Sunday, March 8, 2009

Professors could save newspapers: NYU don

A hundred years ago a band of American journalists whom Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 dubbed "muckrakers" tenaciously exposed venal politicians/police, harsh labor conditions, food adulteration and such.

Think Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair.

Their journalism defined the Progressive Era of 1902-12.

Now Jonathan Zimmerman, the NYU historian, brings up a muckraking German-educated American sociologist who exposed Belgian atrocities in the Congo. (Ah, muckraking globalized.)

The context? Professor Zimmerman would like professors to be active, even activist, via newspapers -- all for the sake of saving the newspapers. He does not seem to be joking. From today's Christian Science Monitor:
[I]t's getting too expensive to gather news.

So here's a novel idea: Let's get university professors to do it. For real. And, best of all, free of charge.

Remember, most professors aren't paid for what they write now. When I publish an article in an academic journal, I don't earn a cent. But I also don't engage more than a handful of readers, mainly fellow specialists in my own field.

It wasn't always that way. A hundred years ago, many of the leading lights in the social sciences and the humanities wrote for the popular press. If we want to revive the press – as well as our own struggling disciplines – we might look to their example.

Consider Robert E. Park, founder of the "Chicago School" of sociology and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the early 20th century. After earning his PhD in 1904 from the University of Heidelberg, in Germany, Park became secretary and press agent of the Congo Reform Association. Park's muckraking magazine articles exposed Belgium's vicious atrocities in the Congo, helping to turn world opinion against the colonial regime of King Leopold.

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