Oh, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism students, you’re so adept at opening yourselves up to mockery!
What I think, when I see that rap, is how the graduate program somehow takes on the strange social atmosphere of a high school summer camp. I speak with authority, having spent a good deal of time hanging out with my friend Bill and his classmates when he attended Columbia, penned a well researched story about the school, and mischievously persuaded a surprising number of its students to join a faux secret society I created on a lark to see if I could convince my in-the-dark buddy to join. (I could!) This wasn’t, I hasten to add, the kind of work we did at NYU (nor did we have a weekly happy hour, a costume party at Halloween, a school dance or a pre-graduation boat cruise).
Cringe-worthy as I find the aesthetics of that display, however, I’ve got to disagree with Nick Gillespie and Greg Gutfeld about its substance.
The latter writes:
So, no surprise: the student raps benign pap that his professors and like-minded dorm-rats would applaud – from railing against complacency, to never losing touch with “his humanity.”
Actually, the values name-checked in the rap were perfectly defensible. Sure, professors would probably applaud them, and so what? Its incoherent to criticize a rap about journalistic values as “benign.” As opposed to what, the “malignant,” controversial journalistic lodestars you’d want young j-schoolers to rap about?
Mr. Gutfeld is particularly upset by this line:
“There’s no need to hear crazy, or create a false sense of parity, like Fox News and Hannity.”
And that’s the big point: That when applying for a job, the student knows to regurgitate the shared assumptions of the elitists around him. In short, if you bash Fox News, you might land an unpaid internship at Mother Jones.
I dunno, the average Columbia student is certainly left-of-center politically, and it is predictable that Fox News would be the villain they’d single out among all the less than stellar news organizations out there, but the actual substance of the line is pretty irrefutable. Aren’t Sean Hannity and Fox News guilty as anyone at creating a false sense of parity? The line seems like a pretty transparent reference to Alan Colmes, who acted as The Washington Generals of pundits all those years he sat opposite his former co-host.
Mr. Gutfeld goes on:
Now, it wasn’t a bad rhyme, but it was a bad idea – emboldened by the present comfort of conformity and driven by the need to prove to those hiring that the applicant holds the “right beliefs.” It’s silly and stupid, but also sad: these beliefs are cemented even before they enter a paying newsroom.
And what’s the crux of these beliefs?
That Fox News is evil.
Actually, I think the crux of the belief expressed is that the cable news network — notably its pundit Sean Hannity — is guilty of creating a fake sense of parity, since that’s exactly the criticism expressed in the song. Most of these students will go on to jobs at publications that aren’t ideologically affiliated. Folks I know who went to Columbia now work, off the top of my head, at the Wall Street Journal, The Army Times, Talk of the Nation, Agency France Press, etc. Interviews as news gatherers at those organizations don’t encourage ideological signals.
I tried to grapple with a less cartoonish account of the role ideology plays at Columbia in that aforementioned piece I penned back in 2007. If you click through to the piece, you’ll see it is anything but an apologia for the school, though it acknowledges its many strengths.
A relevant excerpt:
I attended two Sam Freedman lectures and a Columbia student forwarded me transcripts of the others, despite Freedman’s request that they be kept private (an odd request from a man who makes his living as an education reporter). A whole article could be spent on the ethical precepts taught at the school; I find a lecture titled “Fairness” most revealing.
“I wonder if I could ask for a show of hands on a couple of questions,” Freedman said. “How many of you favor gay marriage? How many of you favor gun control? How many of you favor school vouchers? How many of you favor the legal right to an abortion?”
It’s important to recognize views shared by many of your fellow journalists, Friedman instructed, because “you can’t turn a compass to true north unless you can read the direction it’s already pointing.”
If there’s a reason that conservatives accuse the media of liberal bias, at least part of that reason is because of the culture of consensus we share on a number of issues. I don’t think that shared set of values is conspiratorial. To a great extent, it has to do with the self-selecting nature of any profession, which for us means the way journalism tends to attract people with a reformist bent, people with a desire to contribute to, if not directly make, social change. One result, though, is that readers or viewers who do not share many of our values feel we are alien, even antagonistic.
Several important lessons emerge.
1) This is a self-aware moment that conservative critics of Columbia can’t imagine happening, but there it is. A professor instructs students to be aware of their profession’s left of center consensus on social issues.
2) Journalism obviously attracts more leftists than not, but not because the right is less desirous of reform and effecting positive social change! Consider two of the examples that Freedman uses: the right desperately wants social change that reduces abortions and favors reforms to the school system in the form of vouchers.
3) Those flawed examples are just the kind of thing a well-intentioned professor like Freedman could improve upon if Columbia posted its ethics lectures online for critical feedback, and generally adopted an attitude of engagement rather than a posture of dispensing wisdom from on high or engaging students behind cloistered walls, away from public discourse.
4) Part of the reason Columbia avoids that kind of transparency is that some conservatives make a cottage industry of attacking or mocking the school, hoping they can undermine it, rather than engaging it for the sake of its improvement. The most unfair criticism is that CJS is a place of liberal indoctrination. In fact, the faculty mostly avoids politics to a fault, and I’ve yet to meet a student whose worldview—probably liberal to begin with—changed appreciably as a result of their year studying interviewing techniques, leads and nut graphs.
And one section relevant to this discussion:
In his critique of Columbia, Hugh Hewitt concluded that the MA program’s focus on expertise rather than craft, though a step in the right direction, is ultimately doomed to fail, partly because of thoroughgoing left-wing bias among mainstream media outlets, and partly for a related reason.
“There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer,” Hewitt wrote. “In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.”
The counterargument is that an explosion of available information requires more mediators, not fewer; good writers who find the most relevant needles in the haystack are needed more than ever; so are good writers who can translate all the new work being done in business, science and technology into readable language.
Nor is it likely that the need for paid information gatherers will disappear. The oddest feature of the debate between Nick Lemann, who says bloggers create precious little that’s new, and Hewitt, who revels in naming bloggers who are doing original foreign reporting, analysis of domestic policy, etc., is that their argument is focused on medium, not means. Maybe newspapers will experience a renaissance when someone invents a cheap, portable electronic broadsheet; maybe we’ll all be reading blogs in 10 years. Either way someone must get paid to ferret out good stories and important information, and whether they render them on newsprint or blogs matters very little.
If I understand Hewitt right, his other point is that even if journalists can do regression analysis and read quarterly earning reports—even if they become experts rather than poseurs—their ideological bias, or at least the impression of it, will remain, and Americans will stop trusting them.
As someone who spent two years reading almost everything published in large newspapers and magazines about immigration, I’m sympathetic to the argument that the press slants left-of-center in its coverage of some subjects, and that readers are canceling subscriptions and seeking ideologically like-minded substitutes. Unlike Hewitt, I fear cocooning, and find the notion of a non-partisan press that aspires to fairness and accuracy worth fighting for.
Hence my discomfort with the ideological bias I perceive at Columbia.
Consider the Bronx Beat, a school publication written as though it’s the local newspaper for a swath of New York’s poorest borough. Like most urban newspapers in America, the Bronx Beat often reports on immigration, most frequently by rendering a sympathetic immigrant narrative. Don’t cry bias yet. Most immigrants are hardworking people who want the best for their kids. It’s impossible to reflect the reality of immigration in America without writing sympathetic immigrant narratives, and many of the attempts by Columbia students are carefully written, and avoid the slanted language I’ve seen elsewhere.
But another part of reality is that some immigrants fuel gang problems; sometimes cute immigrant children who don’t speak English fluently put added strain on school systems already failing to educate inner-city kids; sometimes immigrants fuel public health problems like overcrowded emergency rooms or the spread of certain diseases, or drive down wages for certain jobs. You’re less likely to read those stories in the Bronx Beat than The Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, papers whose coverage is far from adequate, even though the stories are part of the reality of life in the Bronx.
More generally, few Columbia students are likely to cover, or even conceive of covering, a story about how high taxes and bureaucratic regulations are an impediment to starting a small business, or about women who years later regret having had an abortion and wish they would’ve gotten counseling at the time, or about the clandestine roll teacher’s unions play derailing charter schools, merit pay and voucher plans.
Shouldn’t journalism school teach its students to see stories their ideology predisposes them to ignore? I asked Dean Lemann. Isn’t fostering that skill one way graduates could supply fairer coverage that engages readers of diverse world views? Why not assign an occasional story from an angle that contrasts with a student’s ideology, I suggested, or an editorial advocating a position they don’t believe?
“I totally get your point, and I think that’s important. When I teach I push a methodology that trains students to see things from different perspectives,” he said, bringing up a document on his laptop that spelled out the methodology.
Lemann said neither students nor professors are asked their ideology when they’re considered for admission or hiring (though let’s be honest: a journalist’s ideology is often apparent from his or her writing or the publication where he or she works), but that he has sometimes invited conservative journalists to his classes to afford students another perspective.
“I don’t want to tell a teacher how to teach a class, but notionally that can be a good exercise, a flip in empathy or a flip in perspective,” he continued. “I suspect that our international students are to the left of our students, who are to the left of our faculty, who are to the left of most Americans, so if anything we’re pulling students toward the center, but the real victory would be getting so that no one sees an issue from one perspective without realizing it.”
I’d entrench that goal as part of the core curriculum, assessing work a student completes during her first semester, and afterward assigning beats, stories and angles designed to push beyond her ideological comfort zone, whatever it is. Columbia could host debates on matters of controversy so that every student would learn to articulate the strongest arguments on all sides of certain issues. Classes that produce publications like the Bronx Beat could strive to ensure that accumulated coverage, not just individual stories, is evenhanded.
Most Columbia students I spoke to agreed that they’d benefit from some exercises like that. Ben Frumin, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2003 and worked at newspapers in San Diego and Colorado, echoed the sentiments of several classmates.
“Anything that’s outside of my comfort zone is a good exercise,” he said. “It’s my hope that I’d cover any news event straight if I was sent to cover it. But perhaps instead of writing a story about downtrodden immigrants, which is my natural inclination, maybe it would be better to try my hand at… see, I can’t even think of an example, but I think I’d learn from the attempt.”
He also expressed a counterpoint.
“I think ideas are the currency in this business. You need to be able to come up with clever, creative story ideas,” he said. “That’s how you succeed in the real world, writing stories you care about, so I wouldn’t want to always be doing these leg-stretching exercises.”
So take from that what you will.