The Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito has been writing frequently on the divorce between elite journalistic institutions like The Washington Post or the New York Times and the residents of the Rust Belt. Consider her latest:
Beginning in the 1980s, Washington and New York City newsrooms began to be dominated by people who had the same backgrounds; for the most part they went to the same Ivy League journalism schools, where they made the right contacts and connections to get their jobs. …
After a while you adopt the culture you exist in either out of survival or acceptance or a little of both. Or you really just wanted to shed your working-class roots for a variety of reasons: shame, aspiration, ascension, etc. …
So when fewer and fewer reporters shared the same values and habits of many of their consumers, inferences in their stories about people of faith and their struggles squaring same-sex marriage or abortion with their belief systems were picked up by the readers.
Pro-tip, don’t think people can’t pick up an inference, even the most subtle, in the written word. It is as evident as a news anchor rolling his eyes at someone on his panel he doesn’t agree with.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would not contest Zito’s thesis that greater understanding usually leads to superior journalism. But the staff here would also suggest that this understanding cuts both ways. When media coverage turns to events happening on college campuses, a lack of understanding and local knowledge can also lead to wild distortions. Journalists who grew up in the Midwest but then depart it for the coasts might need to go back to better understand their roots. The same holds true for commentators who spend four years at an elite college campus and then many more years away from the ivory tower.
Consider, for example, the latest effort by academics to replay the Sokal hoax, in which a scholar manages to get an article intentionally filled with gibberish published in a peer-reviewed journal o expose the journal’s lax standards. Last week, two academics proudly declared that they had fooled a peer-reviewed academic journal into publishing a BS paper with the amusing title, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” What fun! Several conservative critics of the academy — along with some academics who really should have known better — delighted in tweeting out the tale as told by the academics. Editors who delight in mocking the sillier and more obscurantist aspects of the academy joined in.
The trouble in this case, however, is that the hoax wasn’t quite so impressive as the original one executed by Alan Sokal. In that case, Sokal managed to get an article published in a journal that was viewed as on the rise and respectable within the cultural studies circle. In this case, the two scholars tried to submit it to a reputable gender studies journal, got dinged from that journal, and were referred by an automated email to another journal: Cogent Social Studies.
Now, to those readers who are not in the academy, that journal title might sound nondescript. As a social scientist, however, let me assure you that this title fills me with dread. Here’s why:
Put bluntly: Cogent Social Sciences has unknowing academics pay for publications. I get queries from journals like this all the time, as do most professors. They go right to my spam folder, because these journals generate no value from the peer review process. I’m not the target audience anyway — that would be the grad students and junior faculty who don’t know any better.
As Academe’s Hank Reichman notes:
While this open-access journal claims to employ peer review, in fact articles are only reviewed by a single individual and just about all are accepted. And while it is published by Taylor and Francis, a respected publisher, the journal’s website makes clear that it operates entirely independently of Taylor & Francis, and that its publishing model is utterly different from theirs.
So, on the basis of publishing a hoax paper in an obscure vanity journal with zero credibility in the field they wished to “expose,” the authors — and those who praise them — somehow jump to the conclusion that the entire discipline of gender studies is corrupt.
See also James Taylor’s wonderfully titled post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on this as well.
Consistent with Zito’s plea, it is noteworthy that Reason’s Robby Soave — someone who has not been afraid to report critically about the less savory aspects of the academy — is nonetheless knowledgeable enough about how things work to know that this was a prank of dubious value: “if the main criticism of gender studies is that it’s unscientific and dogmatic, the field’s critics should be careful about not falling prey to dogma themselves. Skeptics ought to be more, well, skeptical.”
This applies not just to this scandal, but to skeptics of the academy attempting to, say, minimize charges of plagiarism or describe students walking out of a commencement speech as “afraid.” I’m not saying that critical stories about life in the academy are always wrong; there has been some excellent critical writing in this area as of late. But this latest scandal suggests that there are a group of elites who are primed to believe the worst about the academy, when life is not nearly that simple. As I noted in The Ideas Industry, colleges are getting attacked from all sides, and it is far from obvious just who that benefits.
This isn’t a problem limited to the academy. Ad hominem attacks on elites as an undifferentiated mass display the same pathologies that show the weakness of the person making the argument — not the objects of the attack.
Zito is correct that elite writers should go out of their way to better understand the milieu of the Rust Belt. But this applies to all those who delight in mocking walks of life that they experienced only briefly and no longer understand.