As a mere consumer of journalism, I tend to think that what’s necessary in journalism isn’t just an adversarial attitude but a universally adversarial attitude, that is, skepticism towards all parties in a given dispute. That doesn’t mean that you try to achieve a phony balance by pretending that the facts support all parties equally. And it doesn’t mean that you suspend judgment. But I think that all actors in a particular story should be subject to considerable skepticism.
The problem is that scandal tends to be generated through the uncritical acceptance of one point of view. Take this post in io9 about Harvard declaring that its scholarly journal subscriptions are too expense. Well: if I had my druthers, we’d make all scholarly journals 100% free and open electronic access, with the continued existence of the journals subsidized by money from the government and charitable foundations. But I have a very hard time believing that Harvard can’t afford its subscriptions. Yes, the university was hit hard by the financial crisis, but a hard-hit Harvard is still richer than Croesus (and the vast majority of other universities out there). I mean, if Harvard wants to cry poverty, they will have to explain their massive, multi-billion dollar expansion into Allston, for example. I don’t know what else is going on here, but I imagine there’s some sort of power play involved.
But the io9 piece, written by Robert Gonzalez, seems to swallow the Harvard angle whole. Why? Because the story “richest university can’t afford journal subscriptions” is sensationalistic and “richest university makes somewhat dubious claim that it can’t afford journals subscriptions that much poorer universities somehow afford” is not. Some of the reader comments are nicely critical, but many simply accept the narrative, leading to funny comments about stuff like academic journals as big money makers. (Most academic journals, and in fact most academic publishers as a whole, operate at a loss.) I wish that the blogger had been a little more skeptical towards what is quite literally a missive from a self-interested bureaucracy.