Class Dismissed

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.

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.


Class Dismissed