THE BELIEVER: I’m reminded of my own worries about journalism as much of it moves toward a nonprofit model, funded—like much of literature and academia already is—by grants, awards, foundations, and benefactors who keep it existing because they think it should exist, but not necessarily because anyone has asked for it.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: If I find out, the next time I see you, that you’re teaching journalism, I think I’ll slit my wrists, because then it becomes merely a perpetuation of itself, without any external reason for it.
BLVR: I have different things to say about my own journalism program at UC Berkeley, but with MFA creative writing programs, there is this problem: “Come under my wing for fourty thousand dollars a year and you can be like me—successful.” And we think, Of course he’s successful; he gets to teach all of us, when in reality, he has to teach because he’s not successful at all.
RR: [Gives a thumbs-up] Yes, yes.
BLVR: So often, it’s as if these programs exist only to employ people.
RR: All right, except that you’re a consumer. You exist in a society where consumers exert a great deal of power. You can start asking those questions. The issue of education that’s not being deliberated right now is astonishing. There are careers to be made right now by asking those questions. You know, the guy who owns PayPal, Peter Thiel, he’s pretty good. He thinks what education is is basically the banks. It’s just selling you something, and it’s taking your money, and it’s not doing anything for you, it’s just taking your money. And it’s telling you that if you invest in this stock, “BA,” that it’s going to be worth something in five years. [Laughs] And it’s not worth anything!
A lot of the techies in Silicon Valley are arguing against the whole idea of a structured education system. But that’s because a lot of them are solitary creatures. They’re geniuses who didn’t become geniuses in a classroom. They became geniuses almost in spite of a classroom. That doesn’t work for all people. Basically what education is for a lot of people is a social experience. In other words, you and I are classmates. There was a lecture today on Thomas Jefferson, and it was kind of hard, I didn’t get the last part of it. And I say to you after class, “Did you understand what he was saying?” And you say, “Some of it,” and I say, “What exactly did he mean when he said such and such?” That’s how education happens. It’s not simply University of Phoenix, me sitting at a computer. It’s this interaction. It’s not only us talking about Thomas Jefferson, it’s us playing basketball together, and in the larger context of this social experience—eating, being dormitory roommates, you falling out of love with your girlfriend and me having to listen to the story of it. Education is that human process of feeling your body mature, feeding your mind with ideas that it never had before, or information you never had. You simply cannot do that on a computer. You can’t do that. You understand?
No one is explaining how that works. No one is explaining how journalism works. Did you see my piece on the death of the San Francisco Chronicle? I argued, basically, that the way this paper existed in the nineteenth century was that a group of men, your age, came to this city and basically told San Francisco something it didn’t know about itself. It told them about other people in town. It generated interest in people about themselves, basically. It told that man in that Victorian house what those people in that Victorian house were doing. Now, you can say, why should he be interested in them? Well, his children go to the same school; he’s paying taxes and these people are using those taxes. There are any number of reasons why. I think we’re looking at this backward; I don’t think we really understand the social function of institutions. And when we talk about the death of those institutions, we’re really not talking about those institutions; we’re talking about the social framework that gave life to those institutions. You understand?
Let me give you a really simple example: Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. There are several people at Fox News who had the idea of a conservative, really right-of-center television network, because most of the television networks were repetitive, they were sort of centrist-left institutions; they wanted something brash, rude, opinionated, kind of politically incorrect, and they knew they could create an audience, because the audience was already there. They could tap it. They could make it exist.
It’s this joint process. It’s me realizing you exist, and me realizing that in order for me to start getting your attention, all I have to do is start giving you Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. And then you create me; you create my power. “Yeah, there’s this show. Every night at five o’clock, this guy says exactly what I think.” You know? [Laughs] You think Fox News is dying? Rupert Murdoch might have troubles, but the enterprise is doing pretty well. I think newspapers are dying, his newspaper in London. I don’t know how the Post is doing in New York, and I think the Wall Street Journal will survive his death, probably, but I don’t think the next generation of kids is going to want to support it. [Pause] That’s what I’m saying to you. As a journalist, you have to figure out who your audience is and you have to create them. You’re not doing that.