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Class Dismissed


And then there's the issue of newspapers. No matter how much electronic equipment has been installed, or how many courses are devoted to long-form magazine writing (in itself odd, because there are few long-form magazines), or how eager everybody briefly was to be a dot-com cub reporter -- this is still a newspaper school. And newspapers, as everybody kinda knows, are not long for this world. In fact, the real mission, or the highest mission, of the school may be to prepare its students to work specifically for one paper: the New York Times (Joe Lelyveld, the former executive editor, and many Times reporters are graduates, and the Times has enormous clout at the school), which may be the exception that proves the middle-management rule.

Journalism, of the kind that is taught at Columbia’s J-school, is just a pawn of the modern communication-technology complex. In other words, this is about old-school dorkwad journos vs. postmodern dorkwad academics.

So how do you pump back some prestige into the old place?

Because this is academia, you start with the semiotic approach. Take the emphasis off journalism (academics have always cringed at the word journalism anyway) and put it onto media (real journalists have always cringed at the word media) and the whole delicious postmodern thing. Looking at the media looking at the media -- yum.

It enlarges the canvas, certainly -- and it takes it from the practical, which is of a lower order, to the theoretical, which is higher. The new president himself, with a background in legal scholarship, has entered the theoretical debate by writing several books about press freedom (not irrelevant reading for a journalism student -- but it won't help you get a newspaper out). But media is a tricky word, too, suggesting dominance, patriarchy, globalization, and other stuff that isn't too trendy on campus.

So in some sense when they talk about media scholarship, they are really talking about anti-media scholarship. This sort of media criticism is an all-encompassing analysis of vast social dysfunction, not dissimilar to talking about psychoanalysis in the fifties and sixties, or Marxism in the thirties and forties. And of course it is through this analysis that we understand that the journalism of the kind that is taught at the J-school is just a pawn of the modern communication-technology complex. (In other words, this is about old-school dorkwad journos vs. postmodern dorkwad academics.)

NYU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication (among Columbia's more focused missions is to compete with NYU wherever it can) is not, for instance, a craft school but a school where the emphasis is on seeing the media as a structural, and mostly insidious, force in American life. It's a respectable left-wing notion -- the media represents oligarchy and capital. And this approach is nicely semiotic, too -- about exploring "the deep grammar of the press in American commercial and public life," in the words of Jay Rosen, the chairman of NYU's department. I often sit on panels with media scholars from NYU, and seldom have I any idea what they are talking about -- they are very much in their own linguistic, and fetishistic, world. But at any rate, it's not a working-class world.

Whereas many of the purists in the J-school consider themselves, in effect, the media working class, and -- complicating campus allegiances -- claim a higher sort of political or left-wing credential for themselves. They continue to do the honest work. Media is the corruption, and theirs is the truer calling. They recognize, proudly, even militantly, that to have an interest in news is to be regarded as a dinosaur. "If you're chasing police stories, you're in career eclipse; if you're covering lifestyle, you're ascendant," says a J-school graduate I know who is in eclipse. They are labor-movement people.

It's certainly been noted that when push came to shove (at Columbia, matters are always returning to when push came to shove) in the late sixties, Lee Bollinger was at Columbia Law School, a conservative bastion, and the folks at the journalism school were storming Low Library. "So it's payback time," one J-school partisan says bitterly, suggesting that what might be more in order is a review of the mission of the business school!

Ambition is what's in the air.

Journalism, in the end, is not only an unfruitful and exasperating economic activity -- it's so by-hand. So unscalable. To spend 30,000 bucks to get a job in journalism is really pushing what it's worth.

But if the university can create a larger career model, larger economic horizons -- not journalists but media managers -- it might, for one thing, be able to sell more school (which is of course the central thing). The J-school was very pleased when it recently expanded from a nine-month to a ten-month program (raising the cost about $3,000). Imagine how much more pleased everyone will be if the program goes to two years.

The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is one of the models -- an expanded, interdisciplinary program, teaching not craft but "substance." In other words, you make the goals of a school like this grand enough and vague enough -- about not just a job but leadership -- that students (or their parents and lending institutions) are willing to pay for quite a bit of B.S. in their curriculum (which, from a school's perspective, is where the money is).

Now, this could go in two ways. You could end up creating a school for moguls that might largely serve to perpetuate the present mess (universities are often a little behind in realizing what's happening in the actual world -- the new president may not know the media world is collapsing). Or you could get lucky, and in an era when the industry is engulfed in chaos, a new sort of J-school could start to produce a type of reconstituted Walter Isaacson to lead the media out of the wilderness.

Either way, the inverted pyramid is dead.



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