Columbia’s J-School Needs to Consider Trollopian Retooling

” In the latter days of July in the year 185-, a most important question was hourly asked … in the Cathedral city of Barchester …. Who was to be the new Bishop? “-Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

Well, in the latter days of July in the year 2002, a most important question was hourly asked in the cathedral city of journalism: Who was to be the new dean of the Columbia School of Journalism? And then the search was called to a halt, and a new question was hourly asked: What the heck is the purpose of Columbia journalism school?

It’s like Barchester Towers all over again, with a twist. You know Barchester Towers , I’m sure: It’s the Trollope novel that revolves around the complicated maneuverings-both personal and theological-that accompany the struggle for power in one of the great bishoprics of Great Britain.

The twist in the Columbia maneuvering is that in July Columbia University’s new president, Lee C. Bollinger, called a halt to the search and decided that what the J-school really needed to do first was search for a mission before a leader could be chosen to fulfill it.

Since Columbia is the High Church of the Journalism Establishment, it was as if, in Barchester Towers , they decided that instead of proceeding with the choice of a new bishop, they would first reassess the entire doctrine of the Trinity, with special reference to the Arminian Heresy and the doctrine of consubstantiation as opposed to transubstantiation. And suddenly, it seemed, all the poobahs and grand commentators on the Meaning of Journalism have gotten their knickers in a twist debating “Whither J-school?” and “What is journalism?” (or at least “What is journalism education?”). It’s a full-fledged identity crisis, so why should I keep my thoughts to myself? (It would be a first.)

And besides, although I never went to J-school (I entered the profession as a fugitive from Yale grad school), I have taught part-time (for three semesters) at Columbia J-school (seminars on what they called “literary journalism.” They asked me back; I just couldn’t cope with the time demands); I’ve also been a recent “Visiting Scholar” at N.Y.U.’s J-school program, and I’m scheduled to be a “Distinguished Visitor” at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism next year (although after they read this, they may have second thoughts about the Visit).

So I’ve had a chance to observe J-schools as a kind of outsider or visitor, and I’ve formed some opinions about the fallacies that oppress the students there-and some suggested remedies.

I have no idea how the new Columbia task force is considering redefining the role of their school (although I was relieved by the recent op-ed in The Times by Michael Janeway, a member of the search committee, that it wouldn’t involve something called “communications studies”).

But I do think much of the debate I’ve seen has been on the wrong question. You have the snobby litterateur types who say, in effect, “I’m so smart and talented that I never needed anything as plebeian as journalism school.” And then you’ve got the reverse snobbery

of “I came up from copy boy to coffee runner at the police shack, and the only real school for real journalists is Experience.”

My feeling from my experience at J-schools is that what most needs to be examined is not the existence of J-schools per se, but the kind of unexamined assumptions about nonfiction writing, about truth and “objectivity,” that one can find deeply embedded in what is taught about journalism.

These assumptions are not universal. There are many who teach at J-school who don’t subscribe to them. But there is something built into the J-school curricula that has a deleterious effect on students. I’m not the only person to observe it: Recently a friend of mine, a very successful and gifted editor who often interviews and works with J-school graduates, summed it up quite eloquently when he said, “They beat the voice out of them.”

It’s a blunt assessment, but one that the Columbia search committee ought to pay attention to, because I fear there’s more than a little truth to it-at least judging from my encounters with many bright, eager students at Columbia and N.Y.U. who have been intimidated by the ruling ideology of the J-school teaching profession into internalizing a contempt, even moral condemnation for the individual writer’s voice in nonfiction.

Many of the students who’d signed up for the classes I taught or spoke to were ostensibly seeking to find their own voices as writers. They were idealistically, if quixotically, seeking to write long nonfiction pieces for the dwindling number of magazines that publish them. It’s an ambition that’s not entirely quixotic because such stories often lead to book contracts, and long nonfiction is flourishing in book publishing (at least compared to magazines).

By the way, the loss of magazine venues for this kind of writing can almost entirely be blamed on the cumulative effect of the various genius “magazine consultants” and other self-proclaimed experts charging exorbitant sums to parrot the simple-minded “wisdom” that readers don’t have the attention span to read long stories anymore. Um, fellas, you genius consultant guys: Readers have been known to enjoy reading even longer -type stories if they’re good. These are called “books,” a term you may not be familiar with (you can look it up online if you need help). It’s self-evident, or should be, that a long magazine story is not as long as one of these “books.” So length is not the problem, is it?

So the cultural situation awaiting the students I dealt with was not ideal, but I admired their idealism in the face of the odds and felt sad they’d been shackled with a set of J-school fallacies that make things even more difficult, that “beat the voice out of them.”

I think it has to do with the fact that J-schools profess to teach two kinds of writing: “straight reporting” (you can see the assumption of superiority built into the very phrase), and the kind of longer-form nonfiction still published in places like Harper’s , The Atlantic and The New Yorker , among others. One doesn’t necessarily need an individual “voice” in straight reporting, but “voice” is often what distinguishes work in those other long-form venues. But the atmosphere of J-schools is dominated by those who sneer at anything but voiceless journalism-a sneer that is confusing to students and is, alas, based on philosophic fallacies. Beginning with:

1) The Fallacy of Third-Person “Objectivity” : There’s a strong current of J-school theology that worships the third person as if it were the Third Person of the Trinity, and that despises the First Person with a puritanical fervor, as if “I” were Satan’s Own Pronoun.

Over and over again in J-school classes, students who had internalized this theology would ask me plaintively, “How can you justify using the first person-isn’t the third person more ‘objective’?” Or, literally, “Are you sure it’s O.K. to use the first person?” I almost felt as if I were in Oliver Twist’s orphanage: “Please, sir, can I have my voice?”

Not that voice is only a matter for the first person; voice can be communicated in the third person as well. But is the third person intrinsically more “objective”? In a word, no. The third person is certainly appropriate in most straight news stories. We don’t need Congressional reporters to tell us, “Whoa, dude, I was really stoked when they voted to table that supplemental-appropriations bill!” But as for being more objective: The third person gives the illusion of objectivity, yes, but often at the cost of sweeping under the rug all doubts, skepticism, conflicting evidence and differing perspectives in order to present to the reader the simulacrum of a pristine, godlike perspective of Ultimate Truth.

The third person is like the Great and Powerful Oz of journalism-a schlumpy little guy hiding behind a curtain, exaggerating his omniscience.

Meanwhile, the first person is looked down upon as a kind of louche corrupter of the pure, shining truth. When, in fact, a case can be made that the first person is often more objective, more honest than the third person. The first person lays its cards on the table; the first person says, “This is not coming from God or some Platonic repository of truth, but from a single, fallible individual.” It can be abused, sure; it can be used disingenuously-but it can’t hide its singularity of point of view. At its best, first-person journalism lets its readers into the process and tells them: “This is what I took into account; this is how I arrived at my perspective; these are my doubts and hesitations. Take it for what it is.” By the way, “voice” doesn’t mean pure impressionism; it’s something that grows out of intense reporting experience and disciplined soul-searching.

While those who use the first person are often accused by J-school types of “narcissism,” in fact there’s far more humility than the pretense of godlike objectivity in the third person. That’s narcissism. Again, I’m not arguing there aren’t places where the third person is more appropriate-but lighten up, J-school guys, on the moral condemnation of the first person. It’s exactly the kind of thing my editor friend was speaking of when he said, “They beat the voice out of them”

2) The Second J-School Fallacy might be called The Fallacy of What Is Really “Hard News.”

The idea that “hard news” is only about politics, economics and diplomacy is built into J-school ideology. Despite recent events that have demonstrated rather dramatically that such “soft news” subjects as theology are really hard news, reporting about ideas, about cultural questions (not just “the arts,” in which J-schools tend to train narrowly genre-focused

reviewers), has only recently begun to get a foothold in J-schools-largely, I think, due to the influence of the late, lamented Lingua Franca , whose “journalism of ideas” I strenuously promoted in my classes. (Great news! According to The Times , Lingua Franca founder Jeffrey Kittay may be on the verge of reviving the magazine, which suspended publication a year ago. Memo to Columbia’s search committee: Search no further-solve your problems by bringing Lingua Franca into the J-school.)

Even in investigative reporting, the J-school ideology holds that the really important investigative stories are about political and corporate corruption. It’s still important to “follow the money,” as Deep Throat enjoined Woodward and Bernstein, in order to expose corruption and hidden agendas in politics; but it’s equally important to “follow the ideas” in order to expose the fallacies, the unexamined assumptions of conventional wisdom, the bogus expertise that often underlies politics and culture.

But the hierarchy of J-school-approved subjects of investigation tends to reflect the hierarchy of the newspapers it was designed to serve, which reflects the hierarchy of the political system it reports on. Meanwhile, someone investigating the special ideology of Wahhabism might have made us more aware of what was going on both before and after Sept. 11. But the idea of reporting on theology does not have the prestige of “hard news” at most J-schools. The “hard news” culture of J-school doesn’t encourage deep, skeptical examination of the received wisdom of expertise; it cultivates, instead, a reverence for credentialed experts.

In fact, I’d argue that the journalism of ideas is not only harder news than conventional hard news professes to be, it’s harder to report as well. All the more reason-if J-school has a mission at all-to make that a part of it.

3) The third, perhaps most controversial of what I’m calling the Three Fallacies of J-School might be called The Anti-Sensationalist Fallacy .

Beneath this fallacy lies the belief that the only real news is official news of state: news of politics and economics, news made by legislative bodies rather than human bodies, news made by people with credentials.

Cast into outer darkness and dismissed as “sensationalism” is news that involves the tragedies of ordinary non-credentialed people. I want to make clear a distinction between tabloid or “true crime” stories and celebrity journalism. Celebrity journalism is about famous people doing insignificant things. The best tabloid stories, by contrast, deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary, often tragic circumstances. And isn’t the most important story of all-the hardest of hard news-how we cope with the inevitable tragedies of life, with suffering, death and mortality? Are people to be condemned for caring about these stories?

Yes, if you listen to most J-school professors and administrators, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time giving sound bites and writing op-eds condemning “sensationalism” or “tabloidism,” without any evident understanding of why these stories are just as important as maneuvering over campaign finance.

I’ve questioned this knee-jerk assumption before: see my essay, which originally appeared in Harper’s and is reprinted in my recent nonfiction collection The Secret Parts of Fortune, in which I posed what might be called “the Federalist Papers defense” of tabloid stories, as well as “the Anna Karenina defense.” In the latter I’ve argued that from the very beginning, great literature was drawing on tabloid-type material: The Homeric epics revolve around the way the sordid affairs and sexual jealousies of the gods influence the fate of men and nations, for instance. And Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a novel that could have been built upon a New York Post headline: “STRAYING WIFE THROWS SELF UNDER EXPRESS.” Yes, it was a work of fiction, but many landmarks of 20th-century nonfiction-such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , Joan Didion’s post-Manson essays on California in The White Album and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song -were built upon sensational tabloid slayings.

But I think the Federalist Papers defense might be more persuasive in this context, since it’s founded on civic and political questions. Theories of the ideal polity, as the authors of The Federalist Papers recognized, are founded on theories of human nature. And the nature of human nature-particularly the effect of unchecked passions on human nature-is exactly what tabloid stories put under the microscope. The authors of The Federalist Papers were obsessed with “passions” and the body politic in much the same way that tabloid stories are obsessed with passions and the individual body. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison constructed and defended the system of Constitutional checks and balances on the grounds that they were necessary to check the easily inflamed passions of the populace. Tabloid stories are a reminder of the darkness within human nature that pure democracy is not always a defense against.

O.K., now that I’ve outlined the fallacies, let me suggest a few remedies:

1) Think of J-school as a school of nonfiction rather than just journalism. Some of the best, most challenging journalism is being done not in newspapers, but in books and magazines. But J-schools don’t recognize this in the hierarchical ideology that puts daily-paper “straight reporting” at the pinnacle. Make a J-school education as much about writing as it is about reporting, and about more than one kind of nonfiction-writing books, for example, or documentary filmmaking.

2) Add a curriculum for future editors . Why all the browbeating and “boot camp” for future reporters and writers, and virtually no education for editors by comparison? I personally have been fortunate to work with only flawless paragons of the editing profession. But I’ve heard that there are editors out there who don’t know the difference between line-editing and wholesale rewriting that imposes their voice; editors who “beat the voice” out of writers (check out Simon Dumenco’s excellent recent essay on the subject in Folio online). Let’s just say that disparity in skills among editors is at least as great as among writers. Here’s where J-schools can fill a need. If writing can’t be taught, maybe editing can.

3) Teach close reading as a journalistic skill. The thing that surprised me when I left graduate school for journalism was how much the close-reading training I’d had in the Yale English department served me when I lucked out and became a journalist with no formal training. The attentiveness to texts I learned studying the 17th-century Metaphysical poets (not to mention an attunement to the theological dimensions of experience one gets from them) proved to be of extraordinary practical use in the close reading of court transcripts, autopsy reports and Congressional testimony for telling ambiguities that were often trap doors to the real story beneath the surface of the text or the interview.

4) Don’t abandon the police shack; don’t abandon cops and courts and corpses. Here I hold with the hard-core old-school types: I believe the few weeks I spent traveling with the police reporter of the daily newspaper I once worked on, and the many subsequent encounters with homicide cops (whose gallows humor is, in some profound way, theological) and assorted underworld types in and out of court, was perhaps the most valuable training I had as a journalist. Before you can speculate about the meaning of mortality, spend some time in a morgue. (Even “arts” journalists ought to, since all great art deals in some way with mortality.) I recall that when I was briefly editing a short-lived but influential journalism review called MORE , we asked a number of eminent reporters-among them two of MORE ‘s founders, David Halberstam and the late J. Anthony Lukas-to talk about the time they spent as police reporters, and it was revelatory how much of an influence that raw, unmediated confrontation with reality and mortality had on them.

And besides that, look at Murray Kempton: He never stopped covering the courts-and brilliantly so-into his 80’s. I rest my case. Frankly, I’m all for J-schools redefining their identity, but the collected works of Murray Kempton and some time on the police beat might be all the education an aspiring journalist who can’t afford Columbia needs.