Academics, the media, and obligations to discourse

If you haven’t read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, stop what you are doing, cancel your appointments, go to the library and get a copy, and go sit outside and read it until you are done. It’s far more important than anything else you might have to do. Come back when you are done.

Are you done? Ok, we can go on. In an interview for the Believer, Murakami says:

In that sense, Noburu Wataya’s stance is, as you suggest, shallow and superficial. Precisely because his opinions are shallow an superficial, they communicate with great speed, and they have greater practical impact. What I wanted to convey to the reader that through my portrait of Noboru Wataya was the dangerous influence that contemporary media gladiators, who use such rhetoric as a weapon, exert on our society and our minds. We are practically surrounded by such people in our daily lives. Often, the opinions we presume to be our own turn out on closer inspection to be nothing but the parroting of theirs. It is chilling to think that in many instances we view the world through the media and speak to each other in the words of the media.

Noburu appears to be an academic at the beginning of the book, but then he runs for public office. He is mediagenic in the extreme, and he is arguably one of the most significant influences on my thinking about engaging with the media.

Some of my colleagues deplore the idea of talking to the press as useless self-promotion. It’s a time waster for junior faculty, they say. Peter Gordon, one of the most sensible people I know, gave me this advice early on: Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it. Go ahead and do it if you do enjoy it. Yes, Peter is that awesome.

I’ve always been one to overthink everything, and I have these impressions, none of which lead to an argument one way or another.

1. Yes, things get reduced to sound bites and it’s very hard to have a high-level discussion in the noisy world of government and policy in a journalistic context.

2. But aren’t we as policy scholars *obligated* to get OUR ideas and sound bites out there in the hopes of influencing the discourse in SOME positive direction? My colleague Richard Green manages to get complex ideas out there, and so does Rapheal Bostic. We’re not in political science programs or sociology programs where we’re paid to sit on our butts and be academics. We’ve accepted positions–probably higher paying–in policy schools than in regular departments. Shouldn’t we be aware that our position in the university carries additional scholarly responsibilities?

3. Bitching about the media has not, as far as I can tell, led to reform.

4. Participating in the media has not, as far as I can tell, really pushed the discourse towards complexity and depth.

5. Since we don’t seem to have much influence in the media, may be it is a waste of time to engage at that level.

6. However, it’s hard to believe that simply sticking with academic presses and journal outlets that a handful of other academics really conveys impact, either. One of my senior faculty most vehemently opposed to media engagement, if you look at Google Scholar hits (admittedly unscientific) isn’t setting the scholarly world on fire, either.

Well, I’ve managed to talk myself into a circle.