Steve Coll

To Be A Journalist, Part I

VTR Date: July 13, 2013

GUEST: Steve Coll


GUEST: Steve Coll
AIR DATE: 07/13/2013
VTR: 05/02/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today has recently accepted an extraordinarily challenging and now possibly quite controversial new position … that of Dean of Columbia University’s noted Graduate School of Journalism, the “J School” as I knew it in my undergraduate days at Columbia College.

Well, now, interestingly enough, those words fall under the general heading, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. For, word for word for word, that’s precisely the way I introduced the first of two Open Mind programs with Columbia’s then new “J School” Dean…exactly ten years ago!

Historian, author, New Yorker writer and journalist Nicholas Lemann became Columbia’s Journalism Dean then, retires now …. even as today’s Open Mind guest, historian, author, New Yorker writer and journalist Steve Coll takes on that ever greater challenge of pointing the way to be a journalist even as all things change, and we change with them.

Steve Coll spent many years at The Washington Post…as a general assignment feature writer, as financial correspondent, as a foreign correspondent and the paper’s South Asia Bureau Chief.

Together with a Washington Post colleague my guest won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, eventually became an Associate Editor and then the Post’s Managing Editor.

In 2005, Steve Coll joined the writing staff of The New Yorker based in Washington, DC … in 2007 he also joined the New America Foundation, resigning as its President five years later. Now he is Dean Coll…and it is about his new academic challenges that I most want to talk today. Perhaps next time we can get to his various brilliant New Yorker articles and his prize winning books such as “The Bin Ladens”; such as “Private Empire – Exxon, Mobil And American Power; such as “Ghost Wars”…which in 2005 won a second Pulitzer for my guest .

So, I should ask Dean Coll, what’s first on your academic agenda?

COLL: Well, I’ve got a lot to learn in my first year and I really intend to spend the first months listening and, and learning from the faculty who am I am just barely getting to know as I get ready to come in.

But I think you framed it well in your opening. Journalism is in a state of flux, it has been for most of the last ten years. It has, you could argue, been for longer than that in different ways, driven by technological changes, the advent of radio, then the advent of television, now the advent of digital technology.

Journalism is always being challenged to define itself as a profession, to define its role in our democracy and to answer for young people who want to enter into the field, “What is it that I need to know? What kind of career can I expect to have?” And the school plays a very large role in those, in those latter areas.

And so I, I want to make sure that I come in with a kind of Hippocratic attitude. I’m, I know the school is in very good shape. Nick, who you also mentioned did a terrific job in his ten years as Dean and so I’m, I’m not going to go in there and smash the windows and, and declare revolution.

But I do think that a school in a field like this has to keep moving. It has to keep adapting. And I would say there are two areas where I am most focused to, to sort things out in my own mind over the first year.

One is, of course, the relationship between journalism and changing technology, changing ways of telling stories, of gathering facts, of communicating with the public, of playing a role, holding power to account and speaking on behalf of populations that are marginalized in our democracy.

Technology is neutral as to all of those values journalism, but if journalism is to survive it must adapt to this technology in order to carry out those roles. So that’s one.

What is it that we’re doing in the classroom to equip our students to meet that challenge? That’s one question. And then a second one is related to the way the world is changing and therefore a university like Columbia … about 30%, maybe more of the typical class at the J School now is from abroad.

And that’s not unusual at, at major universities in this country anymore. We have the good fortune of attracting the best and the brightest from all over the world, but I think it’s important for journalism and for the school to think of this window on the rest of the world’s journalism. Not just as some kind of coincidence or business model where we attract students and they pay tuition and go home. But actually as fundamental to the way we think about the role journalism plays today.

We’re in a smaller and smaller world and frankly, quite a lot of the most exciting journalism that’s being practiced in the world today is being practiced outside the United States in societies that are in, in motion where there are sometimes violent events as in Syria, sometimes subtler contests between authoritarian governments and populations as in the People’s Republic of China. And to think about the values and, and the pedagogy at a university like Columbia on a global scale and to think also about the experiences our students have as a global opportunity rather than just one in New York and the United States. It’s something I’m very interested in.

HEFFNER: Now you said a moment ago that technology is neutral. You really mean that? Don’t you think that the technological advances … no … strike that … changes that have occurred since Nick was here ten years ago … and shortly before then, that there is something inherent in the use of the web itself. In going into the clouds, that does change, so fundamentally, that’s it’s not just a matter of neutrality.

COLL: Well, I meant that technology doesn’t have values. Technology is structure. Structure is not neutral, structure is changing … and, and each technology that affects the way with communicate with one another, the way we gather information, the way information is exchanged in our democracy, each changing form of technology does have implications. You might attribute values to those implications. But it’s, it’s not because the technology has ideas about itself, it has a structure and the structure of the Internet, say for example in comparison to television is profoundly different and it is changing the way media work, the way consumers engage with media and one of the obvious characteristics of this change is that has empowered individuals at the expense of hierarchies.

It has created a collapse in the barriers to entry into journalism. Now anyone who wants to make an interview show doesn’t require a wonderful television studio like the one we’re sitting in here at CUNY … they can go into their basement and with a relatively cheap digital video system carry out television work and then post it on YouTube for free and if they can figure out how to reach an audience, market themselves.


COLL: So this has … you know, this is a change in structure rather than a change in some sort of intention.

HEFFNER: But with that description, I could ask … for good or for bad. And I know better than that because you have to say “for both” …

COLL: Both, yes.

HEFFNER: … but what’s good and what’s bad about what you just described?

COLL: Okay. So what’s good is that it had democratized media and journalism …

HEFFNER: What does that mean?

COLL: It means that it’s much more accessible to ordinary citizens in, in ways that journalism was when printing presses weren’t so expensive and business models weren’t basically the monopoly that newspapers grew up to be in the post-war period.

There are lots more opportunities for individuals to create journalism, to act as journalists, to train themselves and to, to play a role in our, in our culture, in our democracy then was the case when, for example, television was dominated by license spectrum and a handful of networks. The business models were very expensive. Newspapers required printing presses that cost hundred of millions of dollars a year, a year and systems of distribution of those newspapers that were also very expensive.

Today the barriers to entry in media have fallen. And so the system is much more open. However, what’s bad …


COLL: … on the other side of that coin, a collapse in professional confidence, professional standards, professional review that had grown up, almost as an accident of history in the business models of the post-war period … these, these business models shaped in part by the barriers to entry and the scarcity of spectrum and the, and the sort of monopoly positions of newspapers behind those walls, professions formed … values were sort of propagated, a sort of peer to peer professional set of ideas and standards about the best of journalist practice evolved.

It had a counterpart in academia, in universities … the same values were taught in the academy and then migrated into professional life. Similar to law, similar to medicine. Not to say flawless, but still an aspiration to kind of professional standards and accountability even, that is now under pressure because the business models that housed those values have also collapsed with the same barriers to entry we were talking about before.

So, you essentially are in a transition where it’s much less clear than it was ten years ago, never mind 20 years ago, who is a journalist. What professional journalism amounts to …where are the borders between professional activity and amateur activity. What are best practices? Do we have a consensus in our culture among consumers of journalism, never mind practitioners, about what they expect by way of excellent professional practice. What excellence actually is any more. And I think that is problematic.

HEFFNER: But of course you, you give me the opening there to ask you … is it a profession? Do you think of journalism as a profession, which is a question that I put so frequently to my journalist guests.

COLL: I do and I recognize that it’s … you know, it’s a position that I would have to argue like a lawyer that it’s not, it’s not self-evident. I make two points about it.

First, it’s clearly a profession in the sense that objectively it evolved from 1945 until 2000 in the manner of a profession. It had professional associations, it had a professional culture in which excellence was defined through kind of peer-to-peer accountability and, and an attempt to publish standards. A clear sense of what the codes of practice were. It didn’t have licensing like law and medicine, but it had a form of legitimizing that was located in professional practice at the, at the major institutions, and I … so I would say that while it wasn’t a government regulated profession, it evolved into a profession.

Now, so that’s one observation that I would make. But that’s probably not as important as the other aspect of this … which is, is there a form of professional conduct that journalism requires or that is innate to journalism or should be an aspiration for journalists. Now that’s more, to me, debatable because it’s not just an observation about a certain period of history, it’s a question about the nature of journalism itself. Is it something that should require these kinds of ethical codes, forms of pure accountability and professional standards and teaching.

HEFFNER: Do you think it should?

COLL: Obviously, (laughter) I’m the Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I think that it must. But I recognize that this claim is contested now in a way that it wasn’t 20 years ago …and for good reason. Partly because of journalism’s own failures. Partly because of the profession’s own failures and partly because of these changes that have opened up the acts … the, the practice of journalism to all sorts of people who don’t believe they require any supervision or access to these professional ideas or, or sort of standards and codes that, that the profession has styled itself on.

Why? Because there is a difference, it seems to me … not just in our society and … but in lots of other settings around the world if you, if you want to think about it in comparative politics terms.

There is a difference between the form of accountability and transparency that professional journalism can provide to create … to hold power to account, to hold politicians in check, to hold private corporations to account, to provide citizens with the kind of information they need to, to exercise their franchise, to motivate them, to, to take action by providing them with facts that would otherwise not be available to them. That … to carry out that role … if, if we could agree that some function like that is what the Founders had in mind when they enfranchised journalism through the First Amendment, what I would argue is that in order to achieve that objective to the greatest possible extent with all of the flaws and all of the noise and all of the opinion mongering that masquerades as journalism that, that function actually does require a level of professional achievement that is not as difficult as neurosurgery, but is more difficult than acquiring a real estate license. I mean it is, it is a … it is hard work. And it requires training and a peer culture and resources and, and also institutions with resources to withstand the resistance that strong journalism often stirs up in the form of lawsuits or other forms of pressure.

HEFFNER: But now how does what you just said and what you just said was quite wonderful … how does that parse along side the democratizing that you spoke of … every man is a journalist.

COLL: Right … well that’s …

HEFFNER: every women is a journalist.

COLL: This is, this is the fundamental tension of the time that we’re in. And by observing that the barriers to entry have fallen and that there is much greater access to the practice of journalism, I don’t mean to say that I celebrate every aspect of that or that I’m, or that I’m enshrining in my own mind, you know, sort of reifying the amateur. And there is a tendency today in discourse about journalism to, to celebrate the entry of the crowd into journalism … to say that crowd sourcing, for example … this practice of essentially using the tool of the internet to, to pole all consumers and users of a, of a medium for information or for journalistic insight, that somehow this is an advance.

I don’t think so. To me it, it is just a change that has both dangerous aspects and, and potentially positive aspects. But the potentially positive ones, to my mind have to be measured against these other aspirations for journalism.

So, if, if, if you tell me that you can cite a model where the practice of amateur participation in journalism is advancing these goals we surrounded before … described before … and maybe we could add some to that list … then I’ll, I’ll say that’s a good change. And, and I can think of one example. Let’s, let’s ….

HEFFNER: Please.

COLL: … one of the functions of journalism is to bear witness and that is when atrocities occur, when marginalized populations are victimized, when governments use their monopoly of violence to kill their own citizens, it is a function of journalism to call account … to bear witness to these events and where journalism is unable to bear witness to great atrocities often they accelerate and deepen and the Holocaust might be an example of that.

HEFFNER: It was so strange for me that you use that … bear witness when it seems to me … maybe because I’m sitting in a television studio, where when we began this program I fell all over myself and said, “Please stop the camera” so that I can start again and use one word instead of another.

Bear witness, do you think this democratization had led to our really knowing what’s happening, that journalists … not professional journalists, but every one …

COLL: I think, think there is a way in which amateur witnesses with distributed technology interacting with professional journalists have increased our eye sight on events that would otherwise be hidden and that matter. That’s the way I would put it. Syria’s an example. So …


COLL: … so, let’s … I mean Syria’s is a pretty good case study of the way technology has changed. The forms of foreign correspondent that involve simply documenting political violence in real time and attempting to provide as accurate and full a real time record of important forms of political violence that are otherwise closed off to the world as it’s possible to do.

Now I would rather have the amateur video and the cell phone photographs and the, and the ability to speak by Skype to eyewitnesses on the ground and the ability of amateur journalists to document grave sites and mass grave sites and to attempt to create a first draft of records of shellings of civilian areas and so forth than not.

I’m not telling you that that’s a substitute for professional journalism, but it’s a resource. And it’s not irrelevant. It’s a form of, of participation in the way media works today that I think is important. It’s inevitable and I don’t regard it as something to be afraid of or to be … it’s … as some sort of devolution of journalism.

It’s …but I’m not suggesting that it’s adequate. It’s … it’s important, it’s something new and it … when it’s vetted, reviewed and interrogated by professional journalists who are experienced enough and have the resources to sort wheat from chaff, to be skeptical about all claims, to even be skeptical about photographs and images that are carried out by activists … to, you know, to do all of the things that a good professional journalist would do … nonetheless they now have access to a world of witnesses that technology has enabled. And I think that’s constructive.

HEFFNER: I love your enthusiasm and I think that’s great for Columbia’s journalism students now. I, I … it doesn’t make much difference what I think about that, but I do have to go back to your publication, The New Yorker and by gosh, I didn’t realize it was quite that long ago … it was March 1989 that Janet Malcolm first wrote her wonderful reflections, “The Journalist and The Murderer” and began with that incredible paragraph, “Every journalist, who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns, when the article or book appears … his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech, and the public’s right to know, the least talented talk about art, the seemliest murmur about earning a living. Now …

COLL: (Laugh) That still holds up all these years later.

HEFFNER: You say it still holds up all these …

COLL: As a piece of writing, not as a piece of observation, necessarily.

HEFFNER: It doesn’t hold up as a piece of observation necessarily, do you … you really believe that?

COLL: Well, it’s a … look, it’s a provocation, it’s quite a wonderful paragraph, one of the great first paragraphs in the history of The New Yorker. And I’m sure that the author intended it both honestly and with tongue every so slightly in cheek. I, I … you know, I, I think first of all one thing that’s changed between 1989 and 2013 in the relationship between journalists and subjects, which is what she’s really getting at here …


COLL: And, of course, this is a particularly poisoned instance, the McGinnis murder case. And Errol Morris with a book that goes back over the same poisoned ground and comes to an entirely different conclusion, so .. let’s just set that aside as a, as a kind of exaggerated …

HEFFNER: Too good … too good to set aside.

COLL: But in any … I don’t remember. I read Fatal Vision and I’m aware of Errol’s recent book and … but I, I don’t recall the facts well enough to go through them chapter and verse.

HEFFNER: But you know journalism.

COLL: I do know journalism. And so one thing I wanted to say is that … I noticed this in my own practice of journalism. I started out in 1980 when I got out of college and I was quite influenced by that, ah, piece because I had read Fatal Vision and I was aware of how that book … the relationship between the author and the subject, who thought he was innocent of a murder and had engaged with the journalist in order to be proven innocent … ended up with a book that was quite different from what he thought he was getting. And I was young journalist and then I read this stunning paragraph that essentially described a profession that I was now well embarked on as morally indefensible. So I … yes … this has, this has been a generational influence to me.

But I actually, in the practice of journalism myself, one big thing that’s changed because of electronic media and because of the way medial has saturated our culture and our society is that I don’t think subjects are anywhere near as naïve as they were in the 1980s.

Now you can still have people who will talk themselves into a fallacy out of ego or vanity and, and the things that she’s observed. Yes.

But, I find that the subjects that I approach, whether they are ordinary citizens who I’m tracking down because I’m trying to piece together some biography in a small town and I’m encountering people who don’t normally deal reporters or I’m dealing with a sophisticated subject who may be in government office and who sees The New Yorker coming and is trying to figure out what kind of jujitsu they’re going to play with The New Yorker.

On both ends of the spectrum … naïve sources and sophisticated sources … what has changed is that they are themselves media players. They see themselves as media savvy, they think they know the game, they recognize that they have a role to play, they have to decide what version of that role they want to play … they’ll start spewing out ground rules jargon … “I’ll do it on deep background but with the right to clear quotes …” I mean … none of that was around (laugh) in the 1980’s. Now I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it’s quite different. I …and I also think then … now I’m going to sound earnest and make myself vulnerable to the Janet Malcolm sort of cynicism …

HEFFNER: In a half minute.

COLL: In a half minute. It is possible to practice ethical journalism, if you work at it. You don’t have to betray your subject.

HEFFNER: That’s not even a half minute. It’s a great conclusion …

COLL: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … and we’re coming within seconds of the end of our program, so I’ve got to ask you to stay around and do this second program with me, all I can say is I think you’re being terribly naïve in your conclusion about the difference between then and now.

The subject is still as much taken in … not necessarily purposefully … but because of his or her own limitations … by the fact that somebody’s going to write a story about me and what I think. Let’s pick it up next time.

COLL: Okay.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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