cannot be separated from the indefensible lynch-mob furor that generated the initial calls for his termination. Firing Professor Churchill in these circumstances does not send a message about academic rigor and standards of professional integrity. On the contrary, it sends a warning to the academic community that politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril.

Notable scholars, including Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, and Howard Zinn signed an open letter stating that:
The relentless pursuit of and punitive approach of the University of Colorado at Boulder to Professor Ward Churchill is a revealing instance of the ethos that is currently threatening academic freedom. The voice of the university and intellectual community needs to be heard strongly and unequivocally in defense of dissent and critical thinking. And one concrete expression of such a resolve is to oppose the recommended dismissal of Ward Churchill from his position as a senior tenured faculty member.

What he may or may not have done himself, in their minds, is less important than the nature and provenance of the investigation. Attacks like Neal's, they believe, justify their defense of Churchill.

Others disagree, seeing the attitude of the ACLU and the signers of the letter as a circling of the leftist wagons that leaves way too many with an impression of liberal academia as more interested in protecting its own than in insuring that professors are both qualified and intellectually honest. They see defense of Churchill as a tactic that ultimately weakens academic freedom for (in their eyes) it demonstrates that academics are unable to police themselves. They see the question “How many Ward Churchills?” arising from the fact that it was not, indeed, anyone inside academia who drew attention to him, though it should have been. Who else with shaky credentials and questionable scholarship, they see outsiders asking, might our universities be hiding? Rather than feeling it necessary to protect Ward Churchill due to the nature of the attack, these people (and I am among them) argue that academia should concentrate first on cleaning its own house. We should be making ourselves less vulnerable to such attacks by policing ourselves more carefully.

Outside of Churchill himself, not many are arguing any longer over things like Churchill’s debunked claim of a Native America heritage or over whether or not he actually engaged in questionable academic behavior. Instead, as I have indicated, those addressing the issue inside of academia are arguing over tactics in anticipation of and in response to his anticipated firing (or confirmation thereof) by the University of Colorado Board of Regents this coming Tuesday, July 24, 2007.

We struggle over the question: Which way is best? Should the fact of a witch-hunt be enough to bring academia to the defense of one of its own? The knee-jerk answer is “Yes.” But what if it turns out that the person in question (the details of the Churchill case aside) really wasn’t qualified for the position, by background or by scholarship? What if it turns out that there certainly was dishonesty going on? Should the defense be continued?

The results of the Churchill case will not answer these questions. But, as we move forward with or without Churchill in our midst, everyone concerned with academic freedom needs to consider how best to react next time. The argument, in other words, will not be over on Tuesday.

If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest? We don’t want people saying that we care more about our “friends” than about the quality of the education we offer and the scholarship we are doing. Are we making sure that will be the case?

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be the man himself, Ward Churchill, that we are arguing about inside academia. His weaknesses seem pretty well established. But the conversation should continue about how best we respond to situations like this until we have developed means of insuring we can be confident of our own academic integrity and are able to mount an unambiguous defense of our academic freedom.

Update: Sherman Dorn writes:

Barlow is right that the symbolic politics are important in some ways. But the critical question in each individual case is academic due process, not public perception. Should we warp academic due process to match what we think should happen, or what those outside academe think should happen? I haven't seen that in the actions of faculty at Colorado, but Barlow appears more concerned with perception than due process. And that is worrisome.

The question that Dorn elides also has to do with process... in hiring and promotion. It does not appear that proper procedure was followed in the first place. Demanding "due process" after that does not suffice, for the process has already been perverted.

Dorn has it backwards. He doesn't seem to understand that it really isn't perception that worries me, but our own responsibilities--from the beginning of the hiring process through promotion and tenure and on to firing, resignation, or retirement.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

From Social Networking to Serious Learning

[This is the second blog diary in a series sparked by a teacher professional-development class that I taught, along with Marie Squerciati, at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in June. The first can be found as an earlier entry here or here at Free Exchange on Campus, for whom I am writing this series, primarily.]

Some educators (among other people) have hardened their images of the Internet around twin images of the stalker/scammer and the trivial social site. They see not possibilities but threats on the Net, and position their schools accordingly. Though they generally recognize that the Web is something they now have to deal with, they try to bring it under their control, usually by blocking access to sites that may pose even the slightest danger or that might possibly offend. Admittedly, there are reasons for their fears, but their reaction may not be the best.

By setting up barriers, they limits the ability of teachers to effectively use the Internet, both to show students the nearly infinite possibilities for research and exploration that lie before them and to teach those students to protect themselves from the dangers that the Web certainly does present. What's most frustrating is that the students are experiencing the fullness of the Web anyway but, in these situations, are forced to do so outside of school and without the guidance that can both improve their learning experience and teach them to protect themselves.

As the teachers taking our class will likely have to deal with a certain number of negative attitudes when they try to use blogs in their classes, we started the week with a discussion of just where today's students "are" in regards to the Internet--and on how we can move them from their play to more considered (and safer) Web activities. We wanted to give them the ability to show what the students are doing (and are going to do) anyway, and how blogs and other Internet possibilities can be used to turn what is increasingly a social phenomenon in to an educational one. One the the basic rules of teaching is that one must start where the students are, creating a path to where you want them to go. When such a path on the Web can be shown--in detail--to administrators, it is more likely that the teacher will gain permission to use the Internet in a fruitful way in the classroom.

First, though, to give the teachers an idea of what some of the attitudes they will encounter will be, we talked some about Andrew Keen's view that amateurism has taken the Web over--and taken it down. Keen has the gatekeeper's attitude that junk wouldn't appear on the Internet if everyone would let him decide what to allow in. Him and the "professionals." He doesn't understand the essential Web maxim (developed from John Dewey, among others) that it is more effective to teach people to be their own gatekeepers than to provide gatekeepers for them... if for no other reason than the fact that, while some are watching the gate, others are sneaking in and out through the holes in the fence.

After a little fun at Keen's expense, we concentrated on how to use what all of us--Marie, me, and the students--saw as the tremendous possibilities of the Web for education, for moving students from unfocused discussion to directed exploration.

I've been struck, the past year or so, that we teachers of writing may find our task made easier, these next few years, if we pay attention to the 'texting' our students are doing on their Trios and Sidekicks, Blackberrys (not many of these among the students, however), and (now) iPhones. Not to mention their IMing. Whatever we think of their bits of shorthand and slang, today's high-school students are writing on their own more than students have in generations. My task, then, is to take what they are doing and show them how to move it into a form that works for school. Oh, and to show how they can use the skills they are developing in their social-networking searches to gather the good information they need for their papers and projects.

To do this, I talk to my students about "code switching," moving from one dialect to another in speech or writing. In their cases, moving from 'texting' to 'texts' of an academic sort. They get it right away, for they code-switch all the time, speaking differently to their parents and teachers than they do with their friends. All they need is to define the needs of the different situations for themselves. Once they have, they move back and forth with ease.

Students don't need to learn new languages to code-switch. Even those who are growing up with a dialect (or even a language other than English) at home hear the "standard" dialect often enough to make switching into it relatively easy, once the students have learned to identify the differences. The same is true for writing--and often for the Web. Our students are rarely unfamiliar with the Internet these days and, if they are, they will learn its rudiments more quickly from their peers than they will from us teachers. We just need to point out the differences between what they are doing and what we want them to do.

It sounds simple: What we teachers need to concentrate on is moving students from their social networking to much more productive usages, teaching them to code-switch on the Web, too. In practice, of course, it becomes much more complicated. But, if that simple road is kept in mind, the task can be accomplished without undue pain.

What's the difference between surfing MySpace pages and seeking information on, say, critical perspectives on Leaves of Grass? In many respects, it's merely the goal. Yes, there are things one needs to understand in order to evaluate the plethora of websites that may contain something about Walt Whitman, but there are also things one needs to understand to successfully negotiate MySpace--and the two are not all that different. The teacher who understands this will be able to work with his or her students without as much resistance as might be otherwise expected, bringing the students relatively painlessly into an understanding of the requirements for using the Web as an effective and efficient part of their education. Students do need to be made aware of whatever proprietary databases are available to them, how to judge relative values of blogs and links, and a great deal more... but these things are best learned through a process of shepherding, of taking motion that is already there and channeling it in the direction appropriate to the class.

Because students are using the Web, there is no longer even the need for computers at each desk in a class that has a large Internet component. As long as students have access to the Web elsewhere, class time can be better used in discussing subject matter and what one has found on the Web--and all of the other problems and possibilities. The ubiquity of the Internet is freeing us up, making us less dependent on the machines in the classroom.

It's an exciting time for those of us interested in using the Web to facilitate education, for the communications revolution we are in the middle of continues, and the assumptions of one year may prove quaint the next. The laptop, the tool of the future and center of learning of just a few years ago, may soon disappear, replaced by cell phones that do everything a laptop could, and more. Still, it is also a time of danger, for new items open up new avenues for exploitation, as camera phones have shown so clearly. Educators can't pretend that they can control what is happening, any more than they can control the Internet itself.

What they can do, however, is teach their students the skills that will make them self-reliant on the Web, even as the students go about their social networking and (we hope) begin to use the skills they are developing for their education as well. And for the "free exchange of ideas" that is so important to that education.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Moore to CNN: "Drop Dead"

If Michael Moore did not exist, we would have to invent him.

Not that he's perfect. He makes mistakes, cuts corners... does all the things that humans do.

But he cares, and admits that he cares. He never pretends to that myth "objectivity" or places himself "above the fray." He's the perfect human antidote to the lumbering CNN dinosaur that looks down in amusement at the 'little people'--never realizing that its time is done and completely oblivious to the need for change.

Which, of course, brings me to his letter today to CNN about this weeks' Gupta brouhaha.

In that letter, Moore makes point after good point (drawing attention to the point that Gupta hasn't the experience for the type of evaluation he was making is a particularly good one), but I'd like to draw attention to just a couple, those having to do with the dinoraur aspect of CNN.

Moore writes:
In the old days, before the Internet, you could get away with it. Your victims had no way to set the record straight, to show the viewers how you had misrepresented the truth. But now, we can post the truth -- and back it up with evidence and facts -- on the web, for all to see.

On the Web, even CNN is trying to get "with it," recognizing that there's a new dynamic in the news field, with things like "iReports." On cable, however, it sticks to the old model. We tell you, and we don't make mistakes (at least, we don't draw attention to them--to yours, yes, but not to ours).

Moore makes it clear that CNN can't pass this off as a one-timer:
We are now going to start looking into the veracity of other reports you have aired on other topics. Nothing you say now can be believed. In 2002, the New York Times busted you for bringing celebrities on your shows and not telling your viewers they were paid spokespeople for the pharmaceutical companies. You promised never to do it again. But there you were, in 2005, talking to Joe Theismann, on air, as he pushed some drug company-sponsored website on prostate health. You said nothing about about his affiliation with GlaxoSmithKline.

Old habits die hard, and sometimes the only way to shock people out of bad habits is to embarrass them or shock them. What Moore is trying to do with CNN is in CNN's own best interest (Moore makes it clear that he actually likes the people of CNN).

Of course, being Michael Moore, he can't keep away from CNN's past failures:
You and the other networks were willing partners with Bush, flying flags all over the TV screens and never asking the hard questions that you should have asked. You might have prevented a war. You might have saved the lives of those 3,610 soldiers who are no longer with us. Instead, you blew air kisses at a commander in chief who clearly was making it all up. Millions of us knew that -- why didn't you? I think you did. And, in my opinion, that makes you responsible for this war.

There's never been "objectivity" at CNN, or a real position "above the fray." And that's what's so infuriating. Fox News may spout about "fair and balanced," but they really make little pretense at being so. Fox is dishonest, too, of course... but it lies to us with a wink and a smile.... Fox knows that we know that it lies, and doesn't care.

CNN pretends it is not lying... even now, after Moore has shown so clearly that it is... and does.

As I said at the start, if Michael Moore didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. Yes, the dinosauars are dying, but they could fall and crush us all. Moore is not just warning CNN, but us, giving us time to get out of the way of an unfolding disaster.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Winchells of Journalism

One of the novels I was smitten with for a few minutes in the 1960s was Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.  Quite quickly, though, I tired of neologisms like "grok" and returned to writers with a better sense of the absurd--like Philip K. Dick, still one of my favorites.  Recently, though, I began to wish that another of Heinlein's word creations had managed to catch on: "winchell," for those in the entertainment field whose schtick is impersonation of a journalist or serious commentator.

Walter Winchell, a household name from the 1930s into the 1960s, was the source of Heinlein's created word.  Winchell was primarily a gossip columnist, but he styled himself as a journalist.  He used the sound of a telegraph key to open his radio bits, giving a hint of "breaking" and of "news" that was not really present.  

As World War II loomed, Winchell veered into politics, taking a clear anti-Hitler stance, pointing out a danger that few Americans, at that time, were willing to face.  After the war, however, his politics moved to the right, communism replacing fascism in his pantheon of evils.

By the time he died in the early 1970s, Winchell had been all but forgotten, reduced to handing out mimeographed sheets containing the columns he had once broadcast nationwide.  Though he did recognize the dangers of Nazi Germany early, there really had been little substance to him--nothing, in fact, beyond a certain level of entertainment.  He had a real skill with words, but was satisfied with the superficial, never using his talent to explore the deep and complex problems underlying the surfaces that, perhaps, he mistook for the depths.

We've plenty of winchells around now.  Bill O'Reilly, perhaps, is the best known of the entertainers who masquerade as journalists, but there are plenty of others.  Though there is no one on the left with anything like O'Reilly's complete disdain for the professionalism that is supposed to be part of journalism, some progressive winchell's do exist.  Greg Palast, for example, subtitles his webpage "Journalism and Film," unabashedly connecting reporting and entertaining, next to a picture of himself in a fedora--reminiscent of Winchell, whose similar hat was something of a signature.  Furthermore, the page is sprinkled with ads for Palast products and many of the stories read as Palast promotionals.

These two are certainly not alone anywhere along the political spectrum.  Sometimes, people like them actually produce good journalism (Palast has)--still, what they are presenting is a schtick.  But don't get me wrong: We need a few more Palasts on the left--we just shouldn't mistake them for journalists.

As journalism as a whole has veered more and more towards entertainment (nudged by desire for profits and notice that straight journalism rarely fulfills), it has become easier and easier for the entertainers masquerading as journalists to succeed.  Even Stephen Colbert, who clearly doesn't want to fool people, actually has many on the far right believing he is one of them, though he "only plays one on TV."

If we could resurrect Heinlein's "winchell," perhaps Americans (having a word for them) could begin to recognize these people, no longer mistaking them for the real journalists they play.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Expanding Upon It!

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus]

Last week, I co-taught a professional-development course for high-school teachers, "Classroom Blogs and Citizen Journalism," at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. My colleague and I introduced the teachers to blogging software, but little of what we did, really, had much to do with technology.


As a culture, we've reached the point in our communications revolution where it’s no longer the hardware or even the programs that need our concentrated attention. For the moment, the technological changes occurring (the iPhone concept antiquating the laptop, for example) are almost predictable. Even developments such as YouTube startled only those who had not been paying attention. Most everyone else simply said "cool" and started watching and linking.

The cultural changes resulting from this revolution, however, continue to blindside us. In educational situations, they come close to causing paralysis.

Which was the subtext of the week.

To many within our academic institutions, the scariest part of all this is the destruction of the protective barriers we've build around our schools and colleges, barriers designed to define and limit responsibility, but whose effect has also been to cut educational institutions from the broader world. What Brad DeLong extols as "an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things" frightens the pants off of many of our educators (particularly education administrators) for it reduces control but does nothing about responsibility.

As a result, even more schools are turning to proprietary systems for dealing with the Web. Unfortunately, all of these, including the nearly ubiquitous Blackboard, miss DeLong's point. Rather than expanding, they limit, narrowing the lessons it is possible to teach today about utilizing the Web in relative safety.

What we were trying to teach our students were alternatives to the blocking of websites and other means of keeping students from a Web they are going to encounter anyway. We wanted to encourage the teachers to find ways of making their students “neterate,” able to negotiate the Web productively and in safety. Doing so, of course, would also require teaching parents, colleagues, and administrators—at least to the point where they were confident the students (or the schools) weren’t being led into danger. Ethics, for example, was a major subject for the week, as were ownership, responsibility, and much more.

As the week progressed, it became clear that we were advising our teacher-students to follow DeLong and fight to expand their universes of instruction, a problem when many educational institutions are operating in a climate of fear generated by, among other things, the likes of David Horowitz—people who want to see our schools curtailed and who can succeed through simply posing their threats. Among other things, Horowitz wants to force teachers to stick to the subject matter defined for their courses, no more and no less. Never having been a teacher, he doesn’t understand that the learning mind doesn’t work that way, that compartmentalization hobbles learning.

Our teacher-students didn’t mind: We started with technology, showing them a little about html and walking them through Blogger’s possibilities. But they proved more interested in exploring just what the Web can offer and how they could utilize it, given the restrictions that would surely be imposed upon them, no matter how eloquently they argued for their projects. As that’s where we wanted to go, the week worked out well.

Occasionally, over the next weeks, I will review some of the discussions we had last week. Perhaps others who have begun to use the Web in their classrooms will chime in, making this another instance of the “invisible college,” providing learning for all of us.