ink-stained wretches

Nick Lemann Justifies His Existence


Photo: Patrick McMullan

Have you turned on the TV lately? On it, you can see fat people voluntarily getting weighed in front of studio audiences, young models who travel across the country to be shamed for not having enough self-confidence, washed-up rock stars telling total strangers that they really need to let their guard down and open up their hearts. Judgment is hot right now. Everyone wants to be judged. Which is probably the reason Columbia Journalism School dean Nick Lemann, who was supposed to be sending graduating students their final evaluations, instead “accidentally” e-mailed his students the evaluation he had written for the provost — of himself. In the memo, now on Romenesko, he praised his administration for creating the Masters of Arts program and adjusting the curriculum of the Master of Science program in “response to the rapid onset of the Internet as the dominant delivery medium for journalism,” among a bunch of other good things. But is it enough? No, Lemann reports, it is not. “I don’t think I have been nearly effective enough in persuading either our own Journalism School community, or other journalism schools, or the wider world of the profession, that the professional education of a journalist should include intellectual content,” he said.

The primary orientation of journalism schools, including ours, is toward conferring skills associated with entry-level practice; almost the entire discourse in journalism education is internal to journalism and concerned with professional norms and practices, rather than with how to understand the world we are supposed to cover….When journalism schools feel moved to take a next step after skills instruction, they usually devote their energies to exhorting the profession to do a better job—a good cause, certainly, and something we do a lot of here. Developing non-skills curriculum generates very little interest in the world of journalism education… The question of what journalism amounts to as a discipline—what distinctive body of knowledge, which intellectual and analytic tools, what way of thinking might be associated with it and might therefore be taught in journalism schools—simply doesn’t energize journalism educators, even though every manifesto and mission statement we as a group produce mentions it as a desideratum.

Around an hour after he sent the e-mail, Lemann sent an apology titled, “Freudian slip?” “Make of that mistake what you will,” he told the students, again, because he is dying to be judged — not even for just his own shortcomings but those of the profession as a whole. Fascinating! Either that or, you know, he had two files named “Evaluation.”

Memos from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann [Romenesko]

Nick Lemann Justifies His Existence