I am a protoge of Columbia J'school dean Nicholas Lemann, who Hugh profiles in this week's Weekly Standard
Lemann entered Harvard's journalism program in 1972. After dropping out and spending a couple years on the Hippie Trail, I returned to Indiana and registered as a J'school student in that same year. He became president of the Harvard paper, I became a member of the troika responsible for the Indiana Daily Student.
I pursued my degree doggedly, receiving an A in every journalism class except one, where the professor gave me a B. My downfall was my youthful, Hunter Thompson-addled defense of unobjective journalism. I thought it was fine to let my opinion, which was so undoubtedly right (i.e., left), to shine through my reporting. He did not. And it was his pen that registered letters in the gradebook.
Lemann, according to Hugh, recognizes that the media is not objective and is committed to the quaint idea that he might return it to that standard. He certainly has a challenge, given what Hugh saw during a recent tour of the school:
The 16 students are not evenly split--there are 14 women and just two men. ... A fifth of the students are from the New York area, and between 37 to 40 percent are from "the corridor"--from Boston to Washington. ... It is a pretty "blue" student body, and willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of their credentials. A year at CSJ--tuition, living expenses, incidentals--comes to $59,404 ....
The "blue" nature of the student body is further confirmed by my polling of the class I attended.... No one owned a gun. All supported same-sex marriage. Three had been in a house of worship the previous week. Six [of 16!] read blogs. None of them recognized the phrase "Christmas Eve in Cambodia"--though [the professor] not only got the allusion but knew the date of the John Kerry Senate speech in which he made the false claim about his Vietnam war experience. Three quarters of them hope to make more than $100,000 as a journalist, 11 had voted for John Kerry, and one for George Bush (three are from abroad and not eligible, and one didn't vote for either candidate). I concluded by asking them if they "think George Bush is something of a dolt." There was unanimous agreement with this proposition, one of the widely shared views within elite media and elsewhere on the left. The president's Harvard MBA and four consecutive victories over Democrats judged "smarter" than him haven't made even a dent in that prejudice.
Still, some of the students think they can be objective. That's fine, but it's the wrong standard, and the right standard isn't even taught in J'school. It's called fairness. Objectivity basically means "quote the other side," and it is an exploited standard. Conservative views are there, sure, but they're frequently not the mainstream exposition of the view, and they are buried or otherwise minimized.
It is not the lack of objectivity that is causing the media's decline, however. In fact, our papers and television stations might benefit from hanging a conservative or liberal shingle out for all to see. (There's Hunter again, speaking from the grave.)
What's destroying the importance of the media is that it's lost authority and relevance. In his Weekly Standard comment, Hugh describes the former:
Every conversation with one of the old guard citing the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.
Poseurs just aren't credible, and historically, we have turned to MSM, particularly print MSM, for credible information. This is an easy problem to fix: Don't get caught. Don't make the mistake.
The media just have to get used to being rigorously truth-checked and they have to do a better job of truth-checking themselves.
Relevance will be tougher. Broadcast has dispensed with relevance altogether and seems unlikely to try to bring it back. For print, the challenge is beating the blogosphere. I haven't read a significant print story in the last year that I haven't already read on-line and analyzed via the blogosphere.
Even Columbia can't teach tomorrow's journalists how to solve this one. It's going to take technical wizzards and box-breaking thinkers to define and capture a new relevance. Then, and only then, will those freshly minted Columbia grads -- trained at $60K a semester, about what my entire degree cost -- have a chance of being as signficant as preceding generations of journalists.