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Taking Bollinger's Course on the American Press
by Jay Rosen

Not long ago, Columbia University's new president, Lee C. Bollinger, suspended the search for dean of the Graduate School of Journalism. In a statement calling the faculty to a period of reflection, he asked for "a greater sense of shared understanding within the University of where we hope to go" before deciding on a new dean.

Quoted in The New York Times, Bollinger said the school was now "waiting to be turned into something special." Just what that was he did not indicate. But it's obvious he has ideas on the subject, and intends to put them forward. Bollinger is questioning the balance between two curricular aims in the modern journalism school. One builds the basic skills of reporting and editing. The other enlarges the understanding that future journalists will place behind those skills. "To teach the craft of journalism is a worthy goal but clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university," Bollinger wrote to his faculty.

Those are fighting words to some, who have said to the university's head officer: "Hands off. Craft is sacred; what you inject is alien or extraneous to journalism." Well, they're wrong. First, Bollinger, as president, has a legitimate interest in his professional schools. What can be extraneous about that? Second, as an intellectual, he has thought about the press in depth, through the big window that his own field, law, and journalism share:press liberty.

What luck: a new president who is a First Amendment scholar of high reputation. The son of an editor and publisher of an Oregon newspaper, he has said that he finds the issues facing the journalism school at Columbia "exhilarating" to think about and discuss. It sounds to me as if he's serious. And his call for study and reflection should be taken seriously. For this could be the most important turn of events in half a century in journalism education.

Personally, I hope Bollinger's gamble succeeds— although I am not totally sure I should be rooting for him. I chair the journalism program at New York University, 112 blocks to the south in Manhattan. We're in competition with Columbia for the best students and ideas. But then no one can compete with owning the Pulitzer Prizes, which Columbia awards; there is only one Ivy League diploma in journalism, only one Columbia Journalism Review. Columbia is a category of one—the Harvard of J-schools—and for that reason a national leader. What it does matters: to the press establishment, especially its huge chapter in New York City, but also to journalism educators. Bollinger knows that. What happens over the next six months should be intriguing.

Certainly there are some who agree that the time is right to re-examine things. But there is a vocal group, including many accomplished alumni, who see an attack coming on the intense, demanding year of training in journalism's basic skills and principles. They warn of a disastrous shift to academic subjects like media theory or mass communication, although Bollinger has said nothing about either. They charge him with meddling in something he does not understand; with copying other university programs by promoting specialized research. In short, with cluelessness.

That kind of response underestimates Bollinger. As a legal thinker he has wrestled at length with the institution of the American press and the way its fortunes affect society. He is tuned in to how journalists can miseducate us and become a danger to democracy. He's written on the threat that private media ownership, concerned mainly with profits, poses to a public good like journalism. (That issue is perhaps the most serious one in professional circles today, generating anxiety everywhere.) The man does not come from nowhere in this debate, although few of his critics seem to realize it.

A weird fact about the discussion so far is that it virtually ignores Bollinger's quite relevant 1991 book, Images of a Free Press. The point of the book is that we have one "central image" of the press, standing guard against an atavistic state and serving as the eyes and ears of the public. Thus: Hands off the media in the name of the public's right to know. That is the lesson that most journalism students inhale. It isn't wrong, Bollinger argues, but they need more. They also need to see how the press does—and does not—foster the kind of quality debate required if the people are to make democracy work.

The man does not come from nowhere in this debate, although few of his critics seem to realize it.

Each view of the press is supported by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but the images diverge. One pictures the modern state, aggressive and powerful, with a free press trying to shine the light, open the files, ask the tough questions. Here the press represents an absent public. A second, more fugitive image opens with modern citizens who struggle to be heard in the public arena. Here the press decides who gets heard, and when. Thus when we make decisions about limiting freedom of the press, we need to remember that the press is an actor that influences those decisions, Bollinger says. The institution has a case to make for itself and its own understanding of the First Amendment, and it has made it well — to society and to the Supreme Court. (Indeed, with some awe, Bollinger notes that the press has had a more successful record than any litigant before the last three, very different, courts.)

Think of All the President's Men and its success in casting journalists as heroes of Watergate, which of course recasts Watergate. Think about polls and the way journalists have helped write them into politics. Bollinger sees how the common practices of journalism—which include common lapses—shape the contours of the public arena and make the world what it is. "The press can exclude important points of view, operating as a bottleneck in the marketplace of ideas," he says. "It can fuel ignorance and pettiness by avoiding public issues altogether, favoring simple-minded fare or cheap entertainment over serious discussion. Even if the pressures for low-quality discussion come from the people themselves, as to some extent they do, the press acts harmfully by responding to those demands and, hence, reinforcing them."

Those are not original criticisms. What's different about stepping into Bollinger's world is that, in it, the press not only observes and reports freely, it acts upon us with its freedom. It's an institution with a brain, of sorts. It has ideas and priorities—not just information—that it wants to get out into the world. It is always forming, as well as informing, the public, framing debate as it relays the news. It can be reckless and brainless, and must be watched.

Were I on the faculty at Columbia, I'd pester Bollinger to teach a course with a title like "Conflicting Images of a Free Press." It would be exhilarating — especially if students (and teachers) began to see how varying images of the press could yield different types of journalism, different instructions to professional conscience. What Bollinger knows is valuable but distant from "newsroom knowledge" — the nuts and bolts of daily practice. Students would go to him for the deep grammar of the press in American commercial and public life, the original pattern into which the nuts and bolts fit.

Bollinger's scholarship matters in this discussion because it helps us understand why there is an autonomous school of journalism at an elite research university: The press both shapes and is fortified by a leading professional school like Columbia's. That's why, I think, Bollinger is now asking Columbia to open up the discussion of its curriculum. To enlarge the understanding of craft that gets passed along.

The press is a national institution, with its own establishment that distributes prestige and extends legitimacy to people seen as duly "professional" and achievements seen as noteworthy and virtuous. That establishment also rules things out — like The National Enquirer and Matt Drudge.

What's different about stepping into Bollinger's world is that, in it, the press not only observes and reports freely, it acts upon us with its freedom. It's an institution with a brain, of sorts

Because Columbia is a key part of such an institution, its journalism school is not only a training ground but an imparter of virtue. Very important rituals are enacted there. That's what the Pulitzer Prizes, Dupont Awards in broadcast journalism, and National Magazine Awards are about: They certify recipients and practices as virtuous and first-rate. "Darts and Laurels," a long-running feature of the Columbia Journalism Review, throws objects at bad journalism and cheers exceptional cases of the Good. Students absorb the overall lesson, and it is one of the things they find inspiring about the school.

It is interesting to note that, while there are Pulitzer Prizes in many categories, they do not include "outstanding service in improving the quality of public debate." Nor is there one for self-criticism, nor public accountability. The central image that underlies the press's view of autonomy doesn't encourage the institution to think along those lines.

All that means that the great intellectual center known as Columbia University is involved, through its professional school, in defining greatness in the press. Bollinger, I suspect, wants to know from his faculty members something like this: What is the university adding to the wisdom of the craft in journalism?

Skeptics of Bollinger's call to rethink the curriculum believe that material alien and useless to journalism will be grafted onto basic training. They point to offerings in schools of communication as warning signs. Others more friendly to the university say journalists should become learned in areas they cover by specializing in, say, the arts or urban policy. Such programs exist (at NYU we have three), and they work.

But perhaps (and I speculate here) Bollinger wants to broaden the curriculum not only with material from the disciplines, but also by making Columbia a place where new virtues get crafted for the next era of practice. Maybe he believes that the "something special" the school should become needs to take into consideration what's exceptional about the American press: writer of the codes for public life, information source for citizens, and broadcaster to other journalists around the world. Maybe Bollinger thinks a school that's a category of one should be the one to change some categories in journalism.

His faculty—and the rest of us—would be foolish not to engage him on that.

This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 6, 2002

Jay Rosen is chairman of the department of journalism and mass communication at New York University and author of What Are Journalists For? (Yale University Press, 1999).

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