Barbarians and Gatekeepers

BY AARON BARLOW

Fifty-plus years ago, the political right began a campaign to undermine the institutions of the American political and societal system. They were out of power and had found themselves far outside of the mainstream of both political parties; lacking responsibilities within any extant institutions, they had no commitment to those landmarks of American society that had provided stability since, certainly, the start of the Roosevelt administration. Included among these were the judiciary (“activist judges” is one of the terms eventually used to undermine it), journalism (the “fake news” sobriquet has a long history), colleges and universities (hotbeds of indoctrination, in the eyes of these self-proclaimed “conservative” activists), and even politicians themselves (few of whom, at that early point, were then turning to them for guidance).

To say nothing of the Democrats still beholden to the New Deal, Eisenhower and Nixon, though Republicans, had proven too pragmatic, not rightwing enough, accepting (and even promoting) things like Social Security and the concept of a safety net. Not even Reagan satisfied them completely (Congress, after all, still leaned heavily Democratic and mainstream Republican) and Bush senior was certainly not their type. They thought they had found a true believer in W. but he proved weak and ineffective and led to the pushback of Obama. Only now, with Trump, have they really found their man—along with a control of the corridors of power that they never before had—or expected to have.

What they didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) was that by undermining the institutions of government they would create a situation where even they, who had never really expected to govern, could not—and cannot, now that they are forced to try. Their strategies were predicated on being an outsider movement; they never had a plan for what to do with success—except to return the country to ‘traditional values,’ whatever that means. The truth of this is illustrated by Steve Bannon leaving the White House to return to the outsider attack, a rather bizarre strategy for someone who had become the ultimate insider and who still has the ear of the president. Here again, the right finds itself only able to destroy, never to build (look at what has happened to Kansas).

What they have destroyed along their way to political power are the gatekeepers who have protected the institutions of American society—for good and ill—for generations. Any claims that they have attacked only the individuals who have taken on that role, not the institutions themselves, ring hollow. Roy Moore, though once a judge, has no interest in protecting the separation of church and state, among other American traditions. David Horowitz offers no alternatives to ‘the professors’ he so roundly criticizes. James O’Keefe provides no replacement ethics to the journalism he tries so hard to subvert. And Donald Trump, with no experience in governing and no interest in gaining any understanding of the system he now controls, even bemoaning the checks and balances that save us from authoritarianism. These are bomb throwers whose interest in making American institutions work is nil. They are not conservatives but radicals—radicals, furthermore, of an anarchic sort. They have no interest in being gatekeepers, in protecting American institutions.

As a professor, I have seen the impact of the anti-university strategy in full effect on campus, where experimentation in the classroom has been reduced almost to nothingness and respect for teachers is nearly non-existent. Beyond campus, the effect has extended to the doubt of the veracity of all of the work of our scholars and scientists. This has led to easy acceptance of conspiracy theories of all sorts—and, most threateningly, to climate-change denial. Such situations could not exist had not the constant attacks on our national faculty (few of whom have any real political slant that puts them outside of the mainstream) not taken their toll.

No longer can the professor stand as the public intellectual, listened to for real wisdom by the general public. In fact, the very idea, in many minds, is laughable. However, with no one to replace him or her, license is granted for people to believe just about anything—including the idea that there are child labor camps on Mars.

The same has happened through the successful attempt to disgrace journalism. The demand for balance, for a false equivalency, that has long been used against ‘liberal’ college professors has also been used against journalists, starting even earlier. More, even, than the faculty, the journalism profession has been intimidated into stances that ultimately eroded its own credibility, which is just what people like Andrew Breitbart, for instance, were trying to do, using the profession of journalism against itself.

The very call for ‘balance’ demanded of both academia and journalism is an attempt to undercut the status of the professions and not a call for better scholarship or journalism. Those inside are reduced to respondents to outsider demands and, therefore, can no longer serve as useful arbiters. They are simply another side in the combat so have no special authority. They are reduced to partisans, something that, though they certainly have political leanings, they have not often been, not for some time.

This strategy is useful if you want to destroy. It has no value, on the other hand, to anyone who wants to protect, to improve or to build—as these destroyers, now in power, are learning.

Though probably not soon enough or effectively enough.

Eight years ago, Routledge published a collection of essays edited by Jack Rosenberry and Burton S. John III, Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen Engaged Press. The book appeared at the dawn of the age of social media; things have changed a great deal since. In the US, we have experienced an election that was compromised through social media; today, our world is one where the idea of a ‘citizen engaged press’ has been stood on its head, replaced by ‘fake news’ of many sorts and arising through diverse (and generally unknown) venues. The book appeared before the right had found that Twitter, Facebook and the rest are perfect new vehicles for driving their destructive agendas.

In that book, I have a chapter, “The Citizen Journalist as Gatekeeper: A Critical Evolution.” One of the big controversies of the time was over just who was going to keep journalism honest when anyone could become a journalist. It’s also a question we were, and are, facing in academia, where automation is pushed as a replacement for teaching with the human role reduced to ‘facilitating.’ We are seeing this in online universities already and in the increased reliance on contingent/adjunct faculty who are expected to follow established course models instead of creating their own.

Who is going to keep academia honest once it is only a process controlled by administrators offset by no faculty governance? No matter how ungainly our College Councils and Faculty Senates are, they will be meaningless when the faculty are reduced to nothing. Without them, education becomes victim to the latest fads and to commercial boosterism. And that’s only the start of what would surely become a steep decline.

No one, it seems, can serve today as our institutional gatekeepers—beyond those corporate types whose allegiance is to something other than the institutions they are coming to manage so completely and whose knowledge of how and why people learn is close to zero—and whose concern for an educated and informed electorate is even lower. No one is taking responsibility for either education or journalism. The professions are simply tools for economic ends, as pliable as a modern production line that can turn out paperclips one day and power mowers the next. Today, the managers of our social-media sites tacitly argue that oversight is not their responsibility even in the face of belligerent foreigners who have inserted themselves into domestic politics, and the government is loath to get involved. So, no one is functions as gatekeeper—outside of generally ignored fact-checkers who then become targets of social-media criticism themselves, tarnishing any public perception of their neutrality or accuracy—or honesty, for that matter.

I was wrong in certain claims in my chapter. I wrote that “journalists and citizen journalists are beginning to work out means for keeping order in the news-related part of the blogosphere.” I hoped, at the same time, that something similar could start to appear in academia. Yet, I was right elsewhere: “gatekeeping today needs to be understood in ways far beyond its more traditional definition.” That’s true for both professions, and far beyond. Today, the need is even greater.

I explain: “it is impossible to both accent significant stories and trace every opinion back to its root, to the truths (if there be any) underlying the pieces.” What I didn’t understand at the time (nobody did, as far as I can tell) was what this would prove to mean in practice for both journalism and the classroom. And for American politics. Once this impossibility was widely recognized, it became possible for a politician like Trump to say anything and, when called out on it, to accuse his own accusers of being the ones purveying ‘fake news.’ It became possible to create a tourist-attraction Noah’s ark and claim, straight faced, that it represents history. Responsibility has disappeared because it could not be traced.

What I called ‘blogs and other venues for citizen journalism’ eight years ago, what we now call ‘social media,’ “are contemporary points for collision of news and truth.” We are now seeing this collision in real time, with consequences I did not imagine. “No longer can the story easily be controlled from above—not by superior knowledge, ability, access to media, or even political power,” I wrote, naïve in my assumption that ways would not be found to turn this change to the use of the powerful.

Though Trump points to this as the source of much of his frustration, it is actually the source of his success.

How are we, in academia and in journalism, to turn this around? When we have been attacked to the point where we no longer have any credibility in the eyes of a vast number of Americans, how can we re-establish ourselves as honest intellectual brokers? When we in academia try to turn to social media, we generally fail. Short statements have never been our forte. When we in journalism try to explain without condescension what we have learned, we usually fail. Humility has never been our forte,

Much has been said about death, the rebirth, or the transformation of the public intellectual in contemporary America, but that person can have little impact unless the authority of the words of the public intellectual is restored. That’s not going to happen until we learn to speak more carefully, addressing our audiences where they are and not where we want them to be. That’s not going to happen unless each academic and each journalist, in a small way, starts to act as a gatekeeper, first for themselves and then, by example and by careful illumination, for others.

Google, Twitter and Facebook are not going to be the gatekeepers for us. As Quinta Jurecic writes in The Washington Post, “While the companies have now accepted some responsibility for the material on their platforms, it’s not clear what form they see that responsibility taking or how far it goes. If they’re more than neutral platforms yet not publishers, it’s not even clear what they are.” One thing, though, is clear: no one is going to do anything, in this arena, for us.

Twitter itself is not evil, nor is it impossible to communicate in bursts of 140 characters. The temptation is to say something attention-grabbing, to wrest the conversation into a direction we control. As we see over and over, that doesn’t work. All it does is allow others to take our words and twist them to their own ends. We need to approach our tweets carefully, wording them not to the converted and knowledgeable but in such a way that even those who disagree with us will, at least, consider our thoughts.

Facebook itself is not evil, nor is it necessarily bad to regale our friends with details of our last repast or tennis game. The temptation, though, is to rest smug and satisfied, convincing ourselves that someone really cares because they clicked “like.” We forget that Facebook is also a place that bombards us with designer information meant solely to please us. If we are to use it to any effect, we have to start with the understanding that we, on our own posts, can’t begin by displeasing others. It is almost as easy to “unfriend” someone as it is to click “like.”

Though the temptation is to become verbal bomb-throwers ourselves (and social media caters to that), we need to change. I admit, I do enjoy lobbing explosives and even ducking and throwing them back. It’s fun. But it is not effective.

If we are ever to re-establish ourselves as gatekeepers either in academia or in journalism, we have to start acting like them—not as a role (the Fox News pattern) but as our essence. We have to start being what we believe.

Me, too.

 


Users who have liked this post. Please consider sharing on social media and/or making a comment below.

  • avatar

One thought on “Barbarians and Gatekeepers

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.