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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This story in its small way partakes of the seismic shift underway. Its origin is an email request from Lemann last spring: Would I be willing to be the subject of a New Yorker profile? I agreed, on the condition that I could have reciprocal access to Lemann and the Columbia Journalism School for this piece. Hedged with some qualifiers--he could not commit any of his faculty to talk to me or guarantee access to classrooms, though everyone proved to be very welcoming--Lemann agreed. Reactions to his profile of me varied among family and friends, but I thought it complete and fair. Before I sat down with Lemann I had read everything he'd written for the New Yorker and was impressed with his profiles of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. (The Cheney profile earned Lemann some animosity among colleagues, who thought him too gentle with the only man the left fears as much as Rove.) The scorn on the center-right for the "objectivity" and "professionalism" of the mainstream media is deep and sincere. I went to Columbia to see if Lemann was the exception that proves the rule, and to test the rule itself.

What's the rule? That the elite media are hopelessly biased to the left and so blind to their own deficiencies, or so in denial, that they cannot save themselves from irrelevance. They're like the cheater in the clubhouse, whose every mention of a great round of golf is met with rolling eyes and knowing nods.

PULITZER'S ACOLYTES at Columbia undoubtedly believe that they are members of an "able, disinterested, public-spirited press," and not a "cynical, mercenary, demagogic" one. But the widespread perception in the country is that the prestige newsrooms are filled with the latter pretending to be the former. "Public attitudes toward the press, which have been on a downward track for years, have become more negative in several key areas," the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports. It is beyond argument that Pulitzer's dream of the press preserving public virtue has been abandoned, but Lemann is on a mission to help restore credibility to a "profession" without licensing or standards or governing bodies of any sort.

The first person I met on campus, Bruce Wallace, is a student enrolled in the school's traditional program, intended to result in a Master of Science degree after an intensive year of studies. Lemann has also instituted an ambitious new Master of Arts course of study, which has provoked deep suspicion in many of the school's alums and among the faculty. But with 205 students in the M.S. program and 27 in the M.A. division, there is no doubt that the training of front-line reporters is still the core mission. "How to cover a fire in Brooklyn on deadline" is one catchphrase I hear repeated. It is difficult to picture Pat Buchanan, Newsweek's Rick Smith, CBS's Susan Spencer, or writers Mitch Albom and James McBride--CSJ grads, all--covering fires in Brooklyn on or off deadline. But the M.S. program is in essence a 10-month education in the details and practice of that craft.

Wallace is a native of Baltimore who left his job as the manager of the classifieds at the San Francisco Guardian, an alternative weekly, to hone the skills that he hopes will take him to a daily to do local political reporting. The 1999 graduate of Kenyon College had done a little campus radio before heading off to tend bar in Alaska. In San Francisco he got hooked on city hall gossip, and though he was no fan of Mayor Willie Brown, or of "corporate power allied with politicians" generally, he's certain he'll be able to bring fairness to his future job as a political reporter. When I trot out my list of "parameter" questions I use to test for basic ideological disposition--Wallace doesn't own a gun; he favors same-sex marriage--there are no surprises.