We in the news business have many problems: a declining appetite for news among the young; a breakdown between "news" and "entertainment" values; public mistrust over our power and objectivity. But now we have a new problem or, rather, a new nuisance: Lee Bollinger. As president of Columbia University, home of the Pulitzer Prizes and the Columbia graduate school of journalism, Bollinger imagines himself as journalism's great redeemer. He's going to uplift us all by overhauling his graduate school curriculum and providing an inspiring example for everyone. Spare us.
Bollinger's vision amounts to snob journalism: journalism by an elite for an elite. He believes that most journalists should be credentialed by universities -- a graduate process he suggests should be lengthened from one to two years. Journalism, he says, should be seen (and should see itself) as a "profession'' -- presumably like law, medicine, accounting or architecture. These are bad ideas that, if adopted, would reduce journalism's relevance and raise public mistrust. They might also worsen journalism's central problem: loss of audience.
Journalism -- good or bad -- won't matter if no one reads or watches us, and increasingly that's happening. Despite blips (Sept. 11, the Iraq war), trend lines are down. In 1994, 49 percent of adults regularly read a newspaper, reports the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. By 2002, only 41 percent did. Over the same period, daily audiences for TV news, including cable channels, dropped from 72 percent to 55 percent. Worse, the falloff is steepest among the young. In 1991, 48 percent of twentysomethings regularly read a paper; by 2002, that was 25 percent. Young people "have never had the news habits of earlier generations," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center. Only part of the drop reflects a defection to Internet news sites, he says.
What does Bollinger say about this? Well, in his recent journalism manifesto, nothing. It brims with platitudes. "Journalism and a free press are among the most important human institutions of the modern world," he writes. "Democracy, civil society, and free markets cannot exist over time without them." True. But if more people tune out, a free press will be less significant.
Bollinger misunderstands the threats to the news business. He alludes to a "fear about how the concentration of ownership narrows the scope of public debate and how commercial and technological forces increasingly drive . . . the press." This is the intellectually trendy view; it's also wrong. Actually, it is the de-concentration of power -- the multiplication of news and entertainment sources -- that intensifies commercial pressures. No media enterprise has a captive audience. In a thriving democracy, people have more choices. The trouble for the news media is that they're not choosing news.
His proposals wouldn't improve matters. Journalism is best learned by doing it. Mostly, an aspiring reporter needs a job, preferably for an exacting editor. You try to be accurate, clear, quick, perceptive and engaging. These are not abstract skills learned in a classroom. At best, journalism schools are necessary evils. They provide basic training -- usually through mock newsrooms -- that most papers and broadcast stations won't. Some get this training on college papers and stations. Journalism school is an alternative. But keep it brief. In general, universities are sheltered places. Most professors have job security. Their politics don't reflect national politics (less than 20 percent rate themselves "conservative'').
Bollinger justifies a two-year program as providing more of "what leading journalists need to know . . . statistics, the basic concepts of economics . . . an appreciation for the importance of history and for the fundamental debates in modern political theory and philosophy." The delusional word here is "leading'' -- you don't become a "leading" journalist by attending school. The intellectual leavening that many journalists want is best acquired through midcareer sabbaticals and university programs (there are already many).
Even now, journalists' self-importance stirs public resentment. Bollinger would make it worse by insisting we're a "profession." Journalism is a job, a craft and often a passion. What's wrong with his word is that our audiences aren't mainly doctors, lawyers and accountants -- aren't "professionals'' -- and the new label adds an extra air of superiority. Bollinger says the label is needed to create "stronger standards and values" against nasty commercial pressures. How condescending. Most good journalists already believe in accuracy, independence and fairness. But these abstract standards don't always protect against pack journalism, sensationalism and carelessness. The main villains are personal ambition, deadline pressure, media competition and unconscious bias. A new label won't eliminate those.
Unfortunately, Bollinger's haughty vision seems confirmed by his choice for dean of the journalism school, Nicholas Lemann. He is a brilliant writer, an exhaustive reporter, a gifted thinker and (from everything I know) a nice guy. But he has specialized in long reflective articles for upscale (aka elite) publications with comparatively small circulations, most recently the Atlantic Monthly (496,000) and the New Yorker (879,000). Most reporters do less exalted work. A recent Columbia graduate I know covers high school sports for a small suburban paper.
Beyond meeting deadlines, the central task of print and TV editors is to reverse the slide in their audiences -- and to do so without resorting to too many gimmicks, shortcuts and stupidities. Here is a larger issue that should preoccupy Bollinger and other college presidents. As a society, we're sending more and more young people to college. Presumably, one task of college is to engage students in the big ideas and events of their time. On the evidence, that's not happening. Why -- and what should colleges do about it?