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The $19,000 press pass - a former journalism school dean asks, is it worth it?


Ask any older journalist about the usefulness of a journalism school education and you're likely to be treated to a lecture straight out of The Front Page. Kid, he'll say, you learn reporting by reporting--by hustling, digging, and wearing out shoe leather. And you've got to have your head read to go to some highfalutin journalism school.

That approach, I once thought, was narrow and closed-minded. Journalism is badly in need of critical self-evaluation. The profession could be markedly improved by young journalists with deeper insight, more education, and a creative bent. In theory, a university is a suitable place to learn, reflect, and experiment.

As a working reporter with 24 years' experience and a teacher of both graduate- and undergraduate-level journalism for seven years, I confess that the curmudgeonly old journalist is probably right. The kind of journalism taught in the schools where I was an instructor could be learned by any bright high-school graduate in eight weeks on a small-town weekly. What's more, instead of forking over several thousand dollars to the university bureaucracy, he could be earning his living while learning his trade.

Journalism education ought to be training young people to think critically and evaluate information, but I discovered instead that most university programs are merely trade schools. What they teach is grount-level journalism--who, what, when, and where but not the whys or whithers. Instead of a community of scholars, I found an enclosed universe where professors are concerned more with their egos and perquisites than the profession they are supposed to be serving. Instead of talented, eager students imbued with a sense of mission, I found countless students who lacked the drive, the dedication, and even the competence in English that a good journalist must have.

What students fail to get at journalism school is precisely what they have a right to expect from any university program: high-level education that challenges their intellects. They have a right to expect an education that trains them to be more than laborers in the trenches churning out predictable reports on sewer boards and courthouses (though they need to know that, too). They should be trained to ask the questions unposed by officials, to help set agendas instead of following the agendas set by governments and public relations people. And they should be trained in the exacting science of transforming raw information into substantive and thoughtful journalism.

Just the facts ma'am

My first journalism job was with United Press International. I was a raw, untutored kid, fired with ambition. Surrounded by experienced reporters, pressed by constant deadlines, I learned by listening, watching, and doing. I worked hard. I made mistakes. And I learned the basic skills. In the past decade, that kind of opportunity has become almost nonexistent. A job applicant has to have several years' experience before he is likely to get a reporting job at a major wire service. That is unless he goes to journalism school. The degree in journalism, for those without experience, is the great equalizer. It can open doors that would otherwise remain closed to the neophyte.

"The purpose of journalism school is to help you get a good job,' says Josh Friedman, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter at Newsday and a 1968 graduate of Columbia. But, at least in newspapering, the number of jobs is shrinking. As newspapers around the country fold, media organizations are snapping up the laid-off, experienced reporters instead of students fresh out of journalism programs.

The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund reports that in 1985, newspapers with a circulation of more than 10,000 hired 64 percent of their new reporters from other papers. That compares with 39 percent in 1974. Meanwhile, the number of students majoring in "mass communications' increased from 13,000 in 1975 to 20,000 in 1985. The bulk of these young people end up in public relations jobs or employment on trade journals or in television, all fields that are expanding.

For the handful of experienced journalists from smaller markets who take time off to go to journalism school, however, the credential can make a difference in getting a newspaper job. For the investment of $19,000--the cost of living expenses and tuition at the Columbia Journalism School--that prestigious degree can accelerate the climb to a larger market. Regardless of its real worth, the image of Columbia still carries weight in some quarters, especially if it is backed by a glowing reference from a working reporter who happens to be on the adjunct faculty.

Columbia offers an eight-month graduate program, geared almost exclusively toward just-the-facts-ma'am journalism. Except for one or two electives, a master's project that is a magazine piece, and a total of about 17 days devoted to editing, radio writing, and media law, the program consists of writing and reporting workshops. It is a high-speed, highly intensive, practical program, with almost no time or room for flexibility or intellectually stimulating courses. All the students are required to take the basic courses, even those who have had several years' experience on a college paper or as working professionals.

"They were such baby courses,' says Jack Hitt, a 1981 graduate. "Imagine sitting in a room and being taught to read again.' This is a lead. This is the inverted pyramid. Put a "-30-' at the end of the story.

On a typical Monday morning in the basic Reporting and Writing class, the student meets with a professor for an hour of instruction on that week's subject matter. One week is devoted to the courts. The student is told that a journalist must be fair, accurate, and balanced. He is told how to get to the courthouse on the New York subway. And then he is sent on his way. Later the student returns from the "event' to write a basic he-said/she-said story about what happened in the court that day. The teacher collects the story, edits it, and returns it to the student later in the week. The following week the student deals with another subject, like city hall, and once more the story is a simple, meat-and-potatoes exercise.

Okay, much of journalism is of this variety-- surface stuff. And if you want to get that first job, you need to know how to do it. But is this an appropriate kind of instruction at the graduate level of a university? Students need a deeper understanding of how the system works, how one part of government interacts with others, where the real, as opposed to the apparent, power lies. You don't get that by practicing wham-bang journalism.

"No one said, Here's how you analyze a budget, here's the way the courts work,' recalls Carol Polsky, a 1981 Columbia graduate who works at Newsday. "There was no analysis of institutions, power, and structure.'

Ironically, when I was associate dean at Columbia, I proposed a course that was designed to do just that--analyze the sources of power and their interlocking relationships. My suggestion didn't get very far.

So lacking in intellectual substance is the Columbia curriculum that students can go through the entire program without having to read a book. When I was co-teaching a course with Dean Osborn Elliot, I even had to nag him to read the books assigned in the course. In the end he managed to read only one. "There was no analysis of what makes news, what are the ethics of journalism, what kind of choices you make as a journalist,' Polsky says. One current student, Tom Vinceguerra, says that in his basic reporting class a difficult ethical question came up. When a student tried to open a discussion on the matter, the professor barked, "I don't want to get involved in a Fred Friendly type of discussion.' He was referring to the legal issuess course that former CBS president Fred Friendly teaches. Friendly used the socratic method in a course he described as, "posing questions so difficult, the only way out is to think.' Friendly uses the same technique in his Media and Society television programs, which are under Columbia's wing but are separate from the journalism program.

Why Johnny can't report

Critical thinking does not come easily to many students. And that difficulty is reflected in their writing. When I first began teaching at Boston University--both undergraduate and graduate students--I was astonished to find that many of the students in my basic classes were virtually illiterate. Instead of teaching the basics of journalism, I spent my time explaining the importance of using a plural verb with a plural noun. At an American Press Institute seminar several years later, a group of professors from other schools exchanged similar horror stories. "Any body who wants to can get into our school,' one of them said, "and a lot of the kids can't even write a simple sentence.' Not one of the journalism programs represented at the meeting required basic literacy before entry. "Either I teach the kid how to write a lead, or I teach him how to write English,' was the way one professor explained his dilemma.

I came to Columbia expecting must better. But this "premier' school of journalism, where only one-fourth of the applicants are admitted each year, also managed to take in many unqualified students. Norman Isaacs, another former associate dean at the school, estimates that about 20 percent of the students needed serious help with the basics of writing and reporting. This percentage has probably increased as the school has expanded from 150 students in the 1960s to 180 now. I remember getting phone calls from editors who grumbled to me about the illiterate candidates for jobs who were landing on their door-steps clutching Columbia diplomas.

I was equally startled by the number of students who chose journialism as a career but hardly ever read a newsppaer. Now and then they might stare vacantly at the local TV news, but did they read The Boston Globe, The New York Times, or even The New York Post? One Columbia professor this year gave his class a diagnostic test measuring word usage, punctuation, elementary math skills, and current-events knowledge and was shocked by the results. The current-events section challenged students to name the president of Nicaragua, the U.S. secretary of state and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as well as other "difficult' questions. The median score for that section was 66 percent.

Some students lacked that most elementary prerequisite--curiosity. One former professor recalls a day during the 1980 presidential campaign when a well-known pollster lectured the students about his role in the campaign. After his talk, he asked if there were any questions and then he waited. Not one student asked a question. Finally, a professor spoke up, followed by another faculty member, and then one or two students. "That,' the professor says, "was the perfect example of the instinct they didn't have.'

Most professors, however, shy away from enforcing rigorous standards. Columbia has a pass-fail grading system, relieving the teacher of the unpleasant task of separating the best students from the worst. Of the 180 students who came to Columbia each year I was there. I can remember only one or two being flunked per year. One tenured professor at Columbia got around the problem of making hard judgments by telling his students that as long as they did all the work he required, even if they did it badly, he would pass them. And he did. If a faculty member wanted to fail a student, he had to explain his decision in an open meeting before the rest of the faculty, and the others would put pressure on him to change his mind. After running that gauntlet a time or two, even new instructors got the message.

My greatest disillusionment came through my experiences with the faculty. Maybe I was naive. Before I left Washington for academe, I thought of a university as a place where one could engage at leisure in higher mental exercises. What I found instead was a world consumed by trivia. When I attended my first faculty meeting, I felt like Alice on the other side of the looking glass.

Did the professors discuss the flaws and virtues of journalism and how they might labor to make it better? Did they argue the subtleties of instructing young minds? Did they worry about how to connect their courses to what the professional required in a fast-changing world? Well, no.

Here is the subject matter of a typical faculty meeting: When are we going to get the copier fixed? What is the deadline for grades? Who is going to change the lightbulb in my office? Why didn't the dean pick up the tab for my magazines? How come Professor M. got the sunniest classroom? Who is responsible for the cockroaches in my closet? Any why do I have 12 students in my basic reporting class when Professor O. has only 11? Norman Isaacs says in his new book, Untended Gates: "In so-called real-world political maneuvering, the goals are evident: position for power and the rewards that go with it. In academe, the objectives often seem tied to egotistical one-upmanship. Columbia's late Wallace Sayre may have described it best when he said, "The reason faculty politics are so vicious is that the stakes are so low.''

The barriers to change are institutional, and therefore difficult to overcome. The tenure system preserves deadwood and the academic environment fosters unparalleled pettiness. The idea of lifetime tenure has always been to protect faculty from retribution if they dared to write or say things that challenged the establishment. Ironically, inside the Columbia journalism school, its effect is just the opposite. Non-tenured faculty who want tenure are pressured to conform to the dictates and whims of the tenured. Any whiff of mutiny is unceremoniously squashed.

Protected from the normal risks of dismissal that keep the rest of society's workers alert, the tenured professors' womb-like security becomes an embalming embrace. It keeps in lousy professors and keeps out most new ideas. My suggestions that we create summer institutes on reporting, teach a course on finding the true sources of power in institutions, and create a course called "critical evaluation of the news' were resisted mostly because they were new. When I first came to Columbia in 1978, the school was teaching broadcast journalism with eight-millimeter silent film cameras, when videotape--talkies!--had been used by local and network stations for ten years. Because the film took days to process, it was both a technological anachronism and a hindrance to teaching. The suggestion that we use videotape infuriated the senior broadcast faculty member who had last plied his trade at CBS in the heyday of film. When the videotape arrived --and it did, eventually--it meant that he and the other instructors had to retool. They had not had to retool in decades (if ever).

The tenured faculty particularly feared popular professors with a reputation in the outside world. The most embarrassing example at Columbia was the faculty's insane jealousy of Fred Friendly, whose Media and Society TV series is highly acclaimed.

It is virtually impossible to fire a tenured professor. One such professor at Columbia "borrowed' some of Dean Osborn Elliot's private letters and ran off copies without permission. The appalled dean asked Columbia's president, Michael Sovern, howe to go about firing the man. Sovern told the dean he couldn't. That professor remains on the faculty, where he continues to teach--you guessed it--investigative journalism.

The journalism school has been able to reduce the instructional influence of its weaker faculty by hiring outside adjunct teachers. For every full-time faculty member there are four or five part-time adjuncts. These are the real stars of the faculty--the working professionals who come in part-time to co-teach basic reporting and writing classes. It's expensive, of course, but better than relegating all the teaching duties to professors who can't handle them.

One particular academic fault is missing at the journalism school--the pressure to publish or perish. Ironically, journalism education is the one area where the dictum actually makes sense. While I was there, only a handful of the tenured faculty members at Columbia published articles or worked in broadcasting regularly. Making them publish would have done them some good.

What's sad is that there are a few talented faculty and students at Columbia who deserve better. While I think most of the J-school high achievers would have gone on to success without-Columbia, certainly some were helped by their time there. My point is simply that they could have been helped a lot more, that journalism schools could do a much better job than they are now doing.

Given the reluctance of most news organizations to take on the job of offering in-house training for promising young writers, plainly the basic kind of instruction in techniques and skills has to be offered in the schools. And certainly any budding reporter needs to know how to cover a news conference, write a lead, and meet a dead-line before he can go on to higher and better things.

The question here is whether the journalism programs in our better universities, like Columbia, have a responsibility to do more than that. I would argue that we have enough of the kind of education geared to getting a student his first job. What the profession needs is education that forces the student to think creatively.

There is altogether too much innocence abroad in journalism, reporters who accept whatever they are told from officials, who are easily wowed by the trappings of power, who don't understand that the guy out front talking may have no real authority and the guy who is invisible is the guy who is pulling the strings. What is needed is instruction on process journalism--the kind that traces a decision back to its source. And what is needed is a curriculum that deals with issues percolating below the surface of events.
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Title Annotation:Carolyn Lewis
Author:Lewis, Carolyn
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
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