Teaching Roger Ailes' Fox News a lesson and upholding the spirit of Pulitzer

The world’s most famous academy of journalism reacts to claims it is elitist and out of touch. Stephen Foley reports
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The Independent Online

When the boss of Fox News, Roger Ailes, was recently asked by The New York Times what made his conservative news channel such a ratings winner, he thundered back: "I built this channel from my life experience... my first qualification is I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School."

The Columbia University journalism school in Manhattan is the American industry's pre-eminent post-grad trade school and a smelting plant for the "gotcha liberal media elite" of the imaginations of Sarah Palin and her ilk. And of Ailes, the son of an Ohio factory foreman, whose view of the New York chattering classes is encapsulated in the comment: "There are no parties in this town that I want to go to."

Nick Lemann is Columbia's dean. Surprisingly he's rather tickled by Ailes's assault on his institution. "What we teach is how to report the news," he says, leaning back on a sofa. "I don't know if I said to Roger Ailes, 'Roger, go out and cover a story and file by deadline', I don't know if he has that skill set. That's what we teach here. We don't teach liberalism."

If Fox wants to attack Columbia, that's not going to harm the school's reputation, he argues. "Both Roger Ailes and [Fox News presenter] Bill O'Reilly have a special preoccupation with our school and speak of it frequently. It's very good advertising for us. I sometimes think they have a respect for our role in the world that goes beyond the respect that the dreaded liberal media have for us."

Columbia's journalism school is two years away from its centenary, an anniversary it might have celebrated already had the university not been sniffy about taking Joseph Pulitzer's money. The publisher of the New York World, responsible for some of the populist newspaper conventions that are ubiquitous today, such as comic strips and a chunky sports department, is of course a venerated name now, not least because of the prizes given out in his name by Columbia.

Lemann, a former Washington correspondent at The New Yorker magazine, has been in charge here since 2003, in what has been an increasingly panicky period of soul-searching for the journalism business. Neat in suit and tie, with an Ivy League campus through the window behind him, he is exuding calm, though. He is taking a long view, as befits a professor in an office stuffed full of history.

When you become a dean, you get permission to go down to Columbia's art vault to pick up a few pieces and Lemann installed a bust of the New Yorker's great Second World War writer, St Clair McKelway and hung a portrait of Daniel Defoe.

"With all due respect to the internet, journalism schools since they were established 100 years ago have had to deal with a series of new technologies coming our way, not just this one new technology." This is a "fascinating and heady" time, he says. He doesn't say scary or gloomy.

The changing media landscape has required some recalibration of teaching at Columbia, naturally, with new courses on the legal and ethical issues of reporting being introduced. "I was a young reporter at The Washington Post. What a different world. There were all these pensions, and benefits, everything up to a staff nurse and a mini-hospital. There were mentors and lawyers to protect you and teach you.

"That has changed even at a place like The Washington Post and a lot of our graduates now are starting their own news organisations or working in a newsroom of eight people that didn't exist a little while ago. The ethics, law and history has to come with them when they come out of the school."

Lemann would demur, but there is a gloomy way to read the report on the future of journalism that Columbia school commissioned last year, and which he was in the UK presenting at Oxford University's Reuters Institute this month. The Reconstruction of American Journalism, by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson, surveyed the fragmented, experimental landscape of the industry, reporting with excitement how online start-ups from San Diego to Austin, Texas, are using teams of eager young bloggers to investigate local news that the bigger urban newspapers have abandoned.

It's a landscape fizzing with ideas, for sure, but there is little clue yet as to how these ventures might ultimately find sustainable funding. To the extent that the report suggests answers, it is that the news business must throw itself on the mercy of charity. Lemann himself was in Florida recently, talking to a convention of philanthropic foundations, suggesting ways they might support "accountability journalism".

Downie and Schudson proposed that government should find ways to directly or indirectly subsidise the kind of journalism that holds the great and the good to account. It's easy to goad Lemann by characterising this as yet another industry calling for a government bail-out.

"I'm not for a bail-out of the industry," he insists, saying he doesn't side with those who want to funnel public money directly to save newspapers. "What the report argues for instead in its most controversial recommendation is creating a funding stream to capture a social function. If a fund for local news were established, all the funds notionally could go to institutions that don't yet exist, so in that sense it is not a bail-out of an industry."

Journalism schools might actually have a role, too. It might be that their students are the only ones pounding local pavements or doing the time-consuming digging that investigative reporting requires. Columbia is dipping its toe in these waters, with students on its investigative journalism courses producing reports to be distributed for free in collaboration with the internee Huffington Post.

Columbia's applications have continued to grow, and they spiked as the recession hit, as wannabe journalists tried to hide out in education. As for the future, we'll see. Lemann side-steps another gloomy question, one about whether the logical conclusion of the Downie-Schudson report is that journalists will be paid much less in the future, if reporting is effectively a not-for-profit profession.

"Although lots and lots of our recent grads are experimenting with these wonderful new models of what it means to be an employee, in general, because we are a professional school, we operate on the presumption that we are training people to make their living as full-time journalists. We are not naturally friendly to the idea that there is no need for employed journalists in the future."

But he adds: "No one ever went into journalism or went to journalism school out of a strict cost-benefit calculation. The numbers are up I think because, in this confusing new world, journalism school has more to offer them, in terms of skills and contacts and context. And people are interested in what is going on in journalism. Our young people at least are optimistic that a new order will emerge."

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