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Class Dismissed

The journalism school needed a dean, but Columbia's new president called off the search -- because what the J-school really needs is a clue. Welcome to the Ivy League's latest class war.


The thing that got many old hands mad about the decision to table the search for the next head of the Columbia journalism school and instead rethink the whole mission of the place was a line in the Times story that said that the J-school wanted to figure out how to attract Harvard Crimson editors.

Now, the growing contretemps has mostly been billed as a clash between journalism skills, which the school has traditionally taught, and broader media scholarship, or at least sophistication, which the new president, Lee Bollinger, seems to want it to teach. ("To teach the craft of journalism is a worthy goal, but clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university." Slap.) But if you ask me, I think it's about class -- as it so often is in academia.

When I was nosing around last week, a J-school faculty member was wondering aloud about the future of the school and "where the next generation of Walter Isaacsons" would go. Isaacson, who in fact went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, is, of course, among the most fearsome members of the present journalism generation, having risen through the ranks of Time Inc. to become the managing editor of Time, then the editorial director of all of the company's magazines and, in a recent and portentous (if uneasy) shift of career paths, the chairman of CNN.

It is, however, important to note that Isaacson and people like him (that is, the handful of other princes of the modern media world) have really nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of career or style of career or philosophical view or esprit de corps that the journalism school has come to espouse.

Columbia J-school -- which is not-too-ironically called the Harvard of journalism schools -- represents the world of noncoms, while Walter and friends are West Point.

This seems to be the point: Although the J-school is a professional school, incontrovertibly the best in its field, hardly anyone who goes there rises to the top of his or her profession (nor do many people from the top of the profession teach there).

The failure to groom movers and shakers may be partly due to the nature of the training itself: The basics of journalism, of fact-finding and of interviewing (and occasionally writing), are substantially lower on the food chain than the industry-shaping issues of distribution and supply and demographics and technology and the creation of hit formats. But it is also due to the outlook of the school. The J-school sees itself as different from the officer class of the media world, even opposed to officers (or at least assumes that the world runs at best in spite of them). While the Walters of the business are rising in their consolidated corporate media regimes, making whatever Faustian infotainment bargains they need to make, somebody has be finding and preparing the news (and protecting old-fashioned news values).

There is, too, the further point that it's not only training and outlook that bring you (or fail to bring you) to the top but -- and this is appreciated even on politically correct college campuses -- who you are and whom you know. And there is the sense that the Columbia J-school gets to choose only among (and might even prefer) people who aren't anybody grand and who don't know anybody who can grease their rise to the top.

It is not just Lee Bollinger who is a little snobbish about the J-school. Nearly every journalist (or mediaist) who didn't go to journalism school looks down on journalism school -- even though, God knows, we all have colleagues who might have benefited from it.

As it happens, most people in journalism and media didn't do J-school -- and many who didn't arguably have better careers than those who did.

What's more, the general impression is that a big motivation for going to journalism school is an inability to get a job in journalism. The other reason that you would go to journalism school is that you have parents clueless enough to pay for it -- $30,000 at Columbia (although the school estimates that with fees, books, and living expenses, the total's more like $50,000) -- meaning you probably haven't been exposed to a good helping of careerism around the family dinner table.

There is also a feeling out in the larger, cynical journalism world that having gone to journalism school, having had that specific training, is a liability (that the first $30,000 of an employer's investment in you is spent having you unlearn what your parents paid $30,000 to have the journalism school teach you). Journalism students, especially Columbia J-school students, may well learn their skills too well. They come to the real world with a certain level of literalness and inflexibility and even stridency that is out of place in an increasingly, to say the least, plastic and accommodating media business. Indeed, at just the point in time when all other professional schools are being urged to put a greater emphasis on professional values and ethics and canons of behavior, the Columbia J-school is in some sense being faulted for putting way too much emphasis on such things as it prepares its students for what is more and more a quisling enterprise.

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