Twilight of the Pundits

The internet’s welcome transformation of public debate

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

Nelson Wiseman writes:  Last December, my colleague at the Ottawa Citizen, a Parliament Hill reporter named Glen McGregor, wrote a blogpost entitled “Toward a Dogme95 of Political Reporting.” It was a trim little call for a return to journalism’s basics: pick up the phone, work sources, get stories. It asked reporters to stop filing easy stories skimmed from the froth of partisan posturing or from social media, and to be more judicious about quoting the always-voluble “senior party sources.” It was fine advice. But the first bullet point of McGregor’s manifesto caught a lot of people off guard:

No more quoting political scientists:  It’s lazy and signals the reporter couldn’t find any other apparently neutral or objective source to talk. These people work in academics, not politics, so I’m not interested in their opinions on anything but their own research.

This caused quite a ruckus in the cosy Canadian politics neighbourhood of the Twittersphere. A number of professors took the comment as a raised middle finger to their presence in Canadian journalism. It probably does not matter that McGregor’s intention was to criticize journalists, not academics, and was less about telling professors to stay out of journalism than it was about telling reporters to stop relying on professors to pad out their stories and launder their political views. Like most serious misunderstandings, it served the useful function of shedding some light on the relationship between journalism and academic work, and how -technology-driven shifts in our conception of status, influence and research itself called that relationship into question.

More importantly, what McGregor’s post did was call the bluff of the entire social animal known as the “public intellectual.”

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The New Economy of Letters

Much of the best intellectual work is being done by journalists, not scholars, says Jill Lepore. Why? Journalists write for money

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

By Jill Lepore

A quarter century has passed since Russell Jacoby coined the term “public intellectuals” in a book meant to mark their extinction. In The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published in 1987, Jacoby defined public intellectuals as “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” The term was new, he explained, but there had been public intellectuals for centuries: “The greatest minds from Galileo to Freud have not been content with private discoveries; they sought, and found, a public.” Since the 1960s, their numbers, never high, had been plummeting. Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson were born in 1895, Walter Lippmann in 1889. By 1987, Wilson and Lippmann were dead and Mumford was in decline. Where, Jacoby wanted to know, were the young Mumfords and Lippmanns and Wilsons? There were none.

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