Nicholas Lemann

The further education of a journalist, Part I

VTR Date: June 14, 2011

Nicholas Lemann discusses journalistic development.


GUEST: Nicholas Lemann
VTR: 12/04/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And what now may seem to him like a life time ago, in June, 2003, today’s guest promised to come back to this table after he’d gotten his feet wet up at Morningside Heights as the new Dean of Columbia University’s noted Graduate School of Journalism…the “J” School, as we called it during my Columbia College days three score and more years ago.

Now Nicholas Lemann – historian, journalist, one time Washington correspondent, now staff writer, at the New Yorker – proves to be as good as his word, taking time off from his labors as Dean of the “J” School to discuss this further education of a journalist.

Now last time Dean Lemann put it quaintly. “This stuff works”, he said about the contributions made by great research and teaching universities like Columbia. But the more difficult question he posed for himself was whether there is a sort of problem or a short-coming in journalism itself that what he and the “J” School do might help to resolve. And I wonder whether these past few years have helped him answer that question. What do you think? Have you helped resolve questions relating to journalism?

LEMANN: Well, journalism is very big and we are very small.

HEFFNER: Oh, come, come.

LEMANN: So … but it’s true. You know, there are, I think, in addition to the whole known universe of journalism that we’re familiar with, there’s, I think now, four million bloggers who self identify as journalists.

HEFFNER: Self-identify.

LEMANN: Yeah. Self-identify.

HEFFNER: Do you identify them as journalists?

LEMANN: Oh. Sure. I mean I don’t want to say who is and isn’t … for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. Our school at any given moment has about 300 students in about a total of 400 to 500 in our building. So, would that I could snap my fingers as Dean and say, “all of journalism must change” … I can’t.

But we educate leaders and we’re a good, sort of platform to sort of talk about the state of journalism. So I do think if you’re looking for a point to have kind of leverage over journalism, Columbia Journalism School is as good a place as any. It’s a place where you can go and try to do things and say things that you think would improve journalism and have as much hope as you’d have anywhere of it’s making a difference.

HEFFNER: Okay. For good or for bad … over the past few years that you’ve been Dean.

LEMANN: Well, you mean has journalism changed?

HEFFNER: Yeah. The changes that you would like to think Columbia School of Journalism has helped to identify.

LEMANN: Well, on that … you know the, the … we’ve been able to do a tremendous amount of new things that are … we’re all excited about in the last three years. But most of them are very new. Probably number one on the list would be we started a new degree program. You know last time I was on the show we talked about how I wanted to try to push in the direction of teaching journalists to understand the substance of complicated issues, which is an oft-noted shortcoming of journalism.

So we’ve done that. We’ve now created a new degree program … first one at the school in 71 years that gives journalists who enter it a deep expertise in whatever subject they want. So it graduated its first class of 27 people in May 2006, the second class of 33 people is there now.

Now, have those 27 people who’ve been out in the workforce for six months changed the entirety of journalism? Probably not quite yet. Maybe in another six months they will have. But we have established our capability to do this and established it as a value and I think as, as this program continues, you know, it will have a bit effect.

Another example … we just opened an investigative reporting center that we’re very excited about. And hired a wonderful person from Manila named Sheila Coronel to run it. She started on Labor Day. We’re taping in the middle of December. So, you know, has she and have her students who are being trained to be investigative reporters changed journalism in two, three months? Probably not that much yet. But if … in a few years I think they will have.

HEFFNER: Now … two things. Let’s, let’s look at investigative journalism. Although … first I do want to ask you … your talking … as you must be speaking now as you were speaking the last time you were here about adding a year of content matter …

LEMANN: Yup. Yup.

HEFFNER: … to the journalists armament.


HEFFNER: That means people who are going into journalism, who are studying more in the area of the sciences, history, economics, etc. I just wanted to get that straight.

Now, investigative reporting … it’s so strange at this program at the J School begins just, I would think investigative reporters are under more pressure than ever before and how do you deal with that?

LEMANN: Well, you know, we are sort of counter-cyclical. That is, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about this in a few minutes … there’s a lot of concern about the state of journalism right now.

It’s interesting how quickly it’s come on. As I remember when we were here three years and change ago … there was very little talk in the air about there being an economic crisis in journalism.

There was lots of talk about the failings of journalism as a profession, but not that there was some kind of wave sweeping across that would alter everything. And now all the talk is about that.

When people are concerned about, for instance, the place of investigative reporting in traditional news organizations, they tend to come to us and say, “We’d like you to be a bulwark protecting investigative reporting.”

The increasing importance of the web changes the equation in a lot of ways. Sheila Coronel, who runs our investigative reporting center, was in the … you know, one year ago … a web-based journalist who ran a wonderful organization … very, very influential … called “The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism” in Manila, …

HEFFNER: PC not representing “politically correct”?

LEMANN: No, Philippine Center.


LEMANN: So, we can teach people to be investigative reporters … Sheila has about 15 students a year … we can produce their work on the Web and in a big old world, if we’re inflicting upon it 15 people a year … they can find jobs.

And a lot of them will want to do projects, you know, on their own, such as books and websites. But I’m not worried that if there is a broad systemic cutback in investigative reporting that our folks won’t be able to make a big difference in the profession.

HEFFNER: I was thinking less about a cutback in terms of the economics of print journalism …


HEFFNER: … or electronic journalism than I was thinking about the relationship between government … governments I should say … and the journalist. And I wonder what’s happening in terms of your teaching the younger people who come to you, in terms of the cutbacks, not economic …but the cutbacks on what it is they can do without running into problems of press privilege.

LEMANN: There’s a … you know … we’re in an eternal tug-of-war with government … push/pull … or whatever you want to call. So teach students to push back against government. And I am concerned about what’s going on now, but not fearful in a big, big way that all of investigative reporting is in danger.

You know there’s a lot of people to talk to … something like a third of the American labor force works for government at some level. They, you know, it’s impossible to shut down government source to reporter relationships entirely.

There is an uptake in prosecution or attempted prosecution of reporters to get them to try to reveal to their sources in connection with trials. But on the other side of the ledger, again mainly because of the Web there’s been an enormous, enormous increase in, in the ability of trained reporters to get a lot of information about government, about business and so on. So, I don’t think … I think it’s a subject for concern, but in no way are we in a situation where an investigative reporter simply can’t do the job because government has sort of shut things down completely.

HEFFNER: Last week, seated at this table, Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment attorney was taking a much more pessimistic point of view to express.

LEMANN: Well …

HEFFNER: How do you account for your …

LEMANN: Floyd is a good friend of our school and, and runs a program for us (laughter). So I have talked to him about this quite a bit. He’s a lawyer and his window into this is primarily dealing with cases where a prosecutor is trying to get a reporter to testify in a criminal trial. Sometimes in a civil trial. There’s been a real upsurge in those cases. But that’s one piece of the entire investigative reporting picture.

Investigative reporting outside the US is clearly … you know, it’s in danger, but there’s more of it without question than there’s ever been before. And it’s increasing. Again, partly because of Web, partly because of the increase in press freedom.

And, you know, we sit … we give out a lot of journalism awards, so I spend a lot of my time in this job looking at entries for the Pulitzer Prize and the DuPont Award to the National Magazine awards and so on. There’s a great deal of wonderful investigative reporting being published now.

So if … Floyd is right … he’s on the right side on this … the entire notion of protecting the reporters source relationship could go away, which I pray it won’t and I don’t think it will. And you could still have a lot of space for great investigative reporting.

HEFFNER: Did I mis-hear you a moment ago or did you slip it in when you talked about the growth of investigative reporting … you said, I thought … outside this country …


HEFFNER: I won’t follow that up with “Who cares?”, but why do you say outside this country … to avoid, in any way what’s going on inside this country?

LEMANN: No. I’m saying … if … one of the things I’ve liked about being at Columbia Journalism School is it’s truly a global institution. So I have become less exclusively focused on the US …


LEMANN: … than I used to be. We have a lot of international students, we’re starting to have international faculty and colleagues from all over the world are always in our building. So I, I wasn’t saying I’m taking the state of American journalism off the table … that’s, that’s what I do … you know, in my life as a journalist and that’s what I think about primarily.

But it is striking that in very large swaths of the world … much of Latin America, much of the Arab Middle East, much of the former Soviet block, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of East Asia, the press is freer now than it’s ever been.

I don’t mean to say it’s totally free, but there’s more press freedom than there’s ever been. You know we Americans tend not to be as aware as we should be of how rare the degree of press freedom that exists here and in Western Europe is in the context of the world.

So that’s why I’m saying there’s more investigative reporting going on, starting from a very low baseline, of course, elsewhere in the world than there’s ever been. And I … I’m not sure there’s less going on today in the US than there was 10 years ago. We see a lot of really good investigative reporting sort of come in the door through our various prize programs …

HEFFNER: So you’re not saying we’re ships in the night passing?

LEMANN: No, I’m not. I think the, you know, reporter/source relationship and whether it’s protected is a legitimate subject for serious concern. But that is not 100% overlapped with the state of investigative reporting.

HEFFNER: But if we would take that by itself, the question of press privilege, where do you stand on that matter?

LEMANN: Most of the states, as Floyd probably said on the show, almost all of the states, have state protections of the reporter/source relationship.

HEFFNER: They don’t take us to war.

LEMANN: There is no Federal protection. I would like for there to be Federal protection and, you know, anything I can do as a Dean to sort of lend my voice to that debate I plan to do. Will it happen any time soon? I don’t know. But, you know …

HEFFNER: What’s your guess?

LEMANN: My guess is it will not happen in the next two or three years. So what that means is it takes the protection of the reporter/source relationship on national security issues and puts it in a much more perilous place than the relationship on most other issues.

Even so, bear in mind that one of Floyd’s clients went to jail recently … Judith Miller … a couple of his other clients almost went to jail. But there’s been a tremendous amount of wonderful investigative reporting precisely on national security matters.

By, for example, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. James Bamford who writes books and, and magazine articles.

HEFFNER: But not without consequences.

LEMANN: Well …

HEFFNER: Not going to jail … yet …

LEMANN: The, the Times … thanks partly to Floyd and thanks partly to the publishers and editors commitment has been really steadfast in just pushing and continuing to publish investigative reporting on national security and they do it a lot. And so do the other major papers. The government rattles their cage and complains and objects, but they’re still doing it. That’s important to remember.

It’s, it’s important … not … to give the great news organizations credit for the good work they’re continuing to do, and also not to overstate the degree to which the Bush Administration has been able to shut down investigative reporting on, on national security matters. It complains, but it hasn’t shut it down.

And, you know, if you’re a journalist, you know government … and the people you cover rarely like the work you do, so they always kind of yell and scream and complain. And, and that’s their right and I don’t think to do that means that they’re trying to suppress freedom of press necessarily.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

LEMANN: No, I don’t.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

LEMANN: I think it’s a contentious relationship. I mean … there’s a sort of “dish it out-take it” equation. We criticize government officials constantly. And I have … well … anyway … so that’s our right and it’s a healthy part of democracy. If government officials criticize us that’s their right and I, I think it’s, you know, unseemly for journalists to say when we’re criticized by people we criticize often “you’re trying to suppress freedom of the press”. In other words if President Bush gets up and says, “I really don’t think the Times should have published Risen and Lichtblau stories on, you know, the NSC’s spying …”


LEMANN: I don’t have a problem with that. He, he can say that. I don’t think he’s trying to suppress press freedom. He, he can … he has the right to say what he wants. He asked the Times not to publish and the Times said, “With respect Mr. President, we’re going to go ahead and publish them.” And they did. Nobody got put in jail or anything like that. So I, I think we should sort of manfully take it when President Bush complains about things we’ve done.

HEFFNER: Are you usually as optimistic and as positive about things?

LEMANN: Yes. I am definitely an optimistic person.

HEFFNER: Even when you spent the time that you did as the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent?

LEMANN: Well … yeah.

HEFFNER: Or is it a different seat now?

LEMANN: Yeah. But, I mean … I was always pessimistic about the Iraq War. I was, I was … as a correspondent I was pessimistic about the notion of a war on terror and how useful that would turn out to be and I was always skeptical about the Iraq War and how it would turn out. But that’s different from … I think what you’re asking is do I have a sort of more global skepticism about the health of American democracy and there I do not.

Our country has a very, very contentious history. This is not, by any means, anywhere near the most contentious time in American history. I just wrote a book about Reconstruction. And that makes anything going on now look like a walk in the park.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you, Nick, because I wondered whether it was … that involvement in perhaps the worst of times that leads you, I think, to take not this whole business as water running off a duck’s back, but you’re certainly not as hysterical about the challenges to press freedom as so many of the people I know.

LEMANN: No, I’m not. I’m, I’m really not. I … the nature of politics and the nature of life is constant contention if not battle. So, the day when … people don’t like the press and the day … I mean they read us, or at least I hope they read us, but, you know, you’re never going to be in a situation where the general mood in the country is “the press is fabulous and we’re just going to applaud them.”

We … we’re always going to be under scrutiny, we’re always going to be under criticism because we are very visible and we, you know, live in glass houses and throw stones. So, that’s just … that’s just what life is like. So I, I don’t … I would … if, if you asked me to be really worried about something in journalism … what I would be much more worried about is the fundamental economics of it, than the government press relationship.

HEFFNER: All right. We’ll, we’ll certainly get to that, but I was fascinated by what you say because when I read you on Reconstruction I did have the feeling that this was the worst of times, but everything since on almost every level has been a matter of progress. And now … oh, we can argue about that I suppose and I, I know that I would no longer write as I did in my Documentary History about the permanent Roosevelt revolution …


HEFFNER: … because it’s proven not to be …


HEFFNER: … quite so permanent. But it seems to me that everything has been … most things have been going up … getting better … not just because of the progressive movement that came after … some time after Reconstruction. And now, it seems to me that there’s room for that pessimism, but I’m hardly going to push you into it.

LEMANN: Yeah. Well, let me say something about that … on the progressive movement and so on …


LEMANN: One of the most interesting people I covered when I was a Washington correspondent was Karl Rove, who is a voracious student of history. I think I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t say in public. He would say the progressive movement was a huge mistake and my goal in life is to sort of repeal the progressive movement. And he makes a case … and by the way, many professional historians would agree with him, generally historians these days tend to be very critical of the progressives. This is, you know, for viewers … back in the early 20th century. And so, his argument would be we’re trying to create a permanent Republican majority as President Roosevelt seemed to have created a permanent Democratic majority and we’re trying to essentially go back to the moment before the progressive movement.

That’s life in a democracy. They didn’t’ have a very happy election result in Fall ’06, so it’s possible for people with different views, who are willing to organize and so on, to push back and, and kind of prevent some of those goals from being achieved, at least for a while. But, again, it’s constant struggle.

HEFFNER: Well, I know that when my grandson Alexander began to do a weekly radio program up at his school at Andover, he said, “How about my using The Open Mind, as a title?” And I said, “Sure, go a head and I’ll sue you.”

LEMANN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: So instead he uses as a title, The Progressive Mind. And it was his choice of that title that made me think back to the drawbacks that Karl Rove suggests about progressivism. But okay, I’ve taken us off the track … I, I, I didn’t mean to. And for this program we don’t have that much time left, though you’ve promised to stay for a second program. What about the question of the economics of journalism now? You’re … that’s where you’ve got great concerns.

LEMANN: Yeah. That is more scary, in my opinion than the government-press relationship. I’m not saying that everything’s fine in the government-press relationship, but the economics are changing quite dramatically, and this has all happened, you know, since I came in and took this job as, as Dean at Columbia.

So essentially here’s what you’re seeing … you’re seeing that the, the big flagship greatly honored bit city daily newspapers are either flat or it’s declining in circulation. Some are declining at a fairly dramatic rate of, you know, five percent to 10 percent a year now. I assume that will not just continue out into the future. But big dominant news organizations, the, the news weeklies, the great metropolitan dailies, the, the television networks have lost audience and are continuing to lose audience. And that means the economics that supports …you know, the reporting they do is getting a little shaky.

HEFFNER: Are there signs of that?

LEMANN: Yes there are. (Laughter) There are a lot of signs.

HEFFNER: I don’t mean the economic indications, I mean the journalistic indications.

LEMANN: Well, there’s a lot of anecdotal material on this. I haven’t seen a sort of really reliable statistical study, but a lot of big papers have done reductions in their newsrooms. I would say even most big papers, either through layoffs or buy-outs. There’s a feeling that they just can’t economically sustain the editorial staff size that they’ve had and one of the things that tends to “go” is these long term, carefully done investigative projects. Just as one of the many anecdotal examples, the team of Barlett and Steele who were, you know, legendary investigative reporters, were at the Philadelphia Enquirer for many years, have been at Time magazine doing great work … in recent years. Just got let go by Time. And they’ve now re-surfaced at Vanity Fair, or at least Vanity Fair’s hired them.

But, you know, they’re not a cheap date and I think Time, going through a round of cuts said, “We just can’t afford this anymore.” So things like that are happening in journalism.

HEFFNER: So you’re, you’re not saying … you’re not looking at this in terms of a body count. You’re thinking in terms of the quality.

LEMANN: Well, this is a debate. You know a lot of the people in the business side say, “You don’t need that many bodies to put out a newspaper.” But the whole debate is how many bodies do you need to put out a newspaper.

And the other thing that’s … a couple things are going on. First of all the Internet has taken away meaningfully one super important category supporting newspapers which is classified advertising. And, you know, it’s a free country, you’re aforementioned grandson, when he needs something probably goes to Craig’s List, not to the newspaper classified page. And, you know, who’s to say that he shouldn’t be allowed to do that. But it really hurts for newspaper. Meanwhile …

HEFFNER: I’ve just got a sign that says, “Never mind meanwhile … said good-bye and start again next time.” So will you forgive me, Dean Lemann …


HEFFNER: … if I say that’s all for today.

LEMANN: Thanks.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today.


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.