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Time to Retire All the Old Arguments About Journalism School
By William Serrin

Lee Bollinger comes from the University of Michigan, which has not ever seriously entertained the notion of journalism education. (Someone I know says that he took a journalism course there in 1969 and the professor, a journalist from a Milwaukee paper, taught the entire course wearing a fedora). Generally, when you hear of persons like, say, Tom Hayden, who write and who attended the University of Michigan, these people came out of the excellent student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, which has no connection with any university department.

Bollinger, a lawyer specializing in the First Amendment (and not a bad guy), comes to Columbia, having been rejected by Harvard and having said that one of the things that bothered him at Michigan was that he was being paid less than the football coach. He now, like most presidents and chief executives, wants to gain control of the hiring process at one of the nation's most visible schools, put his imprint on the choice, and gain attention for this. In this he has succeeded admirably, in part because of poor reporting. We all know that stopping an academic hiring process happens all the time, including here at NYU. One reason that the Columbia situation has gotten so much attention is that the New York Times, with its long links to the Columbia school, did a story on it, and other publications have followed — but almost none have done any additional reporting on the matter. If this had been another part of Columbia, like physics or sociology, the matter would have received little or no attention.

Furthermore, did Columbia have two stellar candidates, or just two predictable candidates? Both Jim Fallows and Alex Jones have gone from one job to another for a long time now. Neither has a background in journalism education. Are these the best candidates Columbia could come up with? Or are they names one could have put forth even before a search started? Maybe here, at least, Bollinger is on to something. Although both Fallows and Jones now, supplicantly, say they favor what Bollinger has said and done, each would have taken the job in a heartbeat and will, if offered in the future. Do you think each is saying the same thing in private as he is in public — that Bollinger has done a fine thing in not hiring him? Does anyone believe that if Bollinger thought either of these two persons was the perfect person for Columbia, or that he might regret losing one of them by calling off the search, he would have done so?

(Also, does it bother anybody that the committee that Bollinger appointed to examine journalism education at Columbia is so low on working reporters? Does the committee seem a bit stacked?)

Does it bother anybody that the committee that Bollinger appointed to examine journalism education at Columbia is so low on working reporters?

Remember this: Columbia, like other schools, has often made noise about a new kind of journalism program when dean's choices have to be made, but the decision usually goes to someone who can do fundraising and function within an old-fashioned bureaucracy, which is what any university bureaucracy is. That description applies to the following past Columbia j-school deans: Ed Barrett, Oz Elliott, Joan Konner, and Tom Goldstein. Bollinger may break the mold this time. Or he may not. One thing is clear: he's getting a lot of free public relations by doing what he's doing.

This brings us to the hoary notion of craft instruction versus academic learning in journalism education. Responsible people, including Lee Bollinger, ought to stop suggesting it's one or the other. A great journalism program teaches writing, reporting, and research, but also teaches the so-called larger issues like ethics, law, history, the culture of the newsroom, media studies, journalism traditions, the business of journalism, communications theory, ways to make our profession better, and the like. The idea that a department or school should be one or the other, a so-called boot camp versus a place for thinking people, is, it seems to me, silly.

One of the awful things about this debate is that it continues the notion that in journalism, one is either in one camp or the other. The basic reporting camp is regarded as dumb by the other camp, and the basic reporting camp regards the others as people who detest journalism and know little or nothing about it. (I know boot camps; journalism schools are no boot camp.) But why does it have to be one or the other? Would a medical school not teach such basics as incisions and suturing, but only the so-called larger questions of medicine? Would a law school teach only the history and traditions of law, but not how to write a brief? Both the craft and the profession must be taught everywhere.

J-schools have almost always been regarded by the rest of academia as something less than important, although perhaps not on the level of poultry science, as our former colleague Anne Matthews used to say. But why should we care? I suspect that Bollinger, like a lot of other people in New York City, gets up in the morning, reads the New York Times and maybe the Wall Street Journal, maybe has CNN on in the background, maybe goes online, maybe listens to the radio in the shower. Then — fairly well informed about what's going on in the world — he goes to work and condemns journalism and journalism education.


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