Nicholas Lemann

The Education of a Journalist Part II

VTR Date: June 25, 2003

Guest: Lemann, Nicholas


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Nicholas Lemann
Title: The Education Of A Journalist (Part II)
VTR: 6/25/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with the new Dean of Columbia University’s noted Graduate School of Journalism. Historian, journalist and writer Nicholas Lemann, who perhaps most of us know best in recent years as Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

Now last time I sounded out Dean Lemann on his reaction to the attacks on him and on Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger for their supposed embrace of snob and elite journalism. Attacks based on their plans for an extensive new intellectual and humanistic grounding for teaching and learning journalism at what, in my Columbia College days, was simply called the “J” School.

Well today we need to hear more along those lines from the Dean and I would ask him first to let me ask a couple questions about an aspect of American journalism that many, many people are concerned about and that is the aspect of the ethics of journalism.

And, of course, being such a fair minded person I go back to The New Yorker magazine and to a, an article, two… a series of two pieces written by Janet Malcolm, which she began by writing “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.”

And this is kind of a Rorschach test …


HEFFNER: … and a couple of my guests …

LEMANN: Yeah. And the last part sounds like the Passover Seder …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

LEMANN: … the wise child …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Right.

LEMANN: Well, you know, that is a sentence I practically have memorized and I have thought about it a great, great deal and talked about it a great, great deal and so on and I would hope that, you know, everybody who graduates from Columbia Journalism School would have a chance to read and think about the issues raised in this piece.

However, the first thing I would say about it is … I, I don’t want to deny that there is this element of seduction and betrayal in journalism. But very important to say that it’s, it’s, it’s a little sub-set of journalism. The “every journalist” part has always stopped me. The first two words of that sentence because, you know, and I’ve just been in, you know, on duty in Washington for the last several years … you know, the game goes both ways. It’s not just journalists preying upon innocent, ordinary people and getting them to tell their stories and betraying them. I mean even in that little world … a lot of my colleagues at the Journalism School have done this kind of work, too, so we’ve talked about it a lot. There are many cases; I mean a prime example is my good friend Alex Kotlowitz who wrote the book There Are No Children Here. Where the journalist enters into this kind of relationship with an innocent, defenseless person and the person loves what was written about them, and they become personally very close, rather than the subject feeling betrayed.

Most of journalism, really, is, is the power relationship … is, is reversed. The journalist is, is the much less powerful person and they’re writing about celebrities and stars and powerful politicians and so on, and, and the sin is much more the journalist being kind of hagiographic toward the powerful person than seducing and betraying that powerful person. So …

HEFFNER: You’ve just doubled the ante … you’ve said there are two major ethical questions here. The seduction going the one way or the other …


HEFFNER: And what you seem to have said, “well, it’s not always this way.” Or, at least, you’ve said, “Yeah, it’s this way sometimes, but look at the way it is at other times.”

LEMANN: Well, no. I mean, first of all the whole … journalism in which there is a very intimate relationship between the journalist and a person that the journalist has sort of persuaded to cooperate extensively with them. That’s what I’ve spent my whole life doing. That’s this much of journalism.

You know a lot of journalism … I mean the person who’s covering a baseball game, that’s just not what they do, you know. There’s a lot of journalism that’s either commenting on things from a distance, watching publicly available events and reporting on them. There isn’t this intense personal relationship which tends to be associated with kind of long-form non-fiction. Even within that world there are these two parts. Now I’m not saying that all of journalism isn’t shot through, as life itself is, with ethical dilemmas … I’m only saying that I don’t think this particular ethical dilemma that Janet Malcolm so eloquently identifies, that of the sort of the more powerful journalist seducing and betraying the less powerful, intimately involved ordinary person-type subject is, is the kind of master trope that encapsulates what goes on in journalism ethically. It’s, it’s an epi-phenomenon, it’s not the whole of the journalistic experience as she says.

HEFFNER: So I don’t have to beware?

LEMANN: You have to beware, and particularly if you’re doing this kind of story. I mean I’ve thought about this a lot …

HEFFNER: No, no … wait a minute, wait a minute …


HEFFNER: … I’m, I’m saying I don’t have to beware as the potential subject of a story.

LEMANN: Yeah, I mean you do. Let, let me, you know, just put all my cards on the table here [laughter]. I, you know, whenever I run into anybody sort of my friend’s kid who goes to law school, they often will say to me, “Oh, I just learned about you in Law School.” I am the subject of a widely taught invasion of privacy case, where the person who sued me would have been totally signed on to the Janet Malcolm [laughter] theory. And I think even in that case I strongly objected, and I won the case and got a, you know, very strong opinion defending this kind of work from Judge Richard Posner, which would stand … you should read it … I, I would …

HEFFNER: I will.

LEMANN: … assign Posner’s opinion and that piece together, because he defends this kind of work eloquently, in a way that, you know, I’m very grateful about. But, you know … yes, as somebody … if a journalist comes to you and says, “I want to move into your life and spend a lot of time with you and trust me … and let down all your defenses and so on …”, you should be wary. However, there’s lots of relationships in life like that. And, and I’m not saying this isn’t something we shouldn’t talk about in Journalism School and, you know, this is what schools are for, is to think about this kind of thing.

But, it’s just not a simple … most human relationships have the capacity for exploitation on both sides. Very often a journalist will be approached by a subject who says, or their representative … “we’d like you to do X, Y and Z”. In other words, you get seduced a lot, too, as a journalist. So it goes both ways. And also the point that Malcolm doesn’t allow for here is … I can come to you and say all this. You can be wary, you can eventually decide, for whatever reason, “okay, I’m going to do it anyway” and very often it … the relationship works out just fine and you’re happy with the result. So …

HEFFNER: Well, the …

LEMANN: … you don’t always get betrayed.

HEFFNER: Okay. I’ll accept that … you don’t always get betrayed, which is a hell of a statement, because it does imply you frequently get betrayed. But the … I remember once in a seminar of mine having given the Janet Malcolm pieces to read, and, and saying afterwards, “you know, just let me tell you I’ve never been involved in a public act which, when I read the press, I recognized …


HEFFNER: … as accurate or truth … what was reported. And the best thing to do is just don’t get involved.” And I remember at this particular seminar that night I received a call and I went around blabbing, blabbing, blabbing … it is irresistible because you, the journalist, the person who presents my rationale, I believe … that if I speak to you from the bottom of my heart, that you’re going to communicate to the rest of the world. And I don’t know that that’s … that’s not your obligation. That’s not your function. It’s a very deceptive business.

LEMANN: I don’t think it is an inherently deceptive business. I mean, as a journalist you … I mean one of things that fun about being a journalist is that it gets you out of your sort of slot in life. And, and you have a kind of a ticket that allows you to go places people usually don’t go and ask questions people usually don’t ask. And sort of go past barriers.

HEFFNER: That’s a very interesting way of putting it.

LEMANN: And you know you’re doing … it’s fun to do that. And, and also it, it is what makes journalism interesting to read. But … excuse me … I’m … sorry, I had to sneeze …

HEFFNER: Don’t worry about it.

LEMANN: … but it’s presenting it as that aspect of a highly complicated field as, as being the summation of the field and saying to people who deal with journalists, just don’t deal with them because this will always happen or happen most of the time. I really don’t think it’s accurate. Or even to say that this is the only, or the overriding ethical dilemma in the practice of journalism. There’s all these other ethical dilemmas, too.

I mean it’s, it’s … just about every profession or field has some, you know, inherent thing like this. And, and it’s just too easy, it’s like saying “Well, any surgeon is going to, you know, always do the unnecessary operation because he’ll make money on it. So never, you know, trust a surgeon who says you need an operation.” I mean there, there’s something there, there’s some incentive structure there, but it’s not, doesn’t capture the totality and one of the things professional schools do that’s good is create an ethos in people where they fall prey, we hope, less than they ordinarily would, to the, the pitfalls and seductions and preys of the profession.

HEFFNER: How do you do that?

LEMANN: You just teach people … I mean it, it’s by instilling habits of reflection. It’s by instilling higher consciousness and awareness of what you’re doing. It’s by, you know, discussing ethics constantly in classes and making people aware of these issues. You, you know, it’s just getting people one step up in consciousness from the realm of “this is the story, go get it. Don’t tell me how you got it.”

HEFFNER: Is this largely the contribution that your next level of activity at the J School will bring about … the association with the rest of the University? With more classical learning?

LEMANN: Well, I wouldn’t say exactly classical learning. What I would say is this … I’d put it a slightly different way. And I’m drawing on my own life experience here. As a journalist, after you get out of Columbia, you’re going to spend, I hope, many happy and maybe some unhappy decades practicing the profession of journalism. So … you probably never again will be sitting in one of the great universities of the world. So we can sort of divide and say “what are the things that would be useful to you as a journalist, that you can best get at Columbia University and that are going to be very hard to get out there on the job versus the things that, you know, you can pick up here or there pretty much equally well.”

Really focus, in a disciplined way on thinking, “what exists only here at this very rarified institution that would be of use to journalists.” But that’s not just classical education such as reading the great books, although some of that may be in there. It’s also, you know, expertise in areas you may cover and very practical areas. Like if you think you might want to cover health policy … the best place … you can’t go much better places to get a short course in health policy than Columbia University. So why not get it there? It’s really hard to get that sitting in a newsroom of a newspaper, and it’s really easy to get it sitting in a university.

So a lot of it is, is just, you know, drawing upon the immense reservoir of substantive expertise in subjects that journalists cover residing in Morningside Heights.

HEFFNER: You talk about the profession of journalism. What makes it a profession?

LEMANN: Well, I … you know …

HEFFNER: You said it [laughter] … right …

LEMANN: Ahmm, that’s an eternal debate of what makes a profession a profession. And there are various definitions floating around and, you know, you could say “it’s a trade”, you could say, “it’s a craft.” I guess I would say a profession is, is characterized by … I mean journalism is not characterized by a formal government licensing program, which I hope will never exist in our lifetimes. So, it would be more the idea that you have a set of higher skills and knowledge particularly, you know, a mode of analysis that is an expression that is characteristic to what you do and that isn’t just what everybody does, and that has to be learned. It’s the idea that you have certain, you know, ethics and values that you have imbibed in your professional training and they sort of carry forth with you through your career and that transcend, or may occasionally fight against pressures you may be under in the, in the moment through your career. It’s a sense of sort of cohesiveness with other people who do what you do and a sense of comradeship and, and that you’re all in it together and you’re trying to expand the bounds of what’s possible in your field. A sense of, you know, the public good. All these things characterize a profession.

HEFFNER: But, of course, you start with the elimination of the one characteristic that you find in most professions.

LEMANN: The license.

HEFFNER: The license.

LEMANN: Right. Although, you know, a good analogy … there’s several good analogies for what we’re trying to do at Columbia and, you know, a great analogy is business school … Columbia Business School. You know, there there’s no licensing.

HEFFNER: But whoever claimed anything about the profession of being a businessman …

LEMANN: Well, they, they would … I would suspect if you sort of … you know, I haven’t done this … if you sort of made your way around MBA programs, you would hear the “profession” of management thrown around. Another, you know, example where the word profession gets debated is, you know, schools like Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs … which, which, you know, the person who, who was a sort of big stateman and spokesman for the idea of a profession of public service in government was Derek Bok, former President of Harvard …


LEMANN: … you know, same general ideas … no licensing requirement. Most people who do the thing haven’t gone through the professional training. But, nonetheless, you can say that, that some of this ethos of a profession without licensing is still beneficial.

HEFFNER: Suppose one were to say, “Agreed.” Still, your claim that it is a profession seems to me to be a strong statement, maybe even stronger than you would wish to make.

LEMANN: Well, I mean … what I really think is … this is not as an argument that the settling of which is, is relevant to the doing of my job. The question … I am running a school. You know, students come in, they take the classes, they graduate, they get jobs. My job is to provide … get the best possible students, provide them with the best possible education and provide them … and then hope they get and try to help them get the best possible jobs.

You know, if you want to call that a profession or not a profession, as long as I’m allowed to do it … it doesn’t matter. It’s not, you know … the despositive thing is I get up every morning and go to work … is not “wow, is it a profession or isn’t it a profession?”.

HEFFNER: No, but in terms of its strength, its power, the degree to which it escapes some or does not escape some of the burdens …

LEMANN: Right.

HEFFNER: … that other so-called professions have. Let me ask you another …

LEMANN: I mean if by profession we mean licensing …no. If by profession we mean a sense of responsibility, a sort of moral and ethical responsibility … yes, I believe that that should go along with journalism and it does to a very large extent now. And the more it can, the better.

HEFFNER: And here … so we’re talking about voluntarism. That wonderful American … right. You know, it’s funny, thinking about our programs together I was thinking of another New Yorker colleague of yours … Alastair Reed, and I was thinking of that unfortunate exchange that took place … my God … many years ago now …

LEMANN: Yeah …20 years ago or something.

HEFFNER: Yeah, I guess …

LEMANN: … 15 years years ago …

HEFFNER: Alastair had been my colleague at Sarah Lawrence College … he was a poet, I was a historian. And I thought his poetic license was quite appropriate …


HEFFNER: … for him. But the rest of the journalistic profession (laughter) seemed to use him as punching bag …


HEFFNER: … and I wondered then, why and I even wonder about that now. Why was there such self-righteousness on the part of the, of the press at the time. The New York Times editorializing …


HEFFNER: … Roger Rosenblatt writing an opinion piece in Time magazine … everyone seemed to be wanting to jump on that wagon. Is is because of the sense of the limitations of journalism generally?

LEMANN: Well, no. I mean I think it was partly resentment of The New Yorker which, which then was, was, you know, maybe more than now even was very widespread. And it just … it’s a sort of a class thing almost. There was a sense that he, you know, is able to or wants to, or thinks he can play by a slightly different set of rules than what would be permitted, you know, if you were almost anywhere else in journalism. And, and that creates a tremendous amount of resentment. It’s the idea that he’s sort of putting himself above, in effect, the rest of us, by saying “I can get away with,” you know … I think what it … as I recall it was a sort of a composite character thing.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. Yeah.

LEMANN: “I can get away with creating a composite character and you can’t … nah, nah …” or something. But, I should say … I, myself, have never and will never create a composite character. I don’t think it’s right. I, I understand all the arguments, but, but I don’t do it, and don’t believe it in.

HEFFNER: Even in your more poetic moments.

LEMANN: Even in my more poetic moments. I mean I do things in prose in The New Yorker that wouldn’t scan elsewhere, but they don’t involve actually, you know, changing facts on the ground. I never, ever have done that.

HEFFNER: There are two things … we’ve got five minutes left … I wanted to ask you. How are you going to feel leaving The New Yorker, that wonderful, wonderful institution?

LEMANN: Well, you never really leave. I mean I, I … President Bollinger said, “I want you to be a writing Dean” and I … taking him at his word, I have stepped down as Washington correspondent, but I just signed a new contract and I continue to be titular Staff Writer at The New Yorker and I hope to write, you know, a couple pieces a year for The New Yorker. So, the years when I was working there, you know, very full time I didn’t actually have an office there, I worked at home. And, so it’s not like I’m, I’m kind of leaving this place that I went to every day of my life.

And I plan to continue writing for the magazine, you know, forever, if they’ll have me. While Dean I will be writing at a reduced pace. I am, you know, one of the nice things about being Dean is it’s the first time in many years anybody’s accused me of being young (laughter). So, ahh …

HEFFNER: You mean most of them are old fogies like me … old academics …

LEMANN: So, so I hope that being Dean is a season in my life after which I will return to, you know, much more full time in journalism. So, I have not at all cut my tie to The New Yorker.

HEFFNER: You know, I think there’s a word that we haven’t used in these two programs. Television. Do I, should I understand that television will now not play as large a role …

LEMANN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I mean the rap on Columbia Journalism School has always been that it’s too print oriented and not enough TV oriented. But, you know, there’s been something running underneath our conversation that we haven’t noted explicitly, and that is … we’re not talking about an education that is specifically channeled into journalistic delivery forms … like online, print, radio, TV, magazine, newspaper, etc. We’re talking about an education that, in my opinion would be useful to anybody going into journalism, particularly if they’re going to rise to a leadership position and I did mention, you know, TV News Directors and network news executives and correspondents.

So, I, I think if you, if you educate people well, they can use the education in any realm of journalism and it is not, not, not meant to be a print specific program.

HEFFNER: Will there be as much that relates specifically to television as there is that relates specifically to print? Despite what you just said.

LEMANN: Well, you know, the school is building, I mean …knock on wood and hoping this all goes well, but it’s, it’s undertaking to build a, a TV studio in the building. You know, as far as investment goes, we invest much more in television than we do in print. As far as, you know, class assignments and so on, it’s probably a little more print … much more print than, than TV. But I think educationally, again, the school should, should not be placing a bet between those two. But instead should be focusing on a kind of broader education in how to think like a journalist that can, you know, profit you in any realm.

And I also think that, you know, print people like me … one of the things I wish I had learned somewhere along the line is a little bit about TV and radio and how they work. I, I … it would be nice if every graduate had some experience in every delivery mechanism that exists at this moment. But journalism’s going to change, you know, in your career. So you shouldn’t be too trained to do one thing that may disappear … so we don’t want you to be like a barrel staver … we want you to have stuffed in your head the ability to be a journalist under any conditions.

HEFFNER: Dean Lemann thank you for joining me. Promise that you’ll come back after you wet your feet up …

LEMANN: Of course.

HEFFNER: …there at Morningside Heights.

LEMANN: Love to.

HEFFNER: Thanks.

LEMANN: 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.