Are Journalists "Elitist"?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1995

Are Journalists "Elitist"?   

Some of the big names in Washington and New York are, no doubt. But as in other fields, most journalists are foot soldiers carrying out decidedly unglamorous tasks.

By Richard Harwood
     


William Henry, the Time magazine cultural critic, wrote a book before he died last year. He called it "In Defense of Elitism." He equated elitism with meritocracy, a system intended to reward people for their talents rather than hereditary privileges or hereditary handicaps. In short, it argues that all people are not equal, that cream must rise to the top. It is a system in conflict with the doctrine of egalitarianism, which is a leveling principle declaring that people are indeed created equal and are entitled to equal shares of the fruits of the earth.

The "elitist" label is being pinned on journalists and journalism in unflattering ways. The point is made in numerous studies of popular opinion revealing widespread distaste for the press and its "elitist" posturing. U.S. News & World Report published a piece on the subject in January paraphrasing the late social critic, Christopher Lasch:

"Journalism's ills are a symptom of a poison infecting all professional elites. Increasingly removed from the realities of manual labor, community ties or ordinary life in general, professionals have disdain for those they see as inferiors and for any genuine achievement or heroism. Nothing is properly understood until it is exposed as corrupt, duplicitous or hypocritical."

An internal study of attitudes in the newsroom of the Washington Post more than 20 years ago showed an acute awareness of the problem. Bill Greider, then one of the paper's leading reporters and writers, observed that "anyone who grew up west of the Appalachian range understands, down deep, that what [Spiro] Agnew says about the Eastern [press] bias (and what Goldwater and Wallace said before him) is right. Agnew described it as liberal, which suits his political purpose, but it is really cultural. It turns up in the news columns of the Post, Times and other members of the media axis. At the core of it is the unspoken assumption that the rest of the country is filled with boobs, simple folk who look eastward for their model of the nobler goals, but can be expected to do the wrong thing. Keep in mind the simple formulation – 'the rest of the country is filled with boobs' – and read the run of stories on racial antagonism, politics, urban problems or other areas. Even the occasional 'Visit to Main Street' stories, which admittedly are attempts to overcome this bias, often wind up confirming that Babbitt still lives just over the mountain."

The assumption that we in journalism are unlike the "boobs" out there is expressed frequently in all of the media in comments about rednecks, fundamentalists, Joe Six-pack and proletarians in general. The press treatment of Paula Jones is a case study.

After accusing President Clinton of sexual harassment, she was at first ignored by the national media as a cheap bimbo, unworthy of belief. This treatment was quite unlike that accorded to women of higher social or professional standing – Anita Hill and the white-collar accusers of Sen. Robert Packwood, for example.

Later, as Larry Sabato and Robert Lichter point out in a recent book, Jones was ridiculed because of her lower class origins. Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, Evan Thomas, dismissed her as a woman "with big hair coming out of the trailer parks." Lynn Rosellini wrote in U.S. News & World Report that Jones came out of Lonoke, Arkansas, a "land of big hair and tight jeans and girls whose dreams soar no further than a stint at hairdressers school, an early marriage and a baby named Brittany or Tiffany or Brooke."

Similar attitudes emerge in the current national political debate – and press treatment of it – over the competence of state or local governments if they are given, as Republicans propose, greater control over public assistance and other social programs. The implicit argument is that the political and bureaucratic elites in Washington possess a higher wisdom.

Impressions of elitism in the press are strengthened by accounts of the journalistic lifestyle and its perquisites. The president makes room in his busy schedule to attend a party honoring NBC commentator Bill Moyers at the home of NBC's Tim Russert. Nieman Reports, the magazine of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, publishes an item from an alumna:

"The wedding was a midsummer night's dream. We said our vows at Villa Terrace, an Italianate property on a bluff above Lake Michigan. A brass quintet performed, a few rain drops teased, and a friend opened the festivities with a wedding poem by Aristophanes.

"Tom and I chose vows from the Book of Common Prayer. [A] Nieman classmate..dazzled the gathering.. with passages from Roman Epithalamion by Catullus...

"Toasts, dinner and dancing followed under white tents in our garden. For our wedding trip, a romantic sojourn to France, Switzerland and Italy."

The description of the proceedings would have been appropriate for one of Daisy's scenes in "The Great Gatsby": "Her voice," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "was full of money."

It was not a scene you would have found in the memoirs of another character of fiction, Hildy Johnson, for many years the prototype of the blue-collar American journalist. Nor this scene, described by New York Times columnist William Safire:

"As soon as he arrived at the dinner for him at the Israeli Ambassador's residence, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took me aside to chastise me for opposing his desire for U.S. troops in the Golan Heights...

"At the dinner table, with Secretary [of State Warren] Christopher between us, Rabin charged that I had been 'brainwashed'... I was deeply perturbed – not at my old friend Rabin, with whom I can disagree without rancor – but at my lack of notepaper at a newsworthy moment. Chris came to the rescue, slipping me one of the index cards he had used for his toast."

These items are not definitive of anything. But they are suggestive of a journalistic place in the sun unknown to the American masses – and suggestive also of the broader currents in American society that many economists, social scientists and cultural critics believe is creating a two-tier social and economic order in which brains and cognitive skills count far more and brawn far less than ever before. So the winners in this new order tend more and more to be the "very bright" people – the roughly 10 percent to 20 percent of our population with "cognitive" skills.

People drawn from the cognitive or intellectual ranks and from the "elite" schools that educate them are dominant in America's prestigious, high income occupations. They include everyone from mathematicians, computer wizards, doctors and lawyers, to the whole array of consultants and Beltway bandits, think tank scholars, legislative draftsmen, corporate CEOs and so on. Journalists are increasingly identified with this class.

We can't all be rocket scientists. Thus, meritocracy prevails and elitists emerge: "It is difficult to exaggerate how different the elite college population is from the population at large – first, in its level of intellectual talent, and correlatively, in its outlook on society, politics, religion and all other domains in which intellectuals..tend to develop their own conventional wisdom."

The quotation is from the Richard Herrnstein-Charles Murray book, "The Bell Curve." The book has been denounced because of its controversial assertions about race, genetics and intelligence. But there is little controversy about its general findings about the relationship between IQ, test scores and occupations: The high scorers from all races are far more likely to wind up in cognitive jobs than low scorers.

This is a major subject in "The Work of Nations," a book written by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a leading liberal in the Democratic Party. And it is one of the themes in the last book written by Lasch, a socialist. He called it, "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy."

ýasch wrote that today's elites – journalistic elites included – are "in revolt against 'Middle America' as they imagine it; a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy."

Lasch wrote with hyperbole and generalized too much. But the essential points he made are a factor in the negative public perceptions of the press. We see this in the steady abandonment of newspapers and network newscasts by large segments of the Middle American population. More and more these national media serve audiences dominated by high income, well-educated people.

A central question here is whether the elitist perceptions of the press are valid. Elites today are characterized by more than attitudes. Income, wealth and education are the defining factors.

Being engaged in a line of work requiring cognitive skills – journalism, for example – is not definitive. Elites, Reich says, are "symbol analysts" and "symbol manipulators." On that basis one might assume that all journalists are members of this elite class. They use and manipulate words. But that is too simple. Country music singers and Marine Corps drill sergeants use and manipulate words, too, and are not necessarily elitists.

Nor are the majority of journalists. In terms of wealth and income, they rank rather low in our hierarchies of prestige. The median pay for beginning newspaper reporters in 1994 was $19,240; some beginners were paid less than the minimum wage. Experienced reporters earned median salaries of $23,300; "senior" reporters had a median wage of $31,252.

They may be people of superior intelligence and ability. But in economic terms and in terms of the status income conveys, more than half of America's journalists don't qualify for inclusion in the higher regions of middle class life.

But in the top ranks there is a lot of affluence. Large newspaper and broadcast corporations are run by wealthy people with incomes in 1994 ranging from $1.7 million for Arthur O. Sulzberger at the New York Times and $2.1 million for Peter Kann at Dow Jones to $8.7 million for Thomas Murphy, the CEO at Capital Cities/ABC. The salaries of television news personalities, according to Newsweek, ranged from $5 million to $7 million for Diane Sawyer and $6 million for Ted Koppel to $2 million each for Connie Chung and Tom Brokaw. I would be surprised to learn that any of the network correspondents are paid less than $100,000 a year.

There is a big spread, according to the Newspaper Association of America, in the salaries of newspaper editors. They ranged in 1994 from $19,000 to about $362,000, depending on the size of the town, the circulation of the paper and the beneficence of the employer.

As for the workers, it is likely that a majority of national newspaper and magazine correspondents have family incomes of $150,000 to $200,000 a year. This is a product of what is called "assortative mating," meaning that journalists tend to choose mates who earn as much or more than they do.

Education is another defining characteristic of the contemporary elite. In Washington, the studies of Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution show that 70 percent to 90 percent of the correspondents were educated at "elite" schools, defined as "highly selective" or "selective." That means such schools as the Ivies, the Seven Sisters, MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley.

But journalists turned out by these schools are a small slice of the pie. Roughly 75 percent of the new recruits to journalism come out of journalism schools. They have played an important role in training young people for the basic work of journalism. But they are in no sense elitist. When Joseph Pulitzer offered to put up money for a journalism program at Harvard early in this century, he was laughed out of Cambridge.

Under pressure from rural and small-town newspaper publishers who wanted a labor force trained at government expense, many state universities created journalism programs late in the 19th century. They prospered and proliferated but are under assault today by "elitist" academics who regard them as trade schools with curricula unworthy of inclusion in university offerings.

Another reason it is presumptuous to describe journalists as members of an elite profession is that journalism is in no sense a profession, elite or otherwise. It may be a trade. It may be a craft. It may be an art form. But it has none of the characteristics of a real profession. Walter Lippmann described it as "the last refuge of the vaguely talented," and so it has been for most of its history. There are no standards for admission. There is no regulation by peer groups or licensing authorities. There is not even common agreement on the ethical standards that ought to prevail.

The Washington Post argued all this a few years ago in a federal court suit involving overtime pay. Reporters, the Post said, are not "learned" people; they are simply "creative" individuals who, like flower arrangers and musicians, are not entitled to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The judge in the case was sympathetic to the Post argument but was unwilling to concede that all journalists are "creative." He observed that in his own experience he had encountered various reporters who were "very pedestrian people and [some] are..extremely artistic and creative..."

That is the case throughout the world. A few national news organizations attract many of the "cognitive elite" who have been educated in elite schools. They are accorded money, status and prestige. "Who's Who in America" lists 330 media people in Washington and 963 in New York. Many of them are not household names; some who didn't make the 1994 list are certified celebrities – Tim Russert, for example. In the hinterlands, the Who's Who entries trail off to nothingness.

The truth is that journalism as an occupational category has as many compartments as the American society, a small number of "elitists" laboring alongside those who, like most Americans, perform relatively routine but necessary production and service functions.

There is nothing wrong with that. An institution that wants to be a mass medium ought to reflect the society it observes and interprets. In accepting that reality, we get a proper perspective on our place in the scheme of things. It may not be comforting to those of us who see ourselves as elitists or to the social and cultural critics who generalize unwisely about who and what we are.

We are people who put out the news and for now we can leave it at that. l

"ichard Harwood is a syndicated columnist who writes frequently about the news media. He is a former deputy managing editor of the Washington Post.

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