Some Confusion Over What Journalists Do

I am happy to say that I have made the acquaintance of the editors of a lot of newspapers and magazines during the time I have published the Adjunct Advocate. As a rule, editors are a friendly lot, though some are more competitive than others, and I know one editor whom I think would sell his mother for a scoop. As a rule, editors are fair people; our jobs demand objectivity. Writers delve; editors sort out the found objects, and make sure that facts and assertions are documented and supported.

This month’s copy of Academe on my desk has a feature piece written by Cat Warren. The piece titled “The Chronicle, the Professoriate and the AAUP,” is Cat Warren’s (and more likely, one imagines, AAUP’s shot back at the Good Ship Chronicle for uncomplimentary coverage of the Association of American University Professors over the past year. Some background is important here:

  • The AAUP’s Communication Director who oversees Academe (among the association’s other communication efforts) is Dr. Gwendolyn Bradley, who moved to AAUP from The Chronicle of Higher Education many years ago.
  • Cat Warren, a former newspaper reporter, teaches English and is the president of the AAUP’s North Carolina conference.

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education is published by a privately held company owned by a single family. This is important to remember. In essence, it means that CHE is beholden to no one except the banker who counts the deposits, and covers the checks, and that editors are the big men on campus, not shareholders, or even the publisher.

    Alright, with that out of the way, let me just say: Wow! In the almost 20 years I have been reading Academe, I have never seen the publication publish anything like this extended op-ed piece. Ms. Warren writes that if the AAUP “can’t get fair coverage even out the the Chronicle, the major speciality publication of higher education, we are in deep trouble.” To accuse a news publication of unfair coverage is serious, particularly a publication such as CHE. After all, it is not affiliated with any outside political or religious organization, for example. If Ms. Warren were complaining about, say, The National Review’s coverage of higher education, it might be fair to suggest she rest in a darkened room with a cold compress until the delusions of objectivity pass.

    I recently invited an official at the American Federation of Teachers, to participate in our Podcast Interview Series. He wrote back that a written interview would be better. I prepared a set of questions and sent them along. A short while later, he responded that AFT preferred not to participate, as officials at the union felt they would not get fair coverage. I didn’t take offense; I took it to mean our coverage is more objective than union officials feel comfortable with. Good journalism can make people awfully uncomfortable.

    Ms. Warren writes in her piece that the “Chronicle’s job is to report the news and make at least a passing effort to do so neutrally.” Again, this is a very serious allegation, and she bases her allegation on the fact that the paper gave belated and little attention to the AAUP’s Freedom in the Classroom statement. And this makes CHE’s reporting biased? I read the AAUP’s press release about the pending release of the statement, and decided that, to our adjunct faculty readers, a full-blown statement on the subject, wasn’t really news. It didn’t help that when I read the statement I found not a single mention of adjunct or part-time faculty.

    Maybe, like me, the editor at the Chronicle who got the press release decided that the AAUP’s statement wasn’t hot news, but worth mentioning to Chronicle readers, many of whom are TT and tenured faculty, administrators, etc… Ms. Warren compares the coverage of the AAUP’s statement in the Chronicle with that of Inside Higher There, editor Scott Jaschik’s “longer” piece, which Ms. Warren judged as neither too “laudatory nor especially critical,” was more to her liking. She also complains because the Chronicle’s piece ends with a quote from Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a (not shockingly) conservative higher education group.

    Here’s a newsflash to AAUP leaders, the Chronicle is a for profit company. The owner expects a return on his investment or people get fired. There are no such expectations at AAUP. AAUP workers crank out statements, research and policy papers and collect regular paychecks. No one talks about the cost of such work in terms of any actual return. The Chronicle’s owner lives in the real world, pays real income taxes, and faces some very real threats to the well-being of his publication’s bottom line. Both the Chronicle and AAUP are suffering from the shrinking pool of tenured faculty. The difference is that if, ten years from now AAUP has lost 10,000 more members and still has only 3,900 part-time faculty members, chances are very good no one will have been fired as a direct result. At the Chronicle, if the paper were to lose 10,000 subscribers and revenue, editor Jeff Selingo would get the sack quicker than you could say, well, Jeff Selingo.

    The Chronicle owes its readership everything, and owes AAUP nothing, not even editorial coverage. If AAUP wants coverage outside of its own magazine, maybe the organization should do something out of the ordinary, something bold, go somewhere the union hasn’t gone with any frequency lately. AAUP could go about the business of funding campus organizing drives—maybe even pull out all the stops and launch a drive to organize some of the 600,000 temporary faculty who are still without representation.

    Unions unionize; newspaper and magazine journalists and editors editorialize (or not) about the efforts of the unions. News is a public trust, as well as a business, and sometimes those about whom we write get confused about exactly what that means.

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