The Magazine

The Media's Ancien Régime

Columbia Journalism School tries to save the old order.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By HUGH HEWITT
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New York

To enter Columbia University's graduate school of journalism is to enter the highest temple of a religion in decline. A statue of Thomas Jefferson guards the plaza outside the doors, and the entry room is suitably grand. Two raised platforms proclaim the missions in bold gold letters: "To Uphold Standards of Excellence in Journalism" and "To Educate the Next Generation of Journalists." The marble floor tells you that the school was endowed by Joseph Pulitzer and erected in 1912 in memory of his daughter Lucille. A bronze quotation from Pulitzer's 1904 cri de coeur in the North American Review is on the wall:

Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve the public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. . . .

There is a new high priest in the dean's office on the seventh floor--Nicholas Lemann, veteran writer for the New Yorker, and before that the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, where he spent 15 years after stints at the Texas Monthly, the Washington Post, and the Washington Monthly. Lemann began his scribbling for a New Orleans alternative weekly, the Vieux Carré Courier, while still a high school student, covering everything from boxing to city hall to the private school network of the region. Upon entering Harvard in 1972, he immediately "comped" for the Crimson, only to be rejected in his application to join the editorial board of the greatest brand in undergraduate newspapers. "Harvard is filled with this sort of humiliation," Lemann told me in a conversation last fall that capped a two-day visit to the school. He reapplied for a position as a reporter, and the second time was successful, rising through the ranks to become the paper's president in the 1975-76 academic year. Now 51 and two years into a new career, Lemann will need the same persistence if his legacy as dean is to be something other than a footnote in the history of the decline of American media power.

On my first day at Columbia's graduate school of journalism (CSJ), the poster boy for all that has come to plague elite American media--former CBS anchor Dan Rather--took to the podium at Fordham Law School to denounce the "new journalism order." On day two, the New York Times Company announced a cut of 500 employees from its already pared down workforce of 12,300. (The company employed 13,750 as recently as 2001.) On that same day Knight-Ridder slashed its Philadelphia papers' editorial staff by 75 positions at the Inquirer and 25 at the Daily News. "I get 50 calls a day about the crisis in journalism," Lemann deadpanned when I posed the "crisis" question. "Only 50?" I thought.

The story of what is going on at CSJ cannot be separated from the collapse of credibility of the mainstream media, also known as "elite media" and "old media" among its detractors. The fortunes of the big five papers--the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the old TV networks and big weekly newsmagazines--are visibly in decline. The upstart blogosphere is ever at the ready to "deconstruct" the work product of the old media's old guard. The very best investigative reporting is being done not by big names at the big papers, but by people like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' journalist in residence Claudia Rosett, who almost singlehandedly unraveled the U.N.-Saddam Oil-for-Food scandal, with much of her work published online. Dan Rather's CBS, eager to impugn George W. Bush's service in the Texas National Guard, got duped by fraudulent documents it took months to obtain and only hours for bloggers and readers to shred.