Journalists Collude with Professors to Manufacture 'Consensus'

"A new study says Republicans hate puppies. Don't believe me? Ask Professor Johnson."

Eric Zorn, in the keynote speech at the Media Relations Faculty Recognitions Luncheon at DePaul University, says journalists and professors need each other. Journalists are not respected as knowledgeable in any field, and professors have no mouthpiece for their ideas. A reporter can increase the credibility of a story by getting a professor to attest to the "trend" being claimed, while the professor gets his name in something other than the campus paper or a tiny academic journal.

An editor driving to work notices that there are lots of pre-fab garden sheds in backyards along the way. A growing number, he suspects.

So he summons a reporter when he gets to work and assigns him what I’m calling a “more and more.”

A “more and more” is one of those news features that highlights a trend –preferably an actual one -- and generally contains a passage such as these, all of which I culled from the Tribune and Sun-Times in just the last week:

That’s just one week’s worth of “more and mores.” I see an extended scholarly monograph in this phenomenon....

The editor says “give me 30 inches on the shed fad.”

The reporter calls local building-permit offices and home supply stores, conducts interviews in a few neighborhoods and then calls the media relations department at a nearby university.

Ideally, again, someone in media relations says, “Ah! Professor Stanley in urban studies has just published a university press book titled `The increase in modular rear-property storage structures as sociological phenomenon.’ Here’s her cell number.”

Professor Stanley tells the reporter, yes, her analysis of census and satellite data shows a 30 percent increase in backyard sheds related directly to an increased emphasis on gardening and other landscaping activity in the aging and inward-turning baby-boom population.

This fact, this insight, impresses the top editors very much. The academic gloss gives the story gravitas and significance worthy of big play on page one, with photos. Professor Stanley is quoted in the third through sixth paragraphs.

Garden sheds are the perfect symbol for our increasingly homebound, increasingly old, increasingly appearance obsessed culture.

“Nightline” picks up the story . “60 Minutes” does an expose on shoddy, dangerous sheds constructed in the third-world of toxic materials. “Frontline” looks at international patterns in shed construction. Professor Stanley’s book is republished under the spiffy new title, “Shedding Our Values: Storing our Future.” It becomes a best-seller and wins the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. And the reporter is awarded a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard.

Ideally.

In reality, of course, what often happens is that the media relations person thinks, “Sheds? How slow a news day is this?”

And she sends the reporter to the only person on the faculty she can think of -- Professor Livingston, who used to teach classes in residential architecture.

Livingston has never given two thoughts to sheds, but he mulls over the question, figures out the quote the reporter wants to get and offers an educated guess about sheds.

Good enough. The story runs. Professor Livingston gets teased at lunch by his colleagues, who ask him if he plans to open the Institute of Shed Studies or teach a graduate seminar in lean-tos and hovels.

Still, everybody’s happy. The editor and reporter have apparent confirmation from a real-live professor that this shed thing is not just some bogus whim; the University gets its name in the paper in a favorable context.