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July 21, 2005

"We Have Been Bull-Dozed Aside." Orville Schell Says J-Schools Have to Get More Involved.

The Dean of the School of Journalism at Berkeley writes: "What worries me most is that I think one of the oldest assumptions about journalism - namely, if the story can be told, something will happen for the better - is slowly being rendered inoperable."

I asked Orville Schell—a journalist whose specialty is China, but who is also the esteemed Dean of the Journalism School at University of California, Berkeley—if he wanted to reply to my June 5th post: Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion. He graciously accepted.

That post was my response to the news—pretty big news in my precinct—that four leading journalism schools, plus Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, were joining with two leading foundations, Knight and Carnegie, in an effort to “elevate the standing of journalism in academia and find ways to prepare journalists better,” in the words of a New York Times account:

The unusual collaboration, which has been developing for three years, involves Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University; Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley; Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; and Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Schell is one of the movers. According to the press release from Carnegie, whose president, Vartan Gregorian, is also a key player in the project, the aim of the partners is to “advance the U.S. news business by helping revitalize schools of journalism.” (See his statement here.)

Revitalizing is needed. And in my haste to deliver my opinion about the press think encoded in the Carnegie-Knight project, I neglected to thank the people involved: Nicholas Lemann, Orville Schell, Loren Ghiglione, Geoffrey Cowan and Alex S. Jones, especially, for sticking their necks out and putting their institutions behind a shift in direction, which is also a pause for reflection.

This is wholly admirable and sorely needed, and as far as I know a first for journalism school deans and directors. If I criticize the project here and there (“I share their sense of urgency. I’m not sure they have the right ideas…”) it’s because I am an active participant in the same basic cause, and complicit in the same crime of not building better, more vital schools of journalism in the United States. And we need ours to be better.

I don’t want to sound picky, but… The press release says the idea is to “advance the U.S. news business.” Is that what a university-based journalism school is all about? I think Schell would say what I would say: as educators we have to know the news business, inside and out, and be engaged with it. What the school is supposed to advance, however, is the craft, conscience and quality of independent journalism.

As Schell explains in his response, the concern at Berkeley is not so much with the “news business,” but the vitality and effectivenesss of journalism itself, its diminished place in American life, and the survival of the social practice when fewer employers care about craft excellence and even aspire to a public service standard.

I agree: these are the big issues for journalism schools today, along with what to do about the rise of the Web and the new world of citizens media— the great opening that has come about in the last few years.

In my prior post, I may have given a false impression about Schell and his partners in this project: They’re not putting themselves forward as anyone’s priests. They’re trying to respond to the challenges they see, and asking other schools to join in later.

In talking about a prieshood in journalism, I didn’t make this clear enough. Besides, I know these people. I’m one of them, more or less, having participated in some of the events Schell describes as background to the new initiative.

“Journalism as a whole is clearly in something of a crisis,” Schell said in the Times article announcing the consortium. Here he explains in considerable detail what he meant by that. I am very glad he did.

Special to PressThink

We Have Been Bull Dozed Aside.

by Orville Schell
Dean, Graduate School of Journalism
University of California-Berkeley

It took us three years of e-mails, phone calls, meetings, discussion and drafting documents to come up with the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. It consists of three main elements:

1. A “research and policy” piece that will be run out of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s JFK School. Here, we have in mind a vehicle through which schools can collectively speak out on critical media issues of the day. That means journalism educators can have more voice. For example, as Judy Miller from the New York Times goes to jail over refusing to release anonymous sources and Matt Cooper from Time Magazine does not, or the case of “60 Minutes and Dan Rather’s coverage of Bush’s National Guard service. These would be examples where journalism schools and universities might want to weigh in on the discussion and debate.

2. An experimental curriculum reform element that encourages journalism programs to match-up reporters with scientists, urban planners, economists, historians, social scientists, legal scholars, foreign policy experts or public policy specialist to co-teach courses.

3. News 21 laboratories, or “incubators” at UC Berkeley, USC, Northwestern and Columbia, which will hire our best recent graduates to experiment with new kinds of multi-media reporting that combine television, radio and the web in new and innovative forms of interactive journalism. (Berkeley will begin by coordinating News 21.)

Some wonder if this “initiative” is not just a caucus of self-righteous and self-designated elitist deans forming itself into a priesthood to get some grants to the exclusion of other university programs. I hope that is not the case.

This is not an exclusive club

First, I should say that UC is a public university and that The Graduate School of Journalism there, where I am Dean, is itself far from being a well-endowed (or a well-heeled) institution. However, we do hope that it is at least a pretender to the aristocracy in terms of excellence in education.

Second, I should also note that there are stipulations in the research part of the grants (to be administered by Alex Jones at the Shorenstein Center) that require two thirds of the funds go to universities other than the five initiators. Moreover, Carnegie is also making four $100,000 grants available to other journalism schools each year for the kind of curriculum experimentation that we ourselves are committed to trying. So, in this way, we hope to serve as a prime mover rather than as some exclusive group that brooks no intruders.

In short, we seek to become ever more inclusive as the situation evolves. After all, the object is to gain some kind of broad, critical mass, not limit the effort in an exclusive way.
Speaking personally, I can say that the experience of working with Geoff Cowan (USC), Alex Jones (Harvard), Nick Lemann (Columbia) and Loren Ghiglione (Northwestern) has been a truly wonderful one. Even though we compete for the best students, there has been little sense of competition in our dealings with each other. Instead, there has been much welcomed collegiality, a common recognition that we confront shared problems due to the fact that journalism is rapidly changing and that aspects of “the media” are in a very uncertain, even parlous, state of grace.

“Our involvement was hardly optional”

What we can do to help is uncertain. But, I think we all felt that rather than just whine, we should at least make an effort to form some new civil society-based coalition where the sum was greater than the parts. Moreover, we felt that since we were all from big research universities, which comprise the largest pieces of civil society real estate in America, we ought to do what we could to engage these august institutions collectively in the debate over the media. After all, we are all in education, and the most fundamental job of journalism is to educate the public. So, we certainly have a dog in this fight!

And finally, we recognized that, since there are fewer and fewer workplaces in the broadcast media of such excellence that our graduates are truly eager to join them, we had to either get involved, or in effect confront the prospect that we were training students for the kinds of jobs that did not really exist. So, in a sense, as we pondered the situation, we felt that our involvement was hardly optional. Like it or not, we were involved.

Now, let me address your question about a “New Church” and a “priesthood” marching under the standard of a bogus mythology propagated by Watergate and the kind of hero worship and celebrity kultur that developed around the likes of Woodward and Bernstein.

Frankly, getting this effort together has been a lot of hard work, and usually it hardly felt like an establishmentarian priesthood in quest of a lot of grant money. Yes, these are good universities and excellent journalism programs. But, there are others equally as good. To get this effort organized took thousands of hours of grunt work both on the part of the five universities and the two foundations.

An understandable yearning for press heroes

I think it fair to say that that only way we felt part of a priesthood was in so far as we have truly came to enjoy each other’s company and derived a certain measure of energy and possibility from the thought of working in concert. And, we actually have learned a good deal from each other. But, that was part of whole purpose from the outset.

(And parenthetically, Jay, let it be known that we would wish for nothing more than your presence in whatever watchdog priesthood of media we may come to comprise!)

But, in reading your blog entry, the larger question you address is not so much whether we as the founding schools of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative have anointed ourselves as “priests,” but whether the whole last few decades of journalism have not been ginned up on an almost chiliastic vision of a second journalistic coming in the trans-substantiated form of Carl and Bob.

I take your point about the need for a healthy skepticism about heroes of all sorts who invariably get delaminated from the contexts in which they arise as well as from those others who sustain them. They are often turned into larger than life figures, albeit, with a few toes of clay. But, let’s be honest. There is something about every fraternity, profession, and even society, that does seem to need to lionize and mythologize certain people so that they become iconic hood ornaments. I have just finished reading the Odyssey and the Iliad again, and despite all the mortal flaws of these Homeric heroes – and Greece was the birthplace of western heroes and hero-worship -people seemed to need heroes and to be inspired by them.

In this sense, it may be fair to say that Woodward and Bernstein have become unreal personifications of latter-day people’s yearnings (with a little help from Hollywood and “the media”) to believe that somewhere in the Fourth estate there are/were dragon slayers who are/were diligent, trustworthy, efficacious and often bigger-than-life. This hardly surprises me. People do want to believe. Being able to identify, or create, heroes, helps them believe. It also sustains and exhilarates them.

It is true that much of the rest of the press were less than aggressive about the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Nixon administration. But, then it is also true that they have not been able to get much traction against the shameless spin-mongering and outright distortions of the Bush Administration. And, let’s not even raise the question of the war in Iraq and WMD.

The P.R. apparatus and the propaganda of the state

Indeed, speaking as someone who has studied China and other Marxists-Leninist states for the last 45 years, there are haunting similarities between the public relations apparatus of the current administration and the propaganda apparatus of Leninist political parties. They include ultra-loyalty and obedience to the supreme leader; extreme party discipline; an absolute imperative to stay on-message (fidelity to “the correct line”); maximizing the use of state organs for propaganda purposes; and a poorly evolved appreciation of the essential role that the Founding Fathers of this country imagined for the press as an independent watchdog over all kinds of power (whether state, ecclesiastical, corporate, etc.)

I am not saying that there is a comparison between our government and that of a Leninist state like China, but I am saying that the role and acceptance by our state of the media as a legitimate and necessary institution is weaker now than ever before. I am also suggesting that because of their commercial/corporate backgrounds, when it comes to the question of “communications,” many in the higher reaches of government have a keener appreciation of public relations than of independent, hard-hitting and often abrasive investigative journalism. Their tendency is to want to use communications as “the mouthpiece” of the state and party, rather than to see the most important role for communications as one of opposition and challenge to established power centers.

This almost religious veneration of Woodward, Bernstein, Bradley, Graham means that people did, and still do, feel a deep need to believe that someone can, and will, stand up to these prevailing centers of power and propaganda. The Watergate hearings were cathartic, because sclerotic Washington did finally rise for one grand moment to dig in the Washington manure pile and get past the spin and PR to search out truth and fact from falsehood. And, yes, by now we have forgotten many of those other figures like Sen. Sam Ervin or Sam Dash who played such important parts in the saga. What we remember instead is their personifications.

“Bereft of good models… despondent about their profession”

Al Pacino played Lowell Bergman (who is on our faculty at UC Berkeley) in “The Insider,” the story of Lowell’s joust for “60 Minutes” against the tobacco industry. And, yes, Lowell, who is an excellent investigative journalist, but still a mortal, comes out looking something like a journo-Godhead. Sure, you can say that Pacino’s version of Bergman—just like Redford and Hoffman’s version of Woodward and Bernstein—is a somewhat glossy, incomplete, idealization of what really happened. But, what else is new?

Are we as citizens not entitled to take some heart in a few inspiring stories of valorous deeds just like all those who have gone before us who believed in good kings, kind monks, patriotic warriors or dedicated political figures? Look at children’s books? Heroes abound! I just read my kids a book on Hannibal as seen through the eyes of his nephew, and it was a terrific story. Is it an historical distortion? Sure! The nephew probably never existed and certainly didn’t write a book! I know it isn’t journalism, but is that impermissibly warped story telling?

From the Bible on down men have sought exemplars. Sure, they may only tell part of the story, and sure young journalism students and acolytes should not be lulled in visionary stupor by such mythologized, heroic examples. But it all seems quite understandable to me, especially in this age of extreme skepticism, doubt and cynicism that people yearn for some hopeful models for human action even polish up, or invent, a few larger than life inspirations.
In any event, I don’t think journalism schools have used this mythology to sell soap!

Indeed, what I worry about is not so much that the next generation of journalists will be swayed by or sell out to press mythology, but that they will end up so bereft of good models and so despondent about the state of their profession that they may lose all hope and idealism. Then what? After all, if you are going to be a journalist, repayment must come in some other currency than dollars. One of those alternative currencies journalism trades in is “able to make a difference.”

“I don’t experience myself as ‘a priest’”

I realize that such a phrase may sound a trifle corny to grizzled veterans, but this is one of the animating spirits of our trade for many good journalists. God knows, most of us are not being paid so well—at least compared to other professions—that we do not look for some compensatory sense that what we do is worthwhile.

In short, I do not share Greg Lindsay’ critique that “journalism school professors” (our professors are almost all journalists!) sell students “a mindset, a worldview, and ideology” that is somehow erroneous and corrupting. (See Lindsay’s essay for Media Bistro.) That is a gross over-simplification. At least here at Berkeley, I do not think our students are all lathered up like religious zealots for “good old fashion shoe leather reporting.” We want them to have good ethics and ideals, but we also want them to be sophisticated, world traveled, realistic and skeptical.

Whatever one believes about the animating mythologies of journalism and its role in society, who among would deny its importance? Who among us would deny that things are rapidly changing and that there are dysfunctional links in the whole food chain of reporting? What I mean by this is that the chain on which information is vectored to the public and then digested by society and the powers-that-be is broken.

As a journalist, or a dean, I don’t experience myself as “a priest,’ much less as a member of some new church. I experience myself as someone who has been around the journalistic block a few times, seen some real problems with our profession; and wants to do what I can to keep this institution in good running order. I also see great uncertainty for our students in terms of where they can expect to matriculate and find dignified places of work that will sustain them, even rudimentarily, in their future lives. If you are about to go into television these days, things don’t look so great.

The assumption that the press matters is under threat

Final thought: As I survey the landscape, what worries me most is that I think one of the oldest assumptions about journalism—namely, if the story can be told, something will happen for the better—is slowly being rendered inoperable. (But, maybe it never was operable, and I am in some mythology myself!)

I prefer to think that the chain once existed, more or less, and now has acquired some major breaks it in. In other words, we can no longer blithely assume that if a reporter does his/her shoe-leather investigations and writes or produces a good revelatory story that an editor will welcome it; the publisher will publish it; producers will air it; readers and viewers will become better informed; the collectivity of citizens will demand action; hearings will be held, commissions formed laws passed, court cases will be adjudicated; and reforms will be made. Isn’t that the way things are or were supposed to work? And, if not, how the hell are they supposed to work?

Alas, we can no longer assume that journalists have this catalytic ability. We have in too many ways been bull-dozed aside. (I think this is the real message of Judy Miller going to jail.) We still can, to some degree, do our thing, but we are increasingly maligned, marginalized and presumed by many power centers (government, state, church, etc) to be troublesome, negative, unpatriotic and unreliable. Now, we are even threatened with jail.

The assumption that the press matters, can have an effect when it does its job and should be protected is what is under threat. Our problem is not so much that we are lost in a mythology of the press. It is that we are threatened with being dislodged from the presumption of Americans that we have a necessary role to play in the life and governance of this country.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Jack Zibluk, Associate professor of journalism, Arkansas State University, Vice head, AEJMC small programs group, in comments:

While I appreciate Dr. Schell’s efforts and those of his peers, i believe the collective efforts of his group are doomed to failure.

The very elitism and exclusivity of the “club” involved in the project excludes the vast majority of educators, schools and journalists.

This elite group will work sincerely, talk to other elite people in business and government, issue a report, congratulate each other and then wring their hands when nothing happens. I have seen this happen many times of the years in diversity efforts, technology efforts and other initiatives…

Unless some outreach is made to include a bigger and broader group of individuals, and sinstitutions, this group will fail.

I wish them well, in all honesty, but I see the initiative as another “make ourselves feel less guilty” effort by elite institutions than a true effort to affect a positive change in society.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica, who teaches journalism at Missouri State University, replies:

The big j-schools can reasonably suppose that their best students will start at “good” jobs and progress to the “highest” levels of the profession. I want to challenge those adjectives because 1) most of our students will not practice at the “highest” levels, and 2) people who read newspapers or watch local news in fly-over land deserve good journalism, too—practiced by journalists who are not simply using the local news organization as a stepping stone. That’s a recipe for disengagement.

Terry Heaton, who spent 28 years in television news including news director at six stations, (his blog) says in comments:

It is both my experience and my sincere belief that young people do not get into the news business these days to make a difference. I’ve written about this many times, but the nut of it is that 95% of the budding journalists I interviewed for jobs in the latter days of my TV news career wanted into the business for celebrity. It was rare to encounter someone who genuinely wanted to make a difference, and when I did, I hired them immediately. The people who are armed with this passion today are found in the local blogospheres around the country (and the world).

Orville Schell in a 2002 essay for a special section I edited on J-Schools and their challenges:

Journalism schools can, I believe, fully justify their existences by striving to become workshop-like places where older and more seasoned journalists team up with younger journalists to do actual projects that get published, aired or exhibited. In this sense, schools might aspire to be almost medieval in their conception, in other words, to buddy small numbers of students up with faculty who are still active in the profession to take on projects of a local, national and foreign scope, which can then be injected into the “real” media. In this effort, the division between students and professors should be blurred as much as possible.

A revamped Blog Pulse has been launched by Intelliseek. There’s new data for the top blogs, blog posts, news stories, and news sources being cited, and a new element: “BlogPulse Profiles, which adds metrics to the top-ranked 10,000 blogs, based on citations, posting and linking behavior.”

Recent J-school grad and Exegesis blogger Daniel Kreiss (Stanford) e-mails this reaction:

Of course we learn and are inspired by those who went before us. But I think what becomes dangerous is when J-schools posit these heroes to show how journalism is to be done. By this I mean both the craft (the writing, tone, shoe-leather reporting) and how the journalist herself should act in the world.

Schell writes that at Berkeley they expect their students to be “sophisticated, world traveled, realistic and skeptical.” What I don’t understand is how these four qualities relate to a person’s ability to practice journalism — I, for one, am a believer in many, many things, as are most humans who are “educated” by journalism.

And in the same way that you do not look at David and Goliath and arm
yourself with a slingshot to battle a tank, you cannot look at
Woodward and Bernstein and use their same methods to reveal “truth” in
a world that has drastically changed. Yet, that is precisely what
J-schools teach (and why I think you used the term “priesthood” in
your original post, as opposed to something like “role models” which
would have very different implications.)

It is this thinking that has allowed the profession of journalism to
be “bull-dozed aside.” The three elements of the Carnegie initiative do not question the dogma of the profession that says that the journalist must be the ultimate un-biased arbiter of the rules and of truth without loyalties, attachments, values, or beliefs.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 21, 2005 12:38 AM