Nicholas Lemann

The Education of a Journalist Part I

VTR Date: June 25, 2003

When The Washington Post’s politics columnist, Robert Samuelson wrote about the new Dean, my guest, historian, journalist, writer, Nicholas Lemann, he described him as “A brilliant write, an exhaustive reporter, a gifted thinker, and, from everything I know”, he wrote, “a nice guy.” Which fits neatly with my own impressions of my guest from our earlier Open Mind program on what he called “the secret history of the American meritocracy” as well as from his other writing and reporting, most recently as Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.


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.

But when The Washington Post’s politics columnist, Robert Samuelson wrote about the new Dean, my guest, historian, journalist, writer, Nicholas Lemann, he described him as “A brilliant write, an exhaustive reporter, a gifted thinker, and, from everything I know”, he wrote, “a nice guy.”

Which fits neatly with my own impressions of my guest from our earlier Open Mind program on what he called “the secret history of the American meritocracy” as well as from his other writing and reporting, most recently as Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

But don’t think that Dean Lemann is home free in his press coverage, for his appointment by Columbia’s new President, Lee Bollinger, is also associated now with Bollinger’s supposed embrace of “snob” or elite journalism. And first today I want to ask my guest just how he reacts to, indeed, how he accounts for these attacks on Columbia’s plans for a more intellectual and humanistic grounding for journalism education. Is this, at least as it looks to me, a kind of journalistic Know-Nothing-ism.

LEMANN: [Laughter] Well, as you said this is going to be challenging. And if you’re going to get attacked, it’s better to get attacked before you get there and have done anything, then after you’ve already done what you came here to do.

I was a little surprised, to be honest, of, of … you know, the negative … the intensity of the negative reaction to a statement that President Bollinger released about the future of journalism education. And I don’t … as to why … there’s some good reasons and some bad reasons. And one of the appealing things about journalism is it’s very democratic. And, you know, anybody can play. You don’t need any credentials. And it, it’s traditionally one of the fields in America that’s most open to the smart, penniless, ambitious person, starting with Ben Franklin. So, to the extent that people think, “well, they’re trying to turn it into a sort of structured field that, you know, self-consciously plucks people out and says who can be a journalist.” I think it’s good for there to be some, you know, alarm bells going off about that possibility. That will not happen in our lifetime, I can assure.

As you’re hinting, I was, you know, I have been disappointed by the note of active hostility to the kind of thing that goes on in the rest of Columbia University. But I hope that, you know, through patience and persuasiveness and demonstration that we can win the argument. And a lot of the arguments made against what people we’re planning can be easily refuted or laid to rest.

HEFFNER: But it’s very interesting, you talk about hostility toward what goes on in the rest of Columbia University, that’s the anti-intellectualism, right?

LEMANN: MmmHmm. Well, I guess … you know, there’s a few things floating around out here. One … I need to sort of go off on a digression …

HEFFNER: Be my guest.

LEMANN: … Columbia Journalism School is, is an unusual institution in two ways. In the context of the Ivy League, it’s the only journalism school. There are various journalist mid-career programs and little things like. But there is no, you know, classroom, degree granting, journalism school at an Ivy League University except Columbia Journalism School. There’s also no undergraduate journalism major at any of these schools.

So, it, it’s kind of grafted on to a quite different academic culture at one end and then, the other end, there’s a whole lot of journalistic education in American universities, but most of it is undergraduate, with graduate programs kind of layered on top of undergraduate programs. And often both the undergraduate and the graduate programs have names like “Schools of Mass Communications”, or “Media Theory”, “Communications Studies”, things like that.

So, a lot of people think that … so Columbia as a stand-alone graduate-only journalism school doesn’t look much like the rest of journalism education. And, by its location in a major research university also doesn’t look much like the rest of journalism education. And, as a journalism school, doesn’t look much like the rest of the Ivy League. So, it sits there by itself, which is one of the appealing things about it, it’s a kind of bridge institution between upper academic higher ed culture and, you know, journalism education. But as a result, it gets sort of misunderstood a lot. Or plans for it get misunderstood. So many people President Bollinger wants to turn Columbia Journalism School from a school that teaches people how to be journalists, into a school that, essentially produces media theorists. And, and where people kind of think thoughts about the media, but don’t learn how to be journalists.

So I want to assure you that what we have in mind is, in fact, teaching people how to be journalists, but what’d I’d like to do is kind of add a new layer to that process. That is, go beyond the basic skills and, and try to draw more richly on the extraordinary university that the school is in to, you know, add a kind of second layer of higher order, analytic and skills and higher knowledge base.

HEFFNER: Now, Nicholas Lemann, you can’t ask me to believe that you want to do that just because it’s there at 116th Street and Broadway. Because all of those big ideas are there that you want to avail yourself of them. You must feel, it seems to me, at least, so I take a little of the wind out of that “must” … but I do think you must feel that journalism needs this infusion of those ideas from the rest of 116th Street and Broadway.

LEMANN: Well, let me … there’s two ways to put it.

HEFFNER: Is that fair?

LEMANN: Well, let me sort of dodge a tiny bit …


LEMANN: There’s one thing that I can say without, you know, with absolute certainty. Which is … future journalists who go to this school, if we do our job right will benefit mightily and definitely for their whole careers from having imbibed, you know, the deep waters of Morningside Heights. I’m absolutely sure about that. The people who go to the school and are able to get, you know, a richer journalistic education, kind of layered on top of the basic skills will profit from it.

It’s not a new thing. This is what Columbia and universities like it do. And research universities have been around for a really long time. This stuff works. The other question is, is more difficult, which is, is there a sort of a problem or short-coming in journalism itself that, you know, what we would like to do at Columbia will help to solve. And …

HEFFNER: What’s the answer? Good question. What’s the answer?

LEMANN: It’s tough to answer. And the reason is … you know, I feel journalism has various shortcomings. We … there … is journalism in crisis? I don’t think I’m ready to sign on to the idea that journalism is in crisis. I do think that journalism, you know, can always been better. And, and it plays a more and more important role in the world. And that calls on all of us to be better. So, in a way, the real question is … can one little school that turns out, you know, a hundred or two hundred graduates a year, presume to change all of journalism?

That’s saying a lot. However, so, so what I would say is the school has a kind of exemplary function as an institution in itself it has a wonderful … to use that horrible word “brand” name … and the world kind of looks to it. It seems to set a tone because of the tradition of the school, the prizes associated with it, the New York location, the Columbia location, etc. So what we do matters disproportionately. I’m reasonably confident that the students we produce as graduates will be disproportionately influential, more than just that many young journalists picked at random out of a basket.

But I don’t think the school will ever be, you know, in a, in a kind of one-to-one correspondence way so influential that, that what it does, what the people running the Columbia Journalism School decide to do will have the sort of direct, immediate and measurable effect on all of journalism.

HEFFNER: Okay, but Dean Lemann, in fact, you’re thinking of adding another year. You want that other year to enable your students to draw upon the resources …

LEMANN: Right.

HEFFNER: … of the University. How will they be different at the end of those two years than students are now at the end of a year?

LEMANN: Oh, that I can tell you.

HEFFNER: What do you want from them?

LEMANN: Yes, that I can definitely answer. And, and, it’s just this … them stopping on the question of “and therefore all of journalism will change.”


LEMANN: I hope it does.

HEFFNER: I understand.

LEMANN: But I can’t say with certainty. But I can answer that question almost, you know, exactly. I’ll start at the end, sort of with consciousness. When you start out in journalism, what you have to master first is kind of an accurate representation and clear expression of events. You know, you’re saying to people … journalists are mediating figures between the public, or at least the interested part of the public … and what’s happening in the world, particularly among powerful people. So the first step is to be able to say … “this is what happened” … so and so event occurred yesterday and to be able to get it right and say it in a clear, engaging way.

Then, what you want to be able to do is … you don’t skip that step … [laughter] … you master that step. But after you’ve mastered that step you want to be able to explain more and, and fit things into patterns more, and understand the meaning of the events you’re covering more. The deeper meaning particularly as you rise in the profession and the events have higher stakes and more importance and more complexity. You want to be able to explain to people very clearly what the consequences are, what’s at stake, the ways in which what you’re seeing are, are expressions of larger trends and patterns. So those are the kinds of things that, that I would really hope that, you know, people who went for more time at journalism school would leave, at least having a good head start on.

You start with events … most journalists … the next move is to understand everything is a sort of power struggle among, among important people. And that’s, you know, fun, and it supports colorful writing and it’s interesting and I’ve done it a lot myself. Then there’s a level beyond that where you understand that … it’s the power struggle, but it’s not just a power struggle. There’s big tectonic things going on in the world. And you want to have some understanding of them. You also want to have a kind of strange combination of self-confidence and humility. In other words enough self-confidence that when you confront something complicated, you don’t say “forget it, I’m never going to be able to understand that. You know the best I could do is either ignore it or call and expert and get a quote.” To really believe that you can get, at least, part of the way there on mastering a complicated situation under constrained time circumstances.

But humility in the sense that you don’t have the illusion that you know everything about the subject. Or that complete knowledge is possible even, to, to humans. You know that you know where the limit of “know-ability” is and you don’t pretend to be beyond it. You know how much you don’t know and that keeps you from being arrogant. I’ve gotten, you know, many, many E-mails since being appointed. Many expressing skepticism. And, and one theme in many E-mails is “there’s nothing a reporter can’t master in two days”. I really disagree with that and I would think, you know, in a way, a longer curriculum that’s more academic will cure you of the view that you can master any subject in two days.

In other words you would get farther toward mastering it in the two days you have, but you wouldn’t be under the illusion any more that you’ve totally mastered it.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you know, the strange thing … if I had written you an E-mail … I guess what I would have said was … “why are you combining these two things?” You’ve been doing the second thing so wonderfully well in the magazines, and your writings of books. I mean, why do you want to combine those things?

LEMANN: Which things?

HEFFNER: The things … the one mastering the “what happened” …


HEFFNER: And how can I express it?

LEMANN: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: And how can I be that middleman between the event and the public. And the other … bringing some larger understanding to bear.

LEMANN: Because that’s, that’s what journalists do. I mean it’s not just people like me … another theme in all the E-mails I’ve gotten is the sort of …


LEMANN: …what I would call the “hot house” flower theme. Which is, you know, “sure, you do all this stuff in this sort of little corner of journalism that you’ve been occupying for all these years. But most journalists don’t … it’s not part of the job.” I really disagree with that. And, and, you know, this kind of, of move toward a broader and, and sort of more strategic understanding of what’s going on in the world is, is really most useful to people in the daily and weekly news cycles. In other words, people who will end up as … it’s useful to everybody I think, really … but in particular I want to insist that it would be useful to people who have jobs like Managing Editor, or Publisher of a newspaper; News Director of television station; and executive of a network news division … people like … and Senior Correspondents who are moving from place to place a lot. People who have to …who are confronted with fast breaking, really complicated situations … the sort of emergency room physicians of journalism. And have to make the best possible snap judgments; the kind of wisdom that you can start toward acquiring at a university is particularly useful to them. I really think that people who are going to wind up in leadership roles in journalism can profit almost … not “almost” … all can profit from this kind of education. A year of your life is a tiny price to pay to get the benefits of this kind of education. And you’ll be able to use it in your job and the net affect … anybody who, who has this is going to be able to serve the public better as a journalist.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting because my wife said to me the other day, when she watched me saying this on the air, the phrase about “nobody in here but us chickens”, when I was saying, once again, that most of the journalists who sit at this table, and most of the managing Editors and most of the Presidents of associations say “you know, nobody in here but us chickens. We don’t have that power.” Interpreters, historians, because the question I usually ask, “aren’t you an historian, in fact?” they don’t want that. They don’t want that responsibility.

LEMANN: Well, I mean … first of all in many cases, they’re being disingenuous.


LEMANN: And second of all, they should want … I mean they, in effect have that responsibility, so, you know, they should step up to the plate and, and exercise it. In other words, there’s a whole lot of what happens in public life has to do with how things are framed and, you know, the world is huge and complicated and chaotic and one thing that the press does is it tries to order events, and say, you know, if you’re a Managing Editor you have to decide what’s on the front page … you have to. You can’t say, “I’m not deciding what’s on the front page, I’m just giving people the raw wire.” You’re organizing information for readers about the world based on judgments of importance and interest. And then you’re deciding what goes where on the front page.

Now, you know, people in government and, and this is more and more true as more time goes by … if, if you’re not going to step up to the plate and take that responsibility, they’re going to. They’d love to, they’d love to say, “this is the most important thing that happened today, this is the second most important, this is the third most important …this other thing is really unimportant … you can ignore it … and, and the whole point of an independent press is to say, “wait a minute, we’re not just accepting those judgments from people in power, we’re making our own judgments about what we think is important.” So, you can’t be, particularly in a management job in journalism and not make those decisions. I mean you … it goes along with the territory, it’s the fun of the job.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that true to some extent, not as great an extent as you’re talking about now in terms of management, of the guy on the line, not just management?

LEMANN: Yes. Absolutely. I mean people don’t see how … I guess particularly after you get to a certain level in journalism … you’re making choices all the time. And, and, you know, you’re deciding … I mean my last job was I was Washington correspondent with … for The New Yorker. And, you know, Washington’s huge. I mean the Federal government is x percent of the GNP of the country. So, even as a solo operator I’m deciding, you know, in conjunction with my editors, this is more important than that … this is more interesting than that … this is more significant than that. So, you know, a lot of what you’re doing is kind of making judgments about the importance of things.

HEFFNER: But it’s …

LEMANN: … and that shapes what the public is aware of.

HEFFNER: All right, now why the denial. The constant denial that this is the …


HEFFNER: … the case.

LEMANN: I think it’s … one of the appealing things about journalism is it does have a kind of, you know, old shoe modesty about itself. Which is nice. You know, it’s a sort of populist themed field.

HEFFNER: But it isn’t true.

LEMANN: But, it isn’t …

HEFFNER: It isn’t real.

LEMANN: The other thing that’s going on there, I think is particularly people in jobs like, you know, management of important newspapers … they just, you know, I’ve mentioned my E-mails a couple of times. I mean, you know, you should see their E-mails. They just spend so much of their life fielding criticism for being biased, ignoring this, overplaying that and so on, that it, it … I mean they know perfectly well they’re making these judgments … they have to. And, you know, they want to. That’s why they want these job. But it, it, it, it’s this kind of defense mechanism to keep the, the endless numbers of critics at bay by saying, “oh, you know, I’m just doing my job. I’m not trying to decide these things, I’m just, you know, printing what’s ever in the news, etc.”
HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen now that you’re in this position of considerable influence, you can wield a lot of influence. What do you think will happen with journalism now in this country?

LEMANN: Well, you know, again … as … I do not want to claim that whatever we do at Columbia Journalism School will produce immediate, demonstrable results throughout journalism.

HEFFNER: Just a lot of reactions.

LEMANN: A lot of reactions. It is kind of in the spotlight. I do want to claim that, you know, whatever we … as, as, you know, however we can do better, better, better, better, better with our graduates they will be good journalists who will produce good journalism that will benefit the world. But, you know, if, if you ask me, you know, as a journalist what would I like to see happen in journalism, that would be fairly easy to answer.

I’d like to see journalism be more and more confident about communicating, you know, the substance of and the context of the news to its readers and, and to be adept enough at the practice of journalism, the reporting and the writing, so that doing that isn’t dull, boring, preachy or anything like that … but vital and interesting.

HEFFNER: One question that’s very much on my mind. Yours is a graduate school …


HEFFNER: … of journalism. Why aren’t you picking people who already have eaten of the fruit …


HEFFNER: … that grows on those trees in Morningside Heights. Why is it that you’re going to be introducing them to the world of ideas? Why isn’t that …

LEMANN: Yeah, I’ve gotten that …

HEFFNER: … you’re picking only those who already are humanistically and intellectually broadened.

LEMANN: Well, there’s a couple of things. First of all, you know, I speak as a Harvard graduate … don’t overestimate the extent to which … I mean of my colleagues at Columbia … who would hear me say that … they would say “exactly.”

HEFFNER: They will hear you say that.

LEMANN: [Laughter] You know … mean … and they’ll roll their eyes about Harvard. But the point is, don’t overestimate the extent to which every college grad has, you know, wonderful, broad, humanistic education of the kind that Columbia College graduates have. You know, the, the Journalism School gets people from all over the country, all over the world, all manner of, of schools high and low, but even in Ivy League schools, believe me, you can get through there and not know a lot of stuff. So that’s one answer.


LEMANN: But the second answer is … and more importantly … I’m not, I don’t have in mind to sort of replicate a, you know, Columbia, Chicago, St. John’s College style “Great Books” program. What I’ve, you know, said and written so far has been sort of misinterpreted in that way.

What, instead, I’d like to do is, you know, create a basket of master concepts that I think future leaders in journalism should be familiar with. A) some of these concepts … concepts that are not going to be of practical, immediate use in journalism wouldn’t make the cut. So there’s some stuff you get in a “Great Books” program that won’t be in there. There’s other stuff that should be in there, that would never make it into a great books program … such as “rudimentary statistical literacy”. Another real good example is, there are various kinds of analytic tools, like, you know, that are related to each other … rational choice, cost/benefit analysis, game theory, decision theory … these are useful to have in your head because they’re a sort of way to look at the world and try to understand things.

And also because huge amounts of people who staff governments everywhere are trained to think in this way. So it helps you as you covered these people to know that this is their frame of reference as they look at the world. So, that’s not going to make it into a “Great Books” course. So, so it would be selected to the things relevant to the practice of journalism at higher levels with the connection always made directly. You’re reading this text, this classic text, you’re encountering this big idea and here’s an actual news story that you might be writing in two years in which it comes to bear. So you’re making the connection to journalism always.

HEFFNER: Dean Lemann I appreciate your joining me today. We obviously have so much more to talk about and I want to needle you about that I hope you’ll stay where you are and we’ll do another program. I will repeat the question as why aren’t you taking the people at the very beginning who have been through what you want them to go through now instead of imposing upon it … that’s not the right word … instead of introducing them to it. I have the last word because I have to say, “thank you very much and good-bye. See you next time.”

LEMANN: Okay. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.