"Thinking About Journalism: Letting Others In"
University of California at Berkeley
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
November 5, 2003
The last time I was here at Medill was a while ago, and I'm certainly glad to be back.
After I left Columbia, I went back to our house on the West Coast and spent a year on sabbatical trying to find out what I would do next. I wound up in Arizona at least for a year. But during that time, I got the Ford Foundation to give me a grant, a planning grant. The money just arrived this week and it's my job to spend the money and to figure out ways to encourage multidisciplinary approaches to journalism. I'll figure out some ideas and, if there is more to do, Ford will continue to fund it. It has no real estate involved. It is a virtual center at the moment, and we'll see where it goes.
Ford has played this interesting role in journalism education over the years. There's a report that was issued in 1963 called the "Ford Report." At the time the foundation had four publishers on its board and was very interested in journalism education. This report took a very dismal view of what's going on in both journalism and journalism education. One of the exceptions is that it talks about various schools, including Medill in fact, but it's pretty down on journalism. As a result of this and other activities, Ford spent a lot of resources on journalism. They brought Fred Friendly in, whose focus was primarily on television. They gave a lot of money and started to fund mid-career programs. Then they became very interested in diversity, and they stayed with journalism until the late 1970s. Fred Friendly left, the stock market went down, George Bundy left the Ford Foundation, and they were quiescent until the mid-1990s. Now they're back into it, which is an encouraging sign because there are relatively few people around who want to encourage this kind of thinking.
My focus is wide open, so wide open that it's hard to concretize it, but one way of thinking about it is to go back to the Hutchins Commission report. They were all non-journalists commenting about journalism. And many of the reform efforts today, including a couple which I'm involved in, like the Committee for Concerned Journalist, are all journalists thinking about journalism.
The connection between education and journalism is clear. I can remember vividly the word of the Provost at Columbia who hired me and to whom I reported. He would keep on saying, "Well, if you're so good why is journalism so bad?" I'm not sure there's a causal relationship, but it's worth thinking about it. If you take a view that American journalism isn't all that it can be, I think it's probably fair to say that journalism education isn't all that it can be, so I'm trying to work it through.
Now, Northwestern has broken down some of the walls that exist in other places like Columbia. Let me quote from the charter of the Columbia School of Journalism. It certainly wasn't edited. It goes on and on, and you can find a lot of different ideas to justify just about anything you want to do. There's all sorts of rhetoric. Its model is West Point. And West Point is still in the rhetoric at Columbia, which I think is a rhetoric that should be retired, but it comes from that document. It talks about business and journalism -- and how they should be totally separate. It says that the school should not, could not, teach the business side of journalism, since it would be too corrupting.
"What is a college of journalism?" Pulitzer asked. "It is an institution to train journalists," he answered, "not any business manager or publisher or even proprietor. My hope," he continued, "is that the college of journalism will raise the standard of the editorial profession. But to do this it must mark the distinction between real journalists, and men who do a kind of newspaper work that requires neither culture nor conviction, but merely business training." So he wanted to raise the rank of journalism to that of a learned profession, and he dismissed business as having no place in that scheme. A hundred years later that sounds quaint, but I think it has had a large impact on how we have thought about journalism over the years. I think Medill has overcome that, to its great credit.
My hope here is that I'll talk for a little bit, and then I hope I can get some feedback. My plan is to organize various conferences that have impact, and perhaps to figure out a way to publish a journal that would be different from the current journals. This might be easier than to start from scratch and repair the journals that we now have. I'd like to talk about one course, which I've been talking about for several years. I hope also to encourage people in other disciplines -- Ph.D. students in history, political science and economics -- to think more deeply about journalism. I'd like to provide incentives for these people. There aren't a lot of people thinking about journalism, and I think that's a big shame. I think if you were to look at journalism schools across the country, it would seem like the discipline of journalism is falling off in its appeal. I don't have hard statistics, but it's something this grant will allow me to find out.
One of the courses I think about developing and embedding in a journalism curriculum is something called "Evidence." Do you have a course in research methods here? My sense is that this would be a course much more than research methods. I would hope to examine how different disciplines -- history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, statistics, law, and journalism -- attempt to arrive at the truth. For example, in anthropology the use of sources is optional. You get the names of your sources, but you don't use their names. You don't publish them. Rather, it's John D. or Mary S. But in journalism anonymity is frowned upon. Now why does one work and not the other?
If you look at law, evidence certainly is a subject that is a full-blown course plus. You could adapt that to a journalism context -- and talk about hearsay, which indeed is what much journalism is about. Again, looking at law, there are various standards of proof. It certainly requires more to sustain a conviction at a criminal trial than for the recovery of damages in a civil action. And so on the scale of proof, what is journalistic proof? What's good enough? I'm not sure that journalists think enough about that. Of course something like this would have quantitative literacy, the basics of statistics and research, and it would examine how we use documents.
I taught a course at Stanford last year, and it was the first time I saw term papers all done on Google. They were pretty basic topics, and I couldn't figure out who the sources were, or why they were there. Then it occurred to me that they had come to the top of Google. Why they had come to the top of Google? It suggests a very different way of thinking about what is good and what's valuable. It's a very different notion to rate information by popularity, which Google does. Also, I suppose there are people around, who, for various personal reasons, want to get to the top of Google. You can manipulate that, which is a different way of thinking about the truth.
In a course like this, and it should be fun, you would start off by showing the movie "Rashomon" and various successor movies. Some readings like "How to Lie With Statistics," " The Historian as a Detective" and "After the Fact" could be offered. I think it would be a valuable course that would be helpful to journalists, and wouldn't be feeding them just spinach.
Similarly, I'd try to enrich courses in journalism interviewing. Figure out how others interview. In journalism it's done in a haphazard way. Related to that is how journalists choose experts. The most recent time I was deposed in a legal proceeding, they spent an hour and a half going through my resume, which is overkill, I believe. But they know whether you have a basis to shoot your mouth off. One of the problems with journalism is that people who shoot their mouth off become experts because they shoot their mouth off. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways, and that may not be the best way to think about expertise.
Now those are a couple of the courses that I would create, and there are lots of other things to talk about. I hope that we can have a conversation. And I'd be happy to answer any questions you have.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to Columbia's ongoing and quite public curriculum review.]
First, I have great affection for Columbia. I went there, and I think it's a great place. But it's not the only place. And it is indeed Socratic, and probably should not be. It may be an incubator for certain things, but it's one of two places in the country where journalism is only taught at the graduate level. It had been a seven-month program when my great innovation as dean, which I say with some sarcasm, was to add a month -- which was the biggest change in the curriculum since 1935. I'm going to get back to your question.
One of the other things I did as dean was to commission a history of the school -- in which I wind up slightly trashed, but you develop a thick skin. In this history, about twenty-five years ago, nothing was new. When Eli Abel left the deanship and was replaced by Oz Elliot, the then President of the University, William McGill, wrote Elliot a letter expressing his concern about the school and its curriculum. "Neither seems to put sufficient stress on the broad base of knowledge and skill necessary for effective reporting on the complex issues confronting America today. The school of journalism in our view is relatively isolated from the rest of the intellectual community."
McGill further remarked that he feared the school was becoming a "glorified employment agency." I suppose if you went back further, you would still call it that. There's always been this clash. With Lee Bollinger, who I actually went to law school with, his perspective is that the school of journalism should be like law school -- particularly the first year of law school. Different people have variable experiences in the first year of law school. I lasted two days before I applied to the journalism school. Lee had a very different experience in that it was life altering. I don't know about your first year of law school, but it was painful! It's the worst, I think, in lots of ways. And this was to be the model for journalism school.
The first year of law school is still pretty much the same today as it always was. It does teach you to think like a lawyer, which is important, and to approach problems as a lawyer would approach them. What Bollinger was saying, early on, was that journalists need to think like journalists. That's what journalism school should do, and I think that's indisputable. How you arrive at that, I think, is a matter of some discussion.
At Columbia -- probably more so than other places, but also less than people think -- the students come with some experience. A lot of people have had terminal degrees in other topics. They're there for eight months because they want to be there for eight months, and they don't want to be there for any longer. What the school wants to do is to improve the students, improve their writing. Every time I've offered courses in history, three people would show up. You'd have a course in writing, and they would knock the door down to get in. There was this insatiable demand for writing and reporting courses, field courses, because that's what they were there for.
To its detriment over the years, Columbia's journalism school did not become much of a part of the University. When I came in, we did a fairly candid self-study, which the rest of the faculty was not real happy about. But it was not for accreditation, but rather just to figure out where to go next. It brought in some people: David Reuben of Syracuse was the chair, Phil Meyer of North Carolina, Geneva Overholser and a couple of others were on this committee. It was very critical of Columbia, and it was critical going back to Joseph Pulitzer's vision, saying that Columbia has constructed a series of walls around the journalism school. You can argue that it's good to do your own thing, and to be independent, but it's probably ultimately not very good, so we tried to knock down those walls that began a hundred years ago.
There's a rich context to what was happening. When Bollinger came in I was puzzled by his way of going about things. I think they've wound up with an excellent person to run the place, but the process, I think, was harmful to the institution. I don't know if it was intended that way or not, but I think it hurt. The fact that I was leaving was certainly no secret, and a search was mounted. The way Columbia does searches is that the provost runs every search for dean. Cole, who was an unsuccessful candidate for president when Bollinger was named, ran a search for my successor. They had a very distinguished search committee of about twelve people. They were very diligent in their work, and they came up with some names. By then, in July of 2002, I had left. They came up with some very interesting names. I thought it was a very high-quality search. Then Bollinger said that he just hadn't been focusing on this and he needed more time to think about it, which is legitimate, even though he had been president of Columbia for six months. But his public statement suggested something slightly different about what Columbia was doing. He used the word "insufficient." He didn't say much more than that, but he elaborated in a column in the "Wall Street Journal" which went a little further. Then the alumni, more so than anyone, got very upset.
Back in 1987 there was an attempt that failed to merge the journalism school with the then School of Library Sciences, and the School of the Arts, and maybe Architecture. Times were tougher in New York then, and the rationale at that point was administrative efficiency. These were the four small schools, put them all together, and they will have greater clout. The Library Sciences and the others were not necessarily logical, but they were trying to fit into this template. There was an outcry at the time, certainly more than last year, and that type of consolidation evaporated. The School of Library Science vanished, which was probably too bad, but the alumni were very vocal.
And I think recently there were echoes of that. I think that the alumni over-interpreted what Bollinger actually said. While all this was playing out, Bollinger named a blue ribbon committee of worthy people and ended up with 36 people. But there was only one person who lived west of the Hudson. I was told that was for budgetary reasons. I don't think anyone was thinking about that except for me, but I thought it sent the wrong message about Columbia. There's a different world out there, and again, it is emblematic of Columbia. One of the things you learn when you spend some time there is that a lot of people there don't think there's a world outside of New York. So, I thought that was symbolically interesting.
Ultimately Nick Lemann wrote the plan for a two-year program, which made it very interesting. He was persuaded to take the job, which I think is great. Both Lee and he wrote a long document, which I think is hard to dispute. It talks about the right values concerning what journalism should do. But it also reads like an undergraduate program -- not one for a graduate school. It shows -- and I know many of my colleagues around the country thought there was an element of arrogance -- what a good undergraduate education should be doing. So you can't say anything wrong about it. It's good stuff, but it's going to be hard to apply directly to Columbia, because the traditions die hard. I am an advocate, and have long been an advocate, of a longer program. Indeed, when I was dean, I got a proposal in front of the president for an experiment for a longer program and it was funded. A couple of years ago, I went and they had set up a pilot two-year program with a dozen or two dozen students. My understanding is that there will be a pilot program for those two dozen students. The good thing of all this is that the president is so far out front about this that it can't fail. You can fund 25. I'm not sure how you can fund 200. So that in the end it worked out pretty well, but the last year and a half have been sort of painful for me to watch.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to journalistic truth.]
For example, in journalism, you talk about two sources, as if there is some magic of two sources. There is no magic. Why do we think there's magic? You need to talk about that. It is, however, a good approach to introducing other ways of evaluating sources.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to what is special about journalism and journalism education.]
I think if I were to start from scratch with the curriculum -- which I will not have the opportunity to do -- I would break down what journalists do in order to know what they are able to do. You could do that in a "regular" reporting course, or there might be other ways to do that. And one of the things that I think gives journalists an advantage is that they can think and perform under deadlines. That is something that is useful no matter what you do. Many others can't do that. One of the things we were exploring in one of the constant curriculum reforms was what people want journalists to do. Thank you.
Copyright 2003 Tom Goldstein. All rights reserved.