Journalism 101: Gore’s Audience Taught Not to Report His Speech

When Al Gore talks at the Columbia School of Journalism, young reporters listen. They’re just not supposed to talk about it afterwards.

Mr. Gore, the Almost President of the United States, delivered his first lecture at Columbia on Tuesday,Feb.6.The former Vice President, now pecking around for busy work, has agreed to give a series of talks to journalism students during the school’s spring semester.

But what could have been an intriguing classroom experience is shaping into a classic ivory-tower boondoggle. In a move that is sure to make Joseph Pulitzer and Edward R. Murrow roll simultaneously in their graves, Columbia–home to what many consider to be the most prestigious J-school in the land–has slapped a gag order upon Mr. Gore’s students, prohibiting them from quoting the Vice President’s lectures to outsiders.

“What is the school afraid of?” asked one Columbia student, who also directed the same inquiry at Mr. Gore.

Many members of the university community were reluctant to discuss the gag order and its genesis. According to David Klatell, associate dean of the journalism school, the gag order was all his idea. While Mr. Gore was clear from the beginning that he did not want press in his classroom–no pool, no video cameras, not even a Webcast–it was not until 8:30 p.m. the night before Mr. Gore’s first class that Mr. Klatell decided to declare the whole thing “off the record.” The dean said he did not want a classroom full of students rushing off to file reports to professional news organizations on what Mr. Gore said every week.

But even though Mr. Klatell’s taking all the credit, the popular consensus among the students is that Mr. Gore was leading the charge.

One thing is clear: The gag has backfired. Instead of alleviating tensions by allowing Mr. Gore and his students to speak freely in class, without microphones and cameras in their faces–the order’s presumed intention–the directive has created a three-ring media circus in Morningside Heights.

“I felt like Princess Diana!” said one of Mr. Gore’s students, who was forced to wade through a throng of info-starved reporters and photographers on the way to the Vice President’s teaching debut.

Worse than the media crush, however, are the charges that Columbia’s gag order–in a school where students are taught about everything from John Peter Zenger to the Pentagon Papers–represents the worst kind of pointy-headed hypocrisy. If Mr. Gore insisted on the gag order, critics said, the university should have told him to take a hike. If it was the administration’s idea, they should be ashamed.

“When you’re dealing with an academic institution, I think this [gag order] is a very dangerous device to use,” said Harvey Silverglate, the prominent civil liberties lawyer who is an expert on university speech codes.

Mr. Silverglate said he could think of only a few, limited instances in which a gag order upon students might be warranted. One possible scenario might be if a practicing lawyer or a judge spoke to a class about sensitive material in their cases. But in both cases, he said, those professionals are already under strict ethical codes as to what they can and cannot divulge.

Mr. Silverglate said he could not think of a reason why such a broad gag order might be necessary for Mr. Gore–especially given the fact that Mr. Gore intends to lecture about government and public policy, not nuclear secrets.

“I would say that [gag order] constitutes an excess of secrecy that is not healthy for an academic environment,” Mr. Silverglate said.

It’s clear that the gag order has Mr. Gore’s students spooked. Ambitious students–who once had candy-colored dreams of stringing assignments dancing in their heads–are now calling up their editors and bailing out. Other students, frightened of repercussions from university administrators if they speak out, sounded more like knock-kneed P.R. trainees than fledgling Woodwards and Bernsteins.

“Honestly, the most annoying and intrusive part of the day was the press,” said J-school student Kimberly Atkins.

As for the journalism school’s administrators and faculty members–many of them current and former press hounds themselves–they weren’t exactly staging sit-ins to protest the gag order.

On Friday, Feb. 2, Richard Wald–one of the Columbia professors who is teaching the National Affairs Reporting seminar along with Mr. Gore–sent an e-mail to students asking them to “respect the school’s wish that the sessions be off the record.”

Mr. Wald also forwarded to his students the instructions from Mr. Klatell that anyone enrolled in the class needed to be in the classroom at least 15 minutes early, ready to present their student ID to a Secret Service agent and to Mr. Klatell himself. Backpacks were discouraged, since they would have to be searched for any prohibited cameras or recorders, “which will slow up the proceedings.”

On the plus side, Mr. Wald told his future Pulitzer nominees that souvenir pictures with Mr. Gore were still an “item in discussion.”

But on the larger point of the gag order, the students lost. In a conversation with Off the Record, Mr. Klatell cited the large number of students who were linking up with news outlets in order to cover the story. “I got several additional calls from news organizations saying they had hired, or wanted to hire, students in the class to act as a string,” Mr. Klatell told Off the Record. He added, “A number of students made it plain to the faculty and me that they were offering themselves to news organizations to act as their surrogate, asking questions fed to them by the paper.”

This state of affairs, Mr. Klatell concluded, was turning Mr. Gore’s class from a “pedagogical exercise” into a “news conference.”

Mr. Klatell said he did consult with Mr. Gore’s representatives at several points, though the final decision was his own. For his part, the former Vice President was adamantly opposed to any recording inside the classroom. “We offered several alternatives, including audio recording, pooled video and Webcasting. None was accepted,” Mr. Klatell said, “which is his right, as it is the right of any faculty member or lecturer.”

Just hours before the class was due to start at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, opposition to the gag order began to build, even among the faculty. Mr. Wald wrote his students that he would personally intervene against the “off the record” dicta. “I will speak to the Vice President before class begins to see if he wants to change his mind. If there is any change, I will make sure it is announced in class.” But that change did not occur. A student present for Mr. Gore’s lecture said that the gag order was reiterated at the end of the former Vice President’s talk.

Still wondering what Mr. Gore talked about at Columbia? Dean Klatell, gag-breaker, offered a summary.

He talked about TV news. He talked about satellites. He talked about Somalia. He talked about the Internet. He talked about Presidential press conferences. He talked about Dwight D. Eisenhower.

He did not talk about the First Amendment. But he did pose for photos!

Time Inc.’s in-house employee magazine FYI typically serves the mundane needs of life in the Time-Life Building, answering workplace questions like “How do I make sure I’m getting the proper discount for gift subscriptions for relatives?” and “Are we sure that the papers in the office recycling bins are actually being recycled?”

Recently, however, FYI tried taking on a new role: playing Cupid for lovelorn Time-Life staffers. It all started when an anonymous employee dropped a lipstick-stained cocktail-napkin note in the magazine’s mailbox, one that bemoaned the struggles of the company’s “underrepresented” single men and women. The letter-writer proposed an employee organization called “SEAT (Single Employees at Time )” that would host “monthly happy hours for all singles, which could lead to at least a few couplings.”

The magazine balked at the singles’ happy-hour idea. But FYI did decide to pitch in by welcoming personal ads in its Feb. 9 issue. “It is our responsibility to take on the task,” the magazine declared.

Sadly, however, the in-house organ appears to have overestimated just how hot and bothered Time-Life staffers are. According to FYI writer Steve Justice, the magazine has received just five personal ads.

“There were a lot of people who said they were interested in doing it,” Mr. Justice said. “But then there were a lot of people who were too shy to do it.”

Mr. Justice said those five brave personal ads won’t run until FYI has more of a response. So get cracking, Joel Stein!

Mr. Justice didn’t sound optimistic. “If we get more response, maybe we’ll go ahead and run the ads in the next issue,” he said. “But other than that, we’ll probably just let it fade away.”