Reporter and Professor: Where Did I Go Wrong?
I was raised in the work-for-the-same-company-all-your-life-and-retire-with-a-gold-watch era. Today, however, we’re told we’ll have several careers over a lifetime; indeed, if you stay at the same job for more than a few years you’ll be viewed as dull and stagnant.
I was ahead of the curve—for over 50 years I worked as a broadcaster, journalist, church pastor, primary and secondary school teacher, and a university professor. Perhaps only Sinatra did more, singing of being a “puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king.”
Some jobs got more respect than others. Starting out in radio, a fellow disc jockey and I would tell the joke of the stricken plane that could only be saved if it reduced weight by throwing out one person, the person deemed to be of the least value to society. But the plane crashed because passengers and crew couldn’t determine who was worth the least: The radio disc jockey or the used car salesman.
But I moved up the professional food chain. Two satisfying – even fun – jobs were those of being a journalist and later a business professor. I was in journalism in the ‘70s in television, radio, and newspapers. It commanded respect, especially in the newspaper business. It was heady stuff being in one’s 20s and 30s and knowing the power one wielded because of the serious editors, the big printing press, the hard-working people in the composing room, and that fleet of trucks designed to rumble one’s modest words out to the waiting city. Important people made time for me, returned my phone calls, and generally followed the adage of not messing with guys who bought ink by the barrel and newsprint by the loaded trucks or railcars.
Yet I later realized that media was a young person’s game. Learning of a demand for business professors, and able to have the family primarily supported through my wife’s new nursing degree, I spent much of my 40s retooling in graduate school. A few months before my 50th birthday, I joined a university faculty.
Once again, respect worthy of every letter how Aretha Franklin spelled it: receiving a degree of deference from accomplished business professionals, seeing people’s eyes light up when they learned of my profession, being called “sir,” by most every young person I came in contact with, and being considered by the university president as part of the VIP corps of the campus community. Indeed, because business professors had the option of leaving academia for more money in commerce, the campus administrators displayed some special consideration -- twice a rumor floated that I was thinking of leaving my university. I wasn’t considering that, but following the rumors, both times my paycheck immediately increased. (I know what you’re thinking and the answer is 'no').
But respect for both professions began to crumble. I saw the seeds of that one night in 1976 as a radio reporter covering the Republican state convention in Missouri. As the evening session opened and we stood for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, a young Kansas City Star reporter remained slouched at the press table. Disgraceful, I thought. I knew as reporters we were to act neutral at a partisan event, but standing for the anthem was not about supporting a political party. This was about respecting the flag, and I noted that its symbolism included the First Amendment that made that reporter the freest journalist in the world.
Of course, we all know of journalism’s decline since those days. Of how I would read a newspaper story and think to myself: who wrote this outrageously biased piece? Then I’d go back to the beginning of the story to see it had been picked up from the New York Times. Or there was the clever editing of TV news that would distort an event. Or the beyond-smug whine of NPR reporters that drove me to the point where I can no longer even listen to that network.
But I haven’t been alone: the term “fake news” is being increasingly used and readers, listeners, and viewers are abandoning the legacy media. Witness a friend of mine who was a state legislator embroiled in unfounded controversy. Against my advice, he appeared on ABC’s 20/20. They slaughtered him. But no problem – there were no ripples in the local community about it. Because, after all, who watches 20/20 anymore?
And the academy became increasingly corrupt, too. Old school professors – some of them World War II or Korean War vets – who had kept some balance against the growing craziness coming to campus, had retired or were retiring when I was in graduate school in the 90s. Yet I recall as a doctoral student walking down a hall of the business college of my Southern university and hearing the powerful voice of Rush Limbaugh simultaneously wafting from two different offices of faculty members. And upon becoming a professor at a regional university in the red state of Oklahoma, I found colleagues who were conservative or at least right-leaning libertarian. Indeed, a professor of management and a professor of economics launched on our campus, of all things, a local Tea Party!
Of course, there was insanity at other colleges outside the South and Southwest and the term “political correctness” was the byword of the day. Yet we were fairly insulated from it at my school. Or at least we were in our business college -- after speaking to a marketing class about some basic aspect of free enterprise, I had a non-business major excitedly email me saying how my lecture had positively impressed him. He wrote that he had been at our university for several years and: “I’ve never heard anything like that!” I should have been flattered; rather, I was saddened that he had been so long isolated from truth.
Tight funding prevented me from going to academic conferences for several years. Finally able to go to one in 2015, I had an experience opposite to being the proverbial unsuspecting frog in the ever-warming kettle. I was amazed at the sharp leftward drift of the assembled professors, who were primarily in business disciplines. Is it any wonder that graduates of these professors are now moving their corporations to become increasingly “woke?”
Outside of the relative calm of certain academic disciplines and geographic locations, the craziness of the academy has been growing, with focus on racism, racism, racism everywhere and nonsense beyond belief. And with the knowledge of the great contributions of Western civilization dismissed as the sputterings of foolish dead white men, what’s the purpose any more of a liberal arts education?
Someone has said that the coronavirus is speeding up gradual changes that were already coming to society: increased remote working, reduced business travel, decline in higher education. Panic over coronavirus seems to come from the left and it’s been interesting to watch growing campus conflict as frightened leftist faculty want classes shut down. But leftist administrators want their schools to be open – they’ve got payrolls to meet and they know where the money comes from.
I retired from the university in 2017. Not a moment too soon. Many of my colleagues of similar age – some conservative, some liberal in the quasi-sensible old time way – have also headed for the exits. While our school was relatively conservative, enrollment is way down. And that’s happening at the leftist schools, too. Parents and students are waking up and the bursting of the higher education bubble that I’ve been anticipating for decades is underway.
I look at the two institutions I was involved in, journalism and academe. Both at one time were respected, contributing foundations of our society. But major parts of them have become a joke. I’m glad for the experiences I had in them, but a lot of the glitter is gone. I can’t even tell you the names of major television news anchors anymore and I am embarrassed by the stupid things some professors are publicly saying. While I’m grateful for the wonderful times I had working in both occupations, I look back with sadness at the train wrecks they’ve become.
When a teenager, I told my grandmother I wanted to be a radio disc jockey. “You don’t want to be a disc jockey,” she curtly replied, perhaps thinking Her Boy could no doubt do better. Today, if a young me told Grandma he wanted to be a journalist or a professor, she might think for a moment, then say: “Hmmm. That’s nice. But have you thought about becoming a disc jockey?”
Mike Landry is a freelance writer in Northwest Arkansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: Pixabay public domain