Bévues de Presse
Criticism of American journalism
Columbia J-School is great but narrowly focused, like America
A few weeks ago, the [Washington-based political weekly] New Republic published an article graphically titled "J-School ate my brain." It purported to be an opinionated investigative report on Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. As an international student in that (too much?) respected institution, I was completely amazed by the narrowness of the views expressed in this article,the "intellectualoid" equivalent to tabloid news.
The New Republic, "the (American) elite weekly journal of political opinion" according to a recent New York Times Magazine, just published a revealing counter-example of good journalism: an illustration of the worst you can find in my two beloved cultures: (1) out-of-focus American ethnocentrism and sensationalism, and (2) Latin (French) lack of professionalism with its outrageous errors and its blurred borders between facts and opinions. Michael Lewis, the author, stuck to a pre-conceived agenda when he visited the school, based on one respectable idea: journalism schools try to "dignify a trade by tacking onto it the idea of professionalism and laying over it a body of dubious theory."
Is journalism a self-taught discipline which cannot be transmitted academically? There is some dishonesty, indeed, in creating artificial trade barriers to enter the journalism profession. Some J-School professors definitely comfort themselves (and limit their students) with the use of a certain language and methodology to transmit the news. But these classes are just about 10 percent of what Columbia J-School teaches; Lewis manipulatively restricted himself to that side of the iceberg.
The rest of the curriculum is practical training, with constant deadlines and assignments. We do not study on journalism books here, which is not new for me. ESC Lyon, the great business school I attended ten years ago in France, provided a similar environment to succeed in the corporate world: accelerated experience rather than academic knowledge. With the same shortcomings: lack of content in some classes.
Lewis' "analysis" failed to explain what the J-School really is: a unique environment in which one can reflect on ethical issues, and explore all the areas of journalism from print to broadcast, from business to cultural reporting, in New York's "gorgeous mosaic." No training in a news organization could provide this variety.
I am a former banker, like Lewis. But I did not write his best-seller "Liar's Poker." Columbia was my way of building confidence in journalism, my vocational field. Thanks to The New Republic's article, I am even more assured, now, that it was one of the best ways. Because Lewis should have attended the J-School; the "arrogant professors" would have taught him that the journalism craft is not as simple as he states. There are many hidden skills to being a good ... professional (sic) in this trade. And as in the business world, you can learn them on your own, but it takes more time.
Here at the J-School, I learned to be as fair and balanced as possible (after a teacher once screamed at me...), to clearly distinguish a column from a report, and to be more compelling in my writing. The J-School is an experience tool, not an instrument for networking; it leaves no time to socialize with colleagues already working at The New York Times! Lewis lied like a poker player when he implied that students attend the school just for these connections.
My frustration at reading this article went beyond this recklessness, however. What the hell did he do when he visited the J-School? He completely missed a deeper reflection on the real flaws of this country's culture, and journalism education particularly. He failed to provide a valuable feedback on how, for instance, this institution is perpetuating the mediocrity threatening the society it emanates: lack of perspective on events, because of an excessive focus on mainstream news, on facts, and on America.
In the J-School, and in most news institutions in the United States, they don't give enough human focus to news choices. Outstanding cultural events should be more important than the out-of-context repetitive killings presented under the horrendous "eyewitness news" concept. Interest in Kuwait, Somalia or Bosnia should not wait the likely or actual shipment of U.S. troops there. And TV-news casters should not devote 90 percent of their coverage to a U.S. Senate hearing while hundreds of people die in a foreign country.
Columbia's faculty members worship a paper like Newsday, a well written tabloid, excellent only for its New York coverage. Columbia is a University, not a "Ussity" nor a "Nysity"! The New York Times, The Independent (UK) and Le Monde (France) should more be considered as models, for their larger international coverage or their broader perspectives on events (Le Monde, on the other hand, could learn from Newsday's irreverence and coverage of neighborhoods, but this is another story).
The J-School should also be a unique opportunity to explore the more intellectual and less sensational European forms of journalism. Only one elective course, called Comparative Journalism [and taught by Furio Colombo, a famous Italian journalist], provides this opening during the entire curriculum. And only one American student (.5 percent of the class) took it this year. Lewis, who attended the lecture, ignored it.
On the eve of a possible U.S. intervention in Bosnia, this general indifference for foreign issues is appalling. One of its most tangible consequences, is that the world's most powerful country is now dependent on foreign sources to get foreign news. Did you notice the British accents in TV's foreign coverages these days? MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour, the most respected TV news program, on public television, best illustrates this lamentable pattern: most of the foreign reports come from UK's Independent Television News, and practically all are mainstream news.
This virtual indifference to foreign events is bizarre, because the United States lead in the willingness to take on the Serbs, as they did before with Hitler and with Hussein, while Europeans wait and see. As if there were a physiological alternative - between having guts or a brain. American journalists should be better trained to have both: Columbia J-school does not eat your brain as Lewis stated, but it does not broaden it either.
“When you do love, you do punish," we say in French ("Qui aime bien, châtie bien"). Thanks to the J-School for facilitating my career switch. I only wish this institution, with the other departments in the campus, were more part of a Universe-ity!
Jean-Pierre Tailleur (J’93)
This article, originally written for a Columbia J-school assignment on the decline of American culture, got a harsh reply from The New Republic’s publisher. It also led to other criticisms, included in the following correspondence with the Journalism school's Dean.
Jean-Pierre Tailleur New York, 5/25/1993
School of Journalism, Columbia University
Dear Dean Konner,
I have no objections if you use my response to The New Republic's outrageous article. (...)Let me add some complementary remarks and anecdotes:
(1) I chatted a few minutes with Michael Lewis, after the Comparative Journalism class he attended. His attitude was rather strange, looking paranoid and defensive. He did not behave like a mature person, especially for the "rich and famous" man he is. I was asking him about TNR's article, willing to give him my impressions on the J-School and about being a former banker like him.
He did not have the curiosity and positiveness of a good journalist. An agenda was obviously blocking his mind. He revealingly ended our conversation with this question: "Are you talking to me because you want to be quoted in my article?" A thought that, believe me, had not crossed my mind!
(2) I read your reply to TNR, and regret you did not also attach a list of successful foreign J-School alumni. Some have had an even more successful career than many of the 96 Americans mentioned in your letter. Jean Lesieur ('74), for instance, is the foreign news editor of L'Express, the major French news magazine, and still remembers how much he owes to the J-School (I am sure there are more compelling examples, from France and from other foreign countries).
(3) I have been "hurt" during my year at the J-School, by one of my classmates, another kind of Michael Lewis, who confined me to my (overstated) Frenchness. (...) I wish the J-School would have provided him with a minimum international sensitivity, which is the curriculum's dark corner.
(4) Last April, I invited a French TV-personality to the school, for a well-advertised conference on French television in English. No faculty member attended, other than foreign born MM. Colombo and Hereford, and only four or five American J-School students were present in the about 60-person audience. The conference was a success, especially since it included a tough discussion on the coverage of the war in Bosnia.
I am sorry the J-School missed a unique opportunity to fill such an obvious gap, and explore other forms of journalism. This kind of lecture, like part of Mr. Colombo's course, should be compulsory for the entire class at least once during the year. Newsday or McNeil-Lehrer News are not the only models of good journalism!
Best regards. JP Tailleur
New York, August 28, 1993
Dear Dean Konner,
Thank you for publishing my letter to The New Republic, and for not cutting my criticism of the J-School. I agree with you that the program is very demanding, and leaves little time for additional classes on international sensitivity.
This important issue can be easily assessed, however, by just mentioning it in the speeches and hand-outs to the entire classe. It can also be included in a course like «Critical Issues»: a foreign guest could be invited to talk on Comparative Journalism, at least once. Sincerely, JPT