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Wimps of the Roundtable and Other Challenges for Journalism Schools
by Wayne Robins
Last summer there was a sorrowful letter posted by a Chicago-area newspaper writer on journalism's online Village Green, Jim Romenesko's Media News. The reporter lamented being on the receiving end of Harrison Ford's sneer, a sneer of no small contempt.
Reason: The reporter had begun a disastrous roundtable interview with Ford, who was promoting his Russian submarine movie "K-19," by asking a question about a previous Ford movie, the title of which the reporter couldn't recall. It was downhill from there.
The reporter sulked in print about the star's boorishness, without acknowledging his own lack of preparation. He was fortunate Ford did not revert to an earlier role and deliver the hack 19 lashes with Indiana Jones' bullwhip.
Didn't anybody teach these people how to conduct a celebrity interview? Didn't anyone teach them the rule that you always open with a question about the new project, and keep asking them? Then I realized: Of course not.
I suspect that this problem, of journalists unequipped to lob even a softball to Harrison Ford, much less throw him the curve at which he would swing, did not give a restless moment to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger as he suspended the search for a new Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism in order to reevaluate the mission of the program.
How to interview a dim movie star, or offkey rock musician, or inarticulate author or colorless painter, and how to critique such artistic endeavors, is not something one learns at many of our prestigious (or not) university journalism departments. For that matter, one doesn't learn how to engage in what for the well-trained arts writer is frequently the delightful exception.
In my experience, some have been memorable. An hour long interview with Jack Nicholson turned into a one-to-one master class on the art of acting and directing once the necessities--a thorough interrogation about The New Movie--were dispensed with. An opportunity to talk with Pete Townshend of The Who, whether he was peddling a solo album or a Who reunion--would often elevate into a learned discourse on the esthetics of rock once reporter and subject had examined the details of the artist's current endeavor. This is essential: That's why they call it News.
Which is why its disheartening that almost all aspects of the debate about the journalism education--shoe leather vs. Ivory Tower, boot camp vs. intellectual inquiry, how to vs. what for?--revolve around the preparation for hard news reporting as if it's not just the soul but the sole definition of journalism. And it's not.
But Bollinger missed an opportunity to make that point. In opening day remarks to the Columbia J-school's student and faculty on August 1, 2002, he said: "You will change fields many times...You will go out and report on higher education for a few years. Then you will go to the Hong Kong bureau and report on China. Then you will go to Europe and think about unification and the euro, and it will go from there."
That's changing fields? It sounds like sequential assignments in the same field. Changing fields in journalism might be going from sportswriter to rock critic--as Tony Kornheiser did for six months while a restless star at Newsday in 1975. I followed Kornheiser as Newsday's rock critic but I stayed longer: 18 years longer on the pop beat, from which I also did various other entertainment criticism and features, from dance criticism to movie interviews before I also changed fields: to a feature writer and reporter in the food section.
Bollinger's remarks reinforce what some perceive as Columbia J-school's mission: Not to quench the thirst for knowledge in a university curriculum, but to develop Bigfoots to run the national and foreign desks at the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Time. (With an undergraduate degree from Middlebury College in Russian studies, or HarvardYalePrinceton in AsianLatinAmericanMiddleEastern politics, you may take the express elevator). If you haven't had that kind of undergraduate preparation, that's okay, since it's not hard to imagine a "Key Phrases for English Speaking Journalists" course at Columbia, in which future overseas bureau chiefs learn to say: "No more shark fin tea for me, Mr. Prime Minister," or "This banquet has been quite delicious, especially the fried grasshopper, Your Excellency."
But does the Columbia curriculum, or that of any J-school, teach the fledgling star to write features about why they are eating fried grasshopper, and whether or not the grasshoppers are really oustanding, or whether they are just the same old fried grasshopper politicians in that nation must eat at fund-raisers on that country's "rubber grasshopper circuit"? (Tastes just like rubber chicken). Imagine being able to tell the Prime Minister: "These are swell, but they were more meaty, though less crunchy, when we sauteed them in my Cooking, Food, and Writing class at Columbia." Or NYU. Or Medill. Or Berkeley, or College Park, Md., or USC.
Immersing oneself in the ethnic neighborhoods of a cosmopolitan city is one way of training news reporters. But without more vision and daring in the curriculum back on campus, the student journalist can only skim the surface.
I'm trying not to pick on Columbia. In fact, it would be nice to praise Columbia for using its stature to engage the future of journalism by engaging its great young minds in an innovative program of feature and style writing courses. But it ain't in the readings.
Writing With Style gives us John McPhee, Joan Didion, Jane Kramer, Tracy Kidder and George Orwell. Great writers and reporters all.
But The Art of the Profile gives us John McPhee, Joan Didion, Jane Kramer, Susan Orlean and Gay Talese. A pattern has developed.
Techniques of Feature Writing: McPhee, Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe's stale and dated "Girl of the Year." It is a rigid and robotic pattern.
The Critic as Journalist and Essayist takes a wide historical tack, with readings by George Orwell, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Mark Twain, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Janet Malcolm, Pauline Kael, Arlene Croce, Anthony Lane, Wolcott Gibbs, Michael Arlen and others who could make the case for calling the course "The History of the New Yorker."
Opinion Writing features "old masters" H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell, with some refreshingly zesty Contemporary writers: Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott, Edward Said and Katha Pollitt, George Will and Charles Krauthammer,and Dave Barry and...Bruce McCall? (A two-word paper on Bruce McCall's oeuvre might read, "Not funny," but that's just one opinion.)
These aren't reading lists, plural: It is a continuum of repetitiveness that is, with rare exception, crusty, rusty, musty and fusty. It is provincial rather than provocative because it reduces journalism to a canon, the essence of which is at odds with the dynamism, alertness, and continual evolution that arts, feature and opinion journalism requires.
With rare exception, the arts/style curriculum is frozen in time and in style. Where is Lester Bangs? Not to mention Greil Marcus, Nick Tosches, Tony Kornheiser, Hunter Thompson, Ishmael Reed, Robert Hughes, Molly Ivins, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Danny Schecter, Ron Rosenbaum, Stephen Holden, Stanley Crouch, Robert Christgau, Toure', Dave Marsh, Terry Teachout, Ronin Ro, Maureen Dowd, James Lileks, Camille Paglia, J. Hoberman, R, Meltzer, Peter Rainer, Nick Kent, Owen Glieberman, Peter Guralnick, Tom Carson, William Safire, Ariel Swartley, Lewis Grizzard, Ken Tucker, Kristine McKenna, David Fricke, Simon Frith, Nelson George, James Kilpatrick, Jon Landau, Ruth Reichl and Steve Dunleavy? For example. For discussion of the rip-roaring variety.
Some of these people, I know, have been recipients of, or discussed in, Columbia's National Arts Journalism Program, a plum for mid-career practitioners. The field is thereby tokenized. Arts and entertainment, though, needs to be integrated into the mainstream of journalism education.
There are two great tribulations facing newspapers today, and they are intertwined. One is the graying of its audience, their perceived irrelevance to those whose ears don't perk up at advertisements for hair growing or cholesterol-reducing remedies. The other is the uniform dullness, shallowness and repetitiveness of the arts, entertainment, style and feature sections that might grab and hold the reader under age 45.
It seems to be a law: Every Sunday arts section must have a photograph of the star of the week's most-hyped movie on its cover. Whatever appears aside from more pictures of the star on the 4-5 spread is almost irrelevant. These stories are invariably written by a small handful of the same Los Angeles or New York-based freelance, wire service, or syndicated writers who esentially write the same story each week: Only the names change. And yet editors complain that they are at the mercy of increasingly brazen press agents, whose control and spin tactics make those of the Bush White House seem less stringent than a tailgate party.
James Warren, Deputy Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune's Features section, came to oversee the arts and entertainment section of his paper from the news side. He aroused a tempest when he ordered that the Tribune's reporters would no longer sit in hotel rooms getting the same prepared quotes from the stars of the month. He endured some criticism when he suggested as a "for example," going to a ball game at Comiskey Park.
Some thought Warren was endorsing the manufacturing of a media event, an artificial framing of the story. I don't think that's what he meant. I think he meant, if Johnny Depp likes baseball, let's watch some baseball, get to know a different side of the actor while at the same time getting The News about his new movie or play. It's harder work for the writer too: You have to create and frame a narrative beyond received images of the celebrity, without leaning on the "Johnny Depp likes mustard and onions on his hot dogs" observations to replace penetrating questions about the work he does.
Because ultimately, it's all about the work, whether its covering the cops and courts or Eminem or Emily Watson, the young British actress ("Angela's Ashes," "Red Dragon"), who, I had found out, is a big fan of North London's Arsenal football club. I would've loved to take Emily Watson to some pub or sports bar to drink some lager and watch some football...I mean, soccer. It would've been too much to hope that Arsenal might be playing Manchester United on the TV, but it would have made for a more interesting story frame than sitting in a hotel room while she sipped tea for 35 minutes recovering from jet lag. I was freelancing at the time, but I wish my editor would have banned hotel room interviews, too. If the press agent said no, well, maybe instead of interviewing stars who have made it, maybe we should be in the business of getting out and finding who next year's stars will be, and slapping a Surprise on the Sunday features cover rather than the same celebrity on all the other covers that week.
When Patti Smith, the high priestess of poetic punk, finally had a hit record, I'd already profiled her for Newsday. Now she was on my editors' radar, so it was time to do her again. I suggested going shopping. We hopped in a cab and went to Bergdoff, where she had ordered some custom-tailored leather clothes. While waiting at Bergdoff, we simultaneously spotted a killer pair of rock star pants on a rack, velvet or silk black and silver pin stripes that Keith Richards could wear onstage. We each tried them on: Patti's looked blah; mine fit like I only needed a guitar before hopping onstage. They were, of course, forbiddingly expensive. "If I was Elvis, I'd buy 'em for you," Smith said with a sigh that revealed the depth of her desire, ambition and generosity that never would've come across in a suite at the St. Regis.
To meet your subject on common ground, that of mutual professionalism and skill, goes a long way towards making your newspaper an object of the readers attention, respect, and enjoyment. It might even make journalism education worthy of the same. But let's can the canon, or at least spike it up. If you don't have interesting thinkers writing, you don't have interesting newspapers.
Wayne Robins has journalism degrees from the University of Colorado, Boulder (B.S.1972), and New York University (M.A., 1999). He was the Elizabeth Arden-Chen Sam Fellow in NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program (1997-1998), and taught Critical Writing at NYU in 1998 and 1999. email: firstname.lastname@example.org blog: http://wayneRobins.blogspot.com.
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