As you walk through the front door of Columbia School of Journalism, the first thing you see is this paragraph, cast on a bronze plaque:
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 THAT 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. THE POWER TO MOULD THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLIC WILL BE IN THE HANDS OF THE JOURNALISTS OF FUTURE GENERATIONS.
The four sentences are about as close to the intellectual origins of the American journalism school as you can get. They are taken from an article by Joseph Pulitzer in the May 1904 issue of the North American Review, the only serious defense he offered of his plan to fund the first journalism school at Columbia. He argued that his school would "raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession" and create a "class feeling among journalists." He predicted-- wrongly, as it turned out -- that "before the century closes schools of journalism will be generally accepted as a feature of specialized higher education, like schools of law or of medicine," and that the elites of Columbia would band together to cast out "the black sheep" from the profession.
According to his biographer, W. A. Swanberg, the idea of a school of journalism first dawned on Pulitzer in 1892, while he was confined to a dark room, suffering from asthma, insomnia, exhaustion, diabetes, manic-depression and failing eyesight. By the time he actually composed his thoughts for the North American Review, his bed chart included rheumatism, dyspepsia, catarrh anda bad case of shame for the Spanish atrocities in Cuba deliverately invented by his repoters to goose the circulation of his newspapers. His wife, a few of hiscolleagues and the trustees of Harvard and Columbia, who initially declined the $ 2 million sack dangled before them, suspected that he was not quite in his right mind. A New York newspaper editor named Horace White suggested that one might as well set up a graduate school in swimming. It took Pulitzer more than a decade to persuade Columbia to accept his money. Even then, the critics'main question was never relly answered: What would they teach at the Columbia Journalism School? A few weeks ago I went to find out.
The morning I arrived, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Steven Isaacs, was putting his class through its paces. A masters of science in journalism requires about seven months of study. The first semester consists ofcore courses, including a course in ethics taught by Dean Isaacs. The second semester consists of electives with names such as "Developing a Personal WritingStyle," "Reporting on Ethical Issues in Science," "Broadcast News: Content and Management" and "Research Tools." The title of Isaac's course was "National Issues."
The first morning session I attended was given over to an exercise designed to cultivate "the creative side to the thinking process," according to the description in the course brochure. Isaacs removed a UCLA baseball cap from thehead of a student named Karen Charman, placed it on the table in the middle of his classroom and told his students that they weren't to leave until each had thought of 100 ideas for articles based on the UCLA cap. For the next two hoursthere was no sound in the room save for the clicking of the ancient radiator. By the end of the class all but one student had compiled a list of 100 ideas. The failure had come up with just fifty but argued that they were fifty especially good ones.
The next week Isaacs distributed the fruits of the exercise. They ran for ten pages, single-space, and began: men wearing more hats as monoxidil fails the rise of popularity of caps baseball caps a appropriate head ware [sic], even for jogging presidents the appropriate ways to wear a hat
Isaacs then moved from the conceptual to the practical: the actual act of composition. He assumed a position in the middle of the room beside an overheadprojector, which beamed short, unsigned articles onto the wall. Isaacs had assigned the students to write sidebars to a New York Times article announcing the wedding of Rupert Murdoch's daughter. They now loomed large before us. We read the various efforts while Isaacs, himself looming large in a brown suit anda Minneapolis Star baseball cap, swapped the pages in and out. Once we'd finished reading each piece, Isaacs, sounding like a gentle parody of Strung andWhite's The Elements of Style, offered advice about how not to write. Early on he had banned from student assignments the use of all adjectives and adverbs, aswell as the vert "to be." The students ceded the adjectives and adverbs, but struggled to preserve various forms of "to be," which, after all, had served journalists nobly for centuries. Having lost the skirmish for "is," they retreated and retrenched to defend "isn't." But Isaacs advanced mercilessly, andthe class finally agreed to eliminate "isn't," "were," "was" and "has been" fromtheir practice articles.
With a Magic Marker, Isaacs circled a passage in the piece under review. It read: "the term interracial is synonymous with marriages between blacks and whites." "How do we fix this?" he asked. "Equates with?" suggested a student.
"Uh-huh," Isaacs said.
The article came down. "Now," Isaacs continued, slapping another article onto the overhead projector, "what's wrong here?"
Everyone looked a little uncomfortable. Ises, wases and has beens clotted the prose.
"Is?" someone offered.
"Aside from that," Isaacs said.
The article under inspection concerned the disillusionment of male students at Vassar. (Murdoch's daughter was a Vassar graduate.) Mainly, the piece consisted of a few limp quotes from a single source, a man who wished that he hadn't attended Vassar. Its chief weakness was that it was entirely devoid of interest, probably even to the person who wrote it. Like most of the other pieces, it emitted a sad, dispirited, homework smell. Also, its author had several times confused "their" with "there," and split a pair of infinitives. After a few unsuccessful guesses, the class gave up.
"Look again," Isaacs said.
We all looked again.
"You don't see it?" Isaacs asked.
We didn't see it.
"Vassar," he said.
We were dumbfounded.
"She's spelled Vassar with an e."
There was a little gasp of silence. It was true. "Vasser" stared out at us,accusingly.
"Those of you who don't own spell checkers, get one," Isaacs bellowed. "Those nits! Those nits are what make the total. That's what journalism is! It's getting the details right. Get everything right! Precisely, 100 percent right. If you can't get everything right, you better question whether this is the right place for you. As Flaubert said, God is in the details."
Actually, he didn't. Mies van der Rohe did. Flaubert, if he said anything close, said God is in the good details, although even that never has been verified. Isaacs went uncorrected, however, which is one of the advantages of being a dean instead of a journalist. Just about every student was preoccupied with the terrible fear that the woman in the front row who had been shifting around in her seat throughout the ruthless indictment of the unsigned piece was actually going to admit to having written it. Each time she motioned with her hand a silent brain-scream filled the room.
"O.K., I admit it," she finally said. "It's mine. I must have hit the return button, like F3, when I ran the spell check."
"O.K.," Isaccs said.
With a nip here and a tuck there, the inadequately schooled journalist could easily make the Columbia School of Journalism sound like a seven-month extensionof the anecdote. Perhaps I am that journalist. The essential point here is that the desperate futility of journalism instruction becomes clearer the closerone gets to the deed. At journalism school, one does not simply report a story. One develops a "search strategy for mass communication." The principal text used at Columbia, in a section called "Truth Telling," offers the mathematical formula: Story = Truth + X. "The story is never the full truth," it intones. "There is always an X, a missing ingredient. Actually there is notan X but a series -- X1, X2, X3, X4 . . ." This sort of irrelevant blather infects the entire curriculum. Here, for instance, is how the Columbia course bulletin describes one of the two main core courses. "Critical Issues in Journalism":
The principal concerns troubling modern journalists are examined in both their ethical and historical contexts. Topics cover such themes as the ethical reverberations in using and being used by sources of news; the debate between lawyers and journalists over codifying standards of journalistic ethics; societal reverberations of stereotyping in terms of politics, gender, race, etc.; ethical considerations in the setting of the news agenda; yellow journalism then and now; implications of corporate giantism in media ownership on journalism; the ethical perils of "beat" reporting; uses and abuses of staging and dramatic reenactments.
The larger force at work here is the instinct to complicate. Those who run, and attend, schools of journalism simply cannot -- or don't want to -- believe that journalism is as simple as it is. The textbooks, the jargon, the spell checkers -- the entire pretentious science of journalism only distract from the journalist's task: to observe, to question, to read and to write about subjects other than journalism. They have less to do with writing journalism than avoiding having to write journalism at all.
It turns out that I am not alone in this view. Despite ninety years of saturation marketing -- there are now 414 American schools and departments of journalism, containing 150,000 students -- the trade has somehow sustained a robust contempt for the credential. Though journalism schools promise that theywill find jobs for their graduates -- indeed, the entire enterprise is based on the premise that a journalism school degree translates into a deck in the newsroom -- many of the people who currently occupy those desks don't want to have anything to do with them.
"Whenever I hear someone went to journalism school I immediately assume they are inferior in one way or another," says Joel Achenbach, who writes the "Why Things Are" column for The Washington Post. "All we do is ask questions and typeand occasionally turn a phrase. Why do you need to go to school for that?" PostEditor Katherine Boo agrees. "It's just a huge hoax," she says. "I think how you become a journalist is that you write. You don't see any correlation between journalistic education and an ability to write a story. When you get a great piece, and you call the person to see who he is, he never says 'Oh I just came from journalism school."
Even among working journalists who themselves went to journalism school, praise is not always forthcoming. "There is nothing I regret more," says JosephNocera, who spent two years at the journalism school at Boston University and now writes widely. "Two years that could have been spent actually learning something were instead spent at a glorified trade school -- I still recall with a shudder the two weeks spent learning how to write an obit -- except that this trade school cannot possibly teach you what you need to learn, because it is impossible to re-create the journalism environment in the classroom."
The people who do the hiring in the newsrooms echo these sentiments. "A journalism degree doesn't really carry much weight," says Jeanne Fox-Alston, thePost's newsroom recruiting director. "In fact, we are a little bit concerned when we see that someone has taken a lot of journalism classes." "If you can write, then you can figure out how to write journalism," says Peter Kovaks, the Metro editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The headhunters at The New YorkTimes put it even more bluntly. "It really doesn't pull any weight," says a staffer who works for Carolyn Lee, the assistant managing editor in charge of hiring at the Times. "All we are about is ability and experience." One could go on. When Dean Isaacs worked for The Washington Post, he himselfused to discriminate against the people he now instructs. "I stopped hiring people from the Columbia Journalism School, " he says. "They thought their shit didn't really smell. They were a constant morale problem." Now that he's at the school, however, he says he understands the value of a journalism degree."It teaches you a way of thinking."
Journalism schools, of course, balk at being balked at. Last fall Columbia'splacement director boasted to students that 45 percent of the class of 1992 had found jobs or internships in journalism. Perhaps, but to appreciate that figurefully you must know that 50 percent of the class came to the school from full-time jobs in journalism. Another 20 percent had internships. Assuming thenumbers provided by Columbia students and faculty are accurate, the journalism school redirected 25 percent of the class of 1992 into other occupations.
And the students, it would appear, are beginning to catch on. The evaluations filled out by journalism students before last year's graduation underscore the problem. Of course, there were a number of satisfied customers -- "Excellent! I want to be an active alumnus" -- as you would expect from an institution that bestows an award, prize or fellowship upon one in eight of its graduates. And a pair of untenured professors seem to touch their student profoundly: Samuel Freedman, who teaches a course in book writing, and Richard Blood, who teaches basic reporting but puts his fifteen students through a life-changingly rigorous program more like boot camp. (He also happens to believe that the school lacks any real standards: "There aren't three or four ofmy colleagues who have any business being here," he told me. "I'll be kind. I'll say half a dozen.")
But many more of the students seem to have peered into their futures with dismay. Here's a small sample of the evaluations: "I am totally disappointed with the whole program." "I can't believe I paid this much money [tuition at theColumbia program is $ 18,000] to come here and I can't get help finding a job." "The placement office was something of a joke, as there were only two or three recruiters who came, most from very specialized journalism (i.e., Baseball Weekly)." "The J-school is a farce. The emperor has no clothes." "I find it outrageous that the placement director left in October and students were never formally notified a) that she was gone or b) about progress in the search for a replacement. We are adults who are paying your salaries . . ." And so on.
In the absence of optimistic placement statistics the authorities at Columbiaoffer a more elaborate explanation of the benefits of their journalism degree: it may not help you right away, but it will help you down the road. "I spent a lot of the time telling people that no, no one is going to make you a foreign correspondent and send you abroad next year," says Judith Serrin, the placement director who left Columbia a year and a half ago. "What I used to sayis that people who are out five years make these jumps." The school seems to have settled on this story. Seven students and two professors cited the figure to me, unsolicited. Five years. Big jump. The belief in mysterious yet imminent career jumps has the advantage of being impossible to disprove without the benefit of a team of researchers. Enough able, driven people pass through Columbia and proceed to greater glory to sustain the myth. The question, impossible to answer, is whether they would have made the big jump on their way anyway.
Explanations for the big jump vary, but the consensus among the stduents is that it happens because of personal connections. "The majority of the people who come out of here and get jobs move up the ladder very quickly because of thenetwork," says a student named Ron Spingarn. "They know the right people." Saysanother student: "They say the connections you make here are worth the money." Pressed on how this happens, she says "There is an amazing Ivy League door-opening thing that goes on when you mention Columbia." One of her classmates, a scholarship student, adds, "It's not what your grades are. It's who do you know. What professors do you know?" The frenzy of student networkingis apparent, especially to the faculty. "When I went up there to teach," says areporter for The New York Times, "it was clear to me that the main reason [people attended] was that the students wanted to meet someone who worked at The New York Times."
A few weeks ago, toward the end of the first semester of classes, about thirty journalism students assembled in the third-floor student lounge to compile a list of complaints about the school, which they eventually presented to Dean Joan Konner. They were busily agreeing that the school needed more Hispanics, more scholarship money for African Americans, a more culturally sensitive faculty and more awareness about AIDS, when a stranger crept in and took a seat. The stranger must have liked what he saw: all these prosperous-looking youths so preoccupied with their problems that they were blind to the events right in front of their eyes. Unnoticed, the stranger rifled through a student's purse. The lounge wasn't much bigger than a squash court, so he deserves some sort of prize for audacity.
It was only when the stranger made for the door that one of the students -- the woman who'd been robbed -- finally noticed him and shouted. the stranger raced out the door, down the stairwell, past the bronze plaque, past the bronze bust of Joseph Pulitzer, past the stucco reliefs of the Gods of Journalism andout into the night, chased by a dozen or so less swift journalism students. Standing near the fateful spot in the lounge where she and her classmates had been sitting, Kaue Noel Kelch-Mattos related the story to me. "We were literally ten to fifteen seconds behind him, but then he just disappeared," she said. "I never would have thought this sort of thing could happen in my ownstudent lounge."
"Who wrote the story?" I asked. The students were required to hand in homework articles each week. The student newspaper was also sorely in need of material.
"No one," she said. "There wasn't a story."
As I pulled out a pad and began to write, students in the lounge gathered around me, along with a pair of young adjunct professors.
"Oh, here comes the notebook!" said one, sounding very media wise.
"What's your nut graph?" asked the other, who was keen to know how this article was going to turn out. I scribbled a note to check the meaning of the phrase, one of the several bits of J-school jargon I failed to understand.
"What happened to the wallet?" I asked my source.
"Why are you trying to find out?" she asked. "I'm just curious."
"O.K." She looked relieved. "Then there's not a story."
"Yea," said one of the other students, a little aggressively. "It's just normal here. I keep mugger money in one pocket and my money in the other."
"Oh no," said the media-wise professor, "what you're going to see in this article is a completely skewed position on the crime problem in the school."
The women telling the tale began to lecture me. "So, like, just because someone had their purse stolen is proof that there is something wrong with our school?"
"C'mon," said the other professor, "tell us your nut graph."
I gave up and dropped the pad. "What's a nut graph?" I asked.
"He doesn't know what a nut graph is!" someone shouted.
The adjunct professor took pity. He tried again, gently. "In the article you are writing about the school," he said. "What's your null hypothesis?" My null hypothesis?
My null hypothesis! My angle. My bias. My take. My . . . point . . . of .. . view!
"My null hypotheses," I said, "is that the Columbia Journalism School is all bullshit."
They paused. "That's a good null hypotheses," said one, finally.
Journalism schools are not alone in their attempts to dignify a trade by tracking onto it the idea of professionalism and laying over it a body of dubious theory. After all, McDonald's Hamburger U. now trains Beverage Technicians. But the journalist's role is precisely to cut through this sort ofobfuscation, not to create more of it. The best journalists are almost the antithesis of professionals. The horror of disrepute, the preternatural respectfor authority and the fear of controversy that so benefit the professional are absolute handicaps for a journalist. I doff my cap to those who have survived the experience of journalism school and still write good journalism. They deserve every Distinguished Alumni Award they receive, and more. The first sentence on the plaque that you see when you walk through the frontdoor of the Columbia Journalism Schol may or may not be true, but it sets a fittingly autocratic, unreflective tone. The second sentence is ungrammatical. The last two sentences offer the sort of grandiose vision of journalism entertained mainly by retired journalists or those assigned to deliver speeches before handing out journalism awards. Highly flattering to all of us, of course, but it would be more true to flip the statement to read: "A cynical, mercenary, demagogic people will produce in time a press as base as itself . . ."
There's also a small problem: when the journalism school cemented the bronze plaque on the wall in 1962, to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, it misquoted the text as it appeared in its final pamphlet form. Those nits! The details! Flaubert! A word of Joseph Pulitzer's is missing, between DEMAGOGICand PRESS. The word is CORRUPT.
(Reprinted with permission)
The following is a letter written by Joan Konner, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, to the Editor of The New Republic in response to the article "J-school Ate My Brain." Because we assume that your readers are more interested in accuracy than yourwriter seems to be, I wish to respond to your article on the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (4/19/93). There are a half dozen errors of fact and spelling in the article. I am restricting my response to the more stunning and apparently deliberate errors.
The article refers to Columbia as the first journalism school in the country.It was not. Missouri was.
"A masters of science in journalism requires about seven months." It requiresa school year, or nine months.
"The second semester consists of electives such as . . ."
The second semester consists of only one elective and three required courses:one, a required two-day intensive seminar intended to deepen a student's knowledge in one area of specialized reporting, such as national, international,community, urban, cultural, business or legal affairs reporting: two, a requiredtwo-day workshop in the journalistic skill that the student wished to develop --daily print, magazine, or electronic journalism; three, the required Master's Project, a piece of long-form reporting, that starts in the fall semester and iscomplete immediately following spring break. It is the Master's Project that keeps the journalism school students working through most university vacations.
Concerning Associate Dean Isaacs class (that's Stephen, not "Steven," as Lewis reported it), the writer described disparagingly the attention given to language and accuracy. Is Lewis saying that there is something wrong with trying to teach journalists to "get the details right?"
"Though journalism schools promise that they will find jobs for their graduates . . ." your reporter writes. We do not. The reporter asked me about this, and I responded directly that we never do that. We say that the reason toattend journalism school is to work to become a better journalist.
It is known, not only by this school but other schools of journalism as well,that it takes every graduating class about six to eight months to find jobs after graduation. Our statistics show that 80 percent of every class find a jobwith which the graduate is satisfied within eight months. When the placement director spoke to incoming students the first week of school in September, she said that after three months, 45 percent of the Class of 1992 had already found jobs, despite the fact that the news media had reported that employment for university graduates as a whole was at an all-time low. in fact, students from the class of 1992 gave a reception for this year's students to tell them not to get overly anxious about employment because everyone in their class who wanted a job found one. According to our periodic studies, 80 percent of our graduatesremain in journalism.
Tuition is $ 15,946 not, as Lewis report, $ 18,000.
"The student newspaper was also sorely in need of material." We do not publish a student newspaper dealing with events in the school. The only newspaper published at the school is "The Bronx Beat;" It is the product of one of our Spring workshop classes and covers the South Bronx, because the South Bronx is so poorly covered by New York City's four newspapers. The first edition for this year had not yet been published when the writer visited school.
Of course, the most astonishing error is the article's general theme -- that the emphasis at Columbia is on jargon and theory.
"The principal text used at Columbia in a section called 'Truth Telling' . . ." With Lewis' syntax, it is difficult to understand whether he's talking about the section or the book. If it's the latter, none of the faculty recognized thequotation or what book it might have come from. There are two texts used in theschool's core fall semester course, Advanced Reporting and Writing: Melvin Mencher's "News Reporting and Writing" and Bruce Porter's and Timothy Ferris' "The Practice of Journalism." Naturally, professors can teach from another text, if they desire, or a combination of texts, or no text.
Our emphasis is quite simple: Students write for every class and get extensive editing. It is estimated that every student will write about 100,000 words during the school year (or, for those in broadcast workshops in the spring, the electronic equivalent). Our students spend two to three days a weekreporting stories in neighborhoods all over New York City. They interview hundreds of people -- politicians, criminals, derelicts, experts, and officials.The experience they get in these neighborhoods is invaluable, not just because of reporting they do but because they learn to function and work in real, and difficult, environments.
The Columbia Journalism School seeks to strike a balance between the classroom and the newsroom, between the practical and the theoretical, includinga required First Amendment course taught by Vincent Blasi of Columbia Law Schooland Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, a fact that your writer did not know when he spoke with me in his last interview. I asked if he had read our catalogue. His response was indistinct. The description that "They (the schools) have less to do with writing journalism than avoiding having to write journalism" is absurd. If, on this point, the writer was talking about other journalism schools in general, he should have made that clear -- that is, if he investigated other journalism schools, all of which are quite different from this one, as I also told him. It appears he has not.
The writer offers to doff his cap to "those who have survived the experience of journalism school and still have good journalism." I append a partial list ofgraduates so he can doff his hat. You may want to publish this list as a sidebar to this letter. I am also appending a list of 157 books by graduates published in just the last three years. You will note that many of them have been on the best seller lists. You may also want to publish that as a sidebar to this letter.
There are now 38 graduates of the school working at the Washington Post, including two of its regular columnists: Richard Cohen and Dorothy Giliam. There are also, at present, approximately 65 alumni/ae at the Wall St. Journal, 96 at The New York Times and 52 at ABC News, and countless numbers at other distinguished news organizations. I offer this list in case your writer is still doffing his hat, instead of talking through it.
Joan Konner Dean
Michaeal Lewis, Senior Editor of The New Republic, wrote the following reply to Joan Konner's letter:
I am grateful to Dean Konner for restricting herself to the more stunning anddeliberate errors in my article. But the only calculated lie I can corroborate is the misspelling of Stephen Isaacs. As for the others: According to Columbia University Bulletin, tuition and fees last year at the journalism school ran $ 17,541 ($ 28,115 incuding living expenses) and the dean herself told me $ 18,000was about right. While it's true that Columbia's journalism program ends nine months after it begins, the students are actually in school only about seven months.
I did not write that Columbia was the first school, only that Joseph Pulitzer had plans to open the first school, which is both true and to the point that journalism schools were Pulitzer's brainchild. Other schools opened in the ten years that elapsed before Columbia accepted Pulitzer's money. I did not write that the students put out a paper dealing with events inthe school. I did not write that Columbia graduates are shut out of prestigiousnews organizations, only that there was no meaningful, desirable connection between their formal education and their careers. I did not disparage the importance of language and accuracy in journalism, merely the way language and accuracy were taught by the dean of academic affairsat the Columbia Journalism School. And what does it say about the attitude tothe printed word in journalism schools that the dean of the most prestigious schools of all believes she can discredit a piece of journalism by amassing a pile of phony (and in any case inconsequential) factual errors? GRAPHIC: Picture, no caption; Drawing, Search Strategy for Mass Communication; Photograph, noo caption, BY DANIEL DEITCH LANGUAGE: ENGLISH