The Media's Ancien Régime
Columbia Journalism School tries to save the old order.
Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By HUGH HEWITT
Soon Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, arrives. With Michael Shapiro, Hoyt team-teaches the class "Advanced Reporting," into which Wallace and 15 other students are headed, and introduces me to Shapiro, who quickly welcomes me to observe the hour. Shapiro is a gifted teacher who, three weeks into the term, already knows all of his students' names and engages them with ease and good humor. The first half of this hour is given over to outlining a large assignment--a profile of some recently deceased person or the reconstruction of a crime. Shapiro is clearly hoping the students will go for the profile, and spends considerable time instructing his charges on how they might go about selecting their subject. He fences his instructions with cautions about engaging the bereaved ("You need to know, but you can't be a vampire") and tips on tracing the details of the life to be profiled. Hoyt contributes key bits of experience, and the students are curious and attentive to these practical lessons. "You need to make your first phone call today," Shapiro insists. "Tomorrow becomes the next day, which becomes next week. Good reporters make the first call on the first day."
The 16 students are not evenly split--there are 14 women and just two men. Two-thirds of the M.S. class this year are women, a reflection of what Lemann calls the "feminization" of journalism programs across the country. Robert Mac Donald, the assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, ran down the demographics for me: The average age of an M.S. student is just shy of 28, the mean is 26, the youngest is 20, and the oldest is 63. Whites make up 69 percent of the new class; 11 percent are African American, 7 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, 3 percent Middle Eastern, and 4 percent South Asian. The school doesn't yet keep stats on religious background, though Mac Donald believes there has been a significant increase in Muslim students post 9/11. A fifth of the students are from the New York area, and between 37 to 40 percent are from "the corridor"--from Boston to Washington. Another fifth are from the west coast, and 10 percent are foreign. It is a pretty "blue" student body, and willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of their credentials. A year at CSJ--tuition, living expenses, incidentals--comes to $59,404 according to Mac Donald, though 85 percent of the students receive some financial aid, with packages ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. The average scholarship is $5,200, which means that these students are putting a lot of money into the program.
The "blue" nature of the student body is further confirmed by my polling of the class I attended, done with the permission of Shapiro. Six of the 16 were English majors, two studied history, and the balance spread across the humanities. No one had a background in the physical sciences. No one owned a gun. All supported same-sex marriage. Three had been in a house of worship the previous week. Six read blogs. None of them recognized the phrase "Christmas Eve in Cambodia"--though Shapiro not only got the allusion but knew the date of the John Kerry Senate speech in which he made the false claim about his Vietnam war experience. Three quarters of them hope to make more than $100,000 as a journalist, 11 had voted for John Kerry, and one for George Bush (three are from abroad and not eligible, and one didn't vote for either candidate). I concluded by asking them if they "think George Bush is something of a dolt." There was unanimous agreement with this proposition, one of the widely shared views within elite media and elsewhere on the left. The president's Harvard MBA and four consecutive victories over Democrats judged "smarter" than him haven't made even a dent in that prejudice.
The intake valve at the elite media's equivalent of the Army's war college isn't pulling in many conservatives. In fact, it isn't pulling in many moderates. After the class, a few students linger. Their backgrounds are interesting. Rachel Templeton is from Alaska, graduated from the University of Washington, and has spent a few years at the Henry Jackson Foundation. She's moving to Israel after this year, where she hopes to pick up freelance work. Bree Nordenson is from Freeport, Maine, a graduate of Minnesota's Carleton College, and is transitioning from her work as a psychiatric counselor in Boston. Andreea Plesea is from Rumania and her Facebook entry announces her goal is to "become a top notch investigative reporter" and to "pursue a degree in law." Stina Lunden is from Sweden, and spent her last year as a Washington Post intern in France working for Keith B. Richburg. Lanie Shapiro was in PR for Simon & Schuster and Random House. Sophia Chang, originally from Texas, has been a reporter for the past four years.
These six want to pursue the idea of "objectivity," and most had read Lemann's profile of me, which included my very skeptical assessment of the objectivity of the mainstream media. Lunden is particularly animated. "You can't draw conclusions that our opinions will influence our reporting," she says, launching into a familiar defense of the ability of journalists to put aside their points of view. Shapiro stresses that all of her professors have been teaching "the value of objectivity," but Nordenson isn't buying it. "It is dangerous to think you are objective." Plesea is cynical: "You don't get truth in political reporting," an opinion she didn't confine to the countries of the former Soviet Union, with which she is familiar.
I am not here to debate the proposition, but find it interesting that the three-week wonders are already committed to the defense of their new profession's reputation for objectivity. With a faculty that does not appear to count among its number even one prominent name from the center-right, but does include respected voices of the left such as Todd Gitlin and Victor Navasky, it is difficult to see where they will acquire any useful skepticism about their own craft's motives and abilities.
THE WORST MOMENTS in recent history for the mainstream media--Rathergate, Jayson Blair's fabrications at the New York Times, the slander by CNN executive Eason Jordan that the U.S. military in Iraq was targeting journalists for assassination--were all still in the future when Columbia president Lee Bollinger was presented with an opening in the deanship by the retirement of Lemann's predecessor, Tom Goldstein. Bollinger, a First Amendment expert, former president of the University of Michigan, and former dean of its law school (I took media law from him in the spring of 1983, and the quiet, brooding, and even moody Bollinger hasn't changed much in 22 years, according to reports) seized the moment. He launched a controversial top-to-bottom look at the journalism school, empaneling a committee that met a dozen or so times to debate the future of the school. Lemann was among the panel's members, and delivered a paper to the group in the spring of 2003 that urged the one-year M.S. degree be replaced by a two-year Master of Arts program. Bollinger obviously warmed to some part of the Lemann pitch, and offered him the deanship.
Lemann quickly realized that alumni and faculty would unite to kill any idea of a uniform two-year degree at CSJ. "Of 24 or 25 faculty," he told me, "I'd have had maybe two votes." But there are other ways to pursue change and reform. After another year of meetings with industry types, he launched a second degree track: a year-long Masters of Arts program open only to practicing journalists, aiming to enhance and deepen their skills. Lemann is clearly hoping that the best and brightest of the M.S. grads will be willing to stay a second year and also go for the M.A. This year a pool of 70 applicants yielded a class of 27. The goal is a class of 60 drawn from 250 applicants.
My second classroom experience is in an M.A. class, "Evidence and Inference," which includes all 27 students. It is the meta-class for the new track, and is co-taught by Lemann and associate dean Evan Cornog, as well as a series of academic and media guest-lecturers. Today marks the third in three lectures by the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Columbia's Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs Kenneth Prewitt, on the use of race as a classifying device. Prewitt's lecture is a fascinating look at the introduction of racial categories into the census and the evolution of those categories, as well as the limits of the utility of that data. An interesting and provocative 90 minutes later, though, I am left wondering how much the Prewitt lecture will do for these students unless they are fortuitously assigned some future story on the census or a related topic having to do with, say, racial classifications in university admissions.
Lemann's hope for this course is to cultivate in his students a capacity to discover and analyze data. He repeatedly uses the term "power skills," and he has in mind a deeper appreciation, and use, of more sophisticated research and analytical skills than most journalists bring to the table. "Regression analysis is the best example," he tells me. "Every social science study in the United States depends upon regression analysis, but almost no reporters understand it. You can't read and understand these studies if you don't know how regression analysis works. I taught myself how to do it, and we are going to teach the M.A. students, equipping them to go beyond their ordinary reliance on dueling experts interpreting studies."
That, in a nutshell, is Lemann's grand plan for salvaging the profession: Teaching reporters new skills that will make them more competent amateurs in the worlds of other professionals. The school's newsletter, 116th & Broadway, carried a letter from Lemann on its front cover for the summer '05 issue. Lemann noted that the spring of 2006 would see the school of journalism confer its first new professional degree in 70 years. He was eager that alums understand what the M.A. program was all about. Among other points, he wanted to emphasize:
* The M.A. program will accept not only holders of the Journalism School's M.S. degree, but also journalists who can demonstrate to us that they are already working at a level of skill commensurate with that of M.S. holders.
If ever a class is given on the elegant insertion of the thin edge of a wedge, this would make a fine piece of assigned reading. The M.S. holders are assured of the status of their credential; the applicant pool sees a hint of tuition deals; Columbia faculty are given their props; and the industry gets a promise of "deep substantive knowledge" on the way. In that last phrase is the figure in the carpet, the grand design for saving journalism. And also an admission of great significance about all that ails the craft today.
LEMANN'S PROJECT is either a masterful flanking of the dominant critique of the mainstream media--thoroughgoing left-wing bias among its practitioners--or an irrelevant and doomed exercise in beside-the-pointism. The big battle in American journalism is over the very idea of objectivity. Lemann assumes that objectivity is possible, but that the skills of reporters need burnishing if their reputation for disinterestedness is to be recovered.
The genuine enthusiasm for a new program's launch is always difficult to gauge, but one measurement that simply does not lie in the world of academia is donor support. CSJ's associate dean of university development and alumni relations, Jeffrey H. Richard, briefed me on Lemann's work as change agent and chief fundraiser. Three $5 million gifts do not a conclusion render, but are more than a good start. David and Katherine Moore have given a $5 million gift to endow a faculty position to cover government and public affairs in both the M.S. and M.A. programs. David is the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, so that sounds to an outsider like a crucial endorsement of the innovations underway. Another $5 million is arriving from Leo Hindery, formerly of the YES Entertainment Network, and the father of a CSJ grad--another category of endorsement crucial to the school's constituencies. This gift is available for scholarships, an underfunded and pressing need for new and old programs alike. The third of the big three came to found a Center for Investigative Journalism, and came via a big name in that business, Toni Stabile, whose reporting on the cosmetics industry in the '60s and '70s set a high bar for future practitioners of the craft.
"Fundraising," says Richard, "is about relationships, about earning people's trust. They sense the excitement about what we are doing here." Lemann "has a vision," he adds, and "there's a general consensus that having journalists who better understand what they are doing is needed." Richard expects that corporate America will welcome--and fund--the emphasis on more sophisticated skills, but is careful to underscore that no gift from industry can be accompanied by any hint of compromise or strings attached.
"Authority is a construct," Lemann tells me on my second day at the school. And the "authority" of journalism with the American public is clearly at a modern low point. Lemann intends to reconstruct journalism's shaky reputation via an infusion of specific and measurable skills--either you can or you can't do regression analysis; either you can or you can't follow a case citation sequence or decode an annual audit report--and thus ignite a demand among editors not for the bright young reporters from campus newspapers, but for really smart alums of graduate schools of all sorts who can be tempted into the field despite its pay and present status somewhere near the carnival barker's.
This objective is both large and novel. Joseph Pulitzer wasn't a skills man, though his detour from reporting to law school suggests at least a hint of Lemann's recognition that reporters are often overmatched by the complexities of the stories they are assigned. Pulitzer was very much a crusader, though, and his 1904 North American Review article "The College of Journalism," which Lemann points me to, is almost hilariously optimistic in its aims for the profession:
This vision, from which the quotations in the school's entrance lobby are excerpted, can hardly be read with a straight face these days. And it has very little in common with Lemann's project. Pulitzer wanted reporters to push for virtue. Lemann endorses, first and emphatically, "truth-seeking." They are very different projects, proceeding from very different ideologies. Virtue, as Pulitzer understood it, was not so difficult to figure out. Truth is elusive.
Lemann also recommends to me the 1920 Walter Lippmann essay "Liberty and the News," but curiously not Lippmann's better known 1922 opus, Public Opinion, which opens this way:
You can put Lippmann's book down after page one, his 1920 essay, and Pulitzer's vision statement for his school as well. Lippmann's world, Pulitzer's world, even Nicholas Lemann's world of the Harvard Crimson from 1972 to 1976--they are all gone. Every conversation with one of the old guard citing the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.
Lemann understands completely what has happened. I think he regrets it. He is certainly trying to salvage the situation. And there is simply no way he can succeed.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author, most recently, of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That Is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.