I’ve been thinking about pointing this out, off and on, for awhile now, but then David Brooks goes and lays it out so directly I can’t help myself. I’ve argued in the past that journalists and pundits, in general, don’t respect academics and teachers. Some people disagree. What’s much more clear, however, is that whether for university professors or school teachers, journalists and teachers don’t like tenure.
Academic tenure, that swiftly-dying job benefit that was designed to protect academic freedom and gives professors a degree of job security once they pass their initial (brutal) tenure review, is seen as a way for coddled professors to earn money without having to produce. (See Megan McArdle for a typical take.) Tenure for public school teachers is seen as a way to protect the unqualified and the corrupt and keep ed reformers from fixing our schools. (See, of course, Even the Liberal New Republic.) Now I personally think that these claims are unfair; immediately post-tenure academics don’t, in my estimation, stop working hard as researchers. Indeed, often they accelerate, as there’s all sorts of status markers that academics tend to pursue in their tenured career. Whether the focus on research is healthy or beneficial is a discussion for a different time. I also have never personally understood the claim that tenured professors don’t care about teaching undergraduates, which simply does not jibe with my experience. But then, it’s only my experience. And it remains the case that there’s no strong evidence that tenure hurts student performance, and in fact the evidence mostly points in the other direction.
More to the point, though, my problems with media complaints about tenure is that they come from a class that appears, to me, to have a kind of tenure of their own. Brooks lays that out succinctly in this interview with Yahoo News:
there are plenty of reasons for the 52-year-old to stay at the Times: He has unprecedented freedom and job security. Times columnists, Brooks said, are treated like “hothouse flowers.”
“I’ve never attended a meeting at the Times,” he said. “We can write about anything. I’ve been at the Times for over a decade, I’ve never had a performance review. We can go anywhere we want. And we are just left alone.” …
Brooks believes he — like the Times print edition — will still be published in 10 years.
“They’re making new old people every day,” Brooks joked of the Times’ print demographic. “I think I’ll have a job in 10 years that looks very similar to the one I have now.”
And he gets to have regular, off-the-record meetings with U.S. presidents.
This is one of those enduring questions: what would it take to get an NYT columnist fired? I mean how many times can Tom Friedman fart out the identical column before somebody at the Times wonders what they’re getting for their money? And, of course, both Friedman and Brooks have made some consistently horrible predictions about foreign policy, with Friedman adding a bit of moral hideousness that should be grounds for firing in and of itself. Ah, but they’re columnists at the Times. They are at the pinnacle of their profession! But I see journalistic tenure as a broad phenomenon. As we’ve recently been discussing, having been totally wrong about the most important foreign policy question of the last 25 years, and being implicated in the hideous consequences, has done essentially nothing to harm the job security of those who supported the Iraq war. They have not only not been fired, they’ve often been invited back to support a new war to fix the old war they were already wrong about.
And it goes on. You can plagiarize and write favorable pieces on foreign regimes for money and maintain a professional career and prominence in the media scene. You can beat the drum for war again and again, get duped by a lying source, and falsely claim that an attack is imminent and not only remain employed, but be considered a favorite of many other journalists. You can make a number of absurd, utterly wrong predictions about war, push the racist IQ argument before calling takebacks, and sit on your comfortable perch at the same website for years. You can be a Wall Street crook and get banned by the SEC, get people working low-wage jobs fired out of entitlement and spite, and run a series of increasingly-inane Forrest Gump-style ruminations on why the world is a weird old place, and remain a titan of awful clickbait “journalism.” You can be whoever is in charge of Salon’s web design and not be fired from a cannon into the sun. I could go on and on: the world of professional journalism and punditry is full of people who have made bad predictions, violated media ethics, plagiarized, lied, taken money for positive coverage, or just repeatedly done shoddy work, and maintained their personal and professional standing in the industry.
As a critic of education reform policies and rhetoric, I am constantly reading journalists and political writers arguing that teachers need objective, external review to ensure that they are doing high quality work. (Including, of course, from David Brooks, who has the incredible shamelessness to complain about inefficiency from a position where he faces no review by his own admission.) And I just want to laugh: what objective, external review are politicos subject to, exactly? What systems ensure that incompetence or unethical behavior are punished in an industry that still runs off of editor word-of-mouth, personal connections, and Klout scores? I don’t know what the system of accountability is supposed to be, but I do know that in a political world where Jeff Goldberg still gets to be seen as dispensing wisdom from the mountain on the subject of the Middle East, that system isn’t working. I don’t doubt that for many at the bottom of the food chain, professional political writing and journalism are precarious, risky propositions, but it seems that once you’re in, you’re in, and there’s no shaking you out. Maybe instead of going after teachers and academics for having too much job security, journalists and writers should put their own house in order first.