The Bollinger Thesis

In a series of very public moves, treated as strange by many people, Lee C. Bollinger, First Amendment scholar and President of Columbia University, has been advancing his case for what we need from journalism… today and tomorrow.

He treats as the responsible parties journalists themselves, his own Graduate School of Journalism, and universities that take on the task of educating the next generation. By writing and speaking about why Columbia needs to train a smarter class of journalists, Bollinger has taken intellectual responsibility himself, which is not common among academic CEOs. They have huge institutions to run, and fund-raising burdens that would stagger most outsiders. They don’t sit around thinking about journalism and its training puzzles.

But Lee Bollinger does. And this is what happened during meetings of his all-star task force, 30 or so big names in journalism called several times to the Century Club in Manhattan. Nearly all were from the New York-to-Washington axis. During its series of meetings beginning last year, people closer to the story said to me how murky and directionless the task force was. “Won’t even be a final report.” (This was true). “They’re sitting around gabbing about tomorrow’s journalism… it’s a big lunch.” (Also true.)

Bollinger, meanwhile, wanted to educate himself about the existing state of elite opinion in journalism, for which the task force was an efficient method. He arranged to hear a group of accomplished people think out loud about the threats and changes they saw in front of them, so as to compare the scene to his own sketch. You could say the man is self-involved. You could also argue that he cares what the top professionals think. In any case, the task force was the president’s personal tutorial.

Coming out if it, Bollinger believes it is possible for his university to turn out smarter people who will have a more nuanced and imaginative grasp of what it takes to serve the public interest in a changing world. His reference point is the life and times of liberal democracy as it tries to stretch itself around a troubled and violent globe. The media as devices will have global reach, but will journalism continue to be a powerful constraining device, holding an increasingly commercialized system to public service obligations that originate outside the market?

The powers that be have said: Good point, but sorry… no money this year.Bollinger argues that it is the obligation of his world-famous, Ivy League university — and not just the J-school alone — to get on with this problem. (Rhetorically, this is new.) He then goes further and says that he is willing to raise and invest new money, putting his own prestige on the line, to bring about changes that will add length and depth to a Columbia degree. We may have to subsidize better training because salaries are so low, he warns. But we do this for English literature — so why not for journalism? As chair of the journalism department at NYU, I have been making the same argument. The powers that be have said: Good point, but sorry… no money this year.

Trying to be a globalist, Bollinger worries that if commercial pressures keep driving the behavior of journalists, not only in the United States but elsewhere, then “the growing reach of media into every city, hamlet, and home on the face of the earth” will be a deeply undemocratic development — here and around the world. Universities cannot afford to stand by and watch something like that happen, for they have knowledge to lend and even something to learn from journalism.

He points out that de-regulation of the broadcast media from the 1980s onward leaves the professional journalist’s sense of duty to the public interest as one of the few remaining checks on this powerhouse institution. Professional standards, not just stated in codes but bred into young journalists, are thus a matter of growing public concern. Again, the university has an obligation to get more involved. “Journalism has an ascending importance in the modern world,” Bollinger writes, “and more than at any time in human history the character of the press is a key determinant shaping and defining national and global society.”

Bollinger can make certain things happen if he truly believes them. Offered up in a speech or article, Bollinger’s ideas would be of mild interest, since much of it has been said before: “I start from the premise that journalism and a free press are among the most important human institutions of the modern world. Democracy, civil society, and free markets cannot exist over time without them.” But it is one thing to say it, and it is another to say it as President of Columbia University. Bollinger can make certain things happen if he truly believes them. Here are his next lines: “The quality of life within these systems is closely tied to the quality of thought and discussion in our journalism.”

Stop tape. This is not the usual way of describing the importance of journalism. The usual way would state that the fortunes of political democracy, free markets, and civil society depend on the quality of news and information delivered by our journalists, or on the vigorous exercise of their watchdog role. But here is Bollinger saying the key thing for democracy is the “quality of thought and discussion” in journalism, an argument that comes directly from his 1991 book, “Images of a Free Press.”

Thought and discussion?

When journalists talk about quality, they typically mean new and important information, in-depth reportage, great storytelling, vivid and graceful writing. Bollinger has no quarrel with that, but his emphasis is elsewhere. The press, he says, permits a democracy to think about its problems — or it may distract and disable us from thinking. The press is a forum for broadening public discussion beyond elites and interested parties, unless it unfairly narrows the discussion.

Journalists frame public questions for others, or they may fail in that intricate art. They add background to events and context to social controversies, unless they don’t know the background or see the wider context. They have the crucial role of summarizing complex events and filtering expert knowledge so that the public is not overwhelmed, but you have to know a lot to say complicated things simply. In the Bollinger thesis, improving the quality of journalism also means raising the bar for these tasks — and that may require a different kind of training for journalists still in school.

The Columbia J-school, which only grants master’s degrees, is one of the crown jewels on the Morningside Heights campus; but it has not always been seen that way by the local hierarchy. Bollinger has already changed that. In addition to installing himself and his scholarly interest in the press, he named the author and journalist Nicholas Lemann the new Dean of Journalism, and before that had persuaded the respected historian of American politics, Alan Brinkley, to become provost of the university. The provost, with power over appointments, is the chief academic officer at a university.

…the most intellectually accomplished and journalism-friendly hierarchy any J-school has ever had. Bollinger, Brinkley, and Lemann together may form the most intellectually accomplished and journalism-friendly hierarchy any J-school has ever had. And while this does not at all guarantee success, it means we ought to take seriously the President’s ambitions. These include overcoming some of the intellectual isolation of journalism from learned disciplines and perspectives that could be made useful. You do that with people who themselves are not isolated, either within journalism or from journalism.

Who is Alan Brinkley? Son of the news icon David Brinkley; historian of the era in American politics —1920s to 1960s — when journalism and the news media came into their own as power centers; frequent guest on “Charlie Rose” and the “Newshour with Jim Lehrer”; known to many journalists and quoted regularly in the political press; currently writing a book on Henry Luce. Brinkley understands the importance of journalism, contributes to it himself, and no doubt has some ideas on its shortcomings that come from deep historical knowledge, as well as family discussion growing up. (Bollinger, too, is son of a newspaper publisher in Oregon.)

Alan Brinkely and Nick Lemann know each other; they also read each other. Lemann is a product of New Orleans, Harvard, the Washington Monthly and the reporting staff of the Washington Post. For 15 years he wrote about national affairs for the Atlantic, and he is currently Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. He has two big nonfiction books to his credit, “The Promised Land,” about the black migration to Northern cities, and “The Big Test,” about the educational testing monopoly. Both are works of contemporary history and stand right at the point where scholarly research, reportage, social analysis and great storytelling meet.

These resumes matter because they speak to Bollinger’s confidence that there’s a better collaboration possible between Columbia as intellectual engine and the J-school as training ground; between the university’s vast project in advancing knowledge about the world and journalism’s status as intelligent filter for the public. Ultimately, of course, it is not presidents, provosts, and deans, but journalism teachers and students who must prove the case for smarter journalists, university-bred.

“Within the field of journalism, an anti-intellectual strain runs deep.” The author of those frustrated words is the former Dean of Journalism at Columbia, Tom Goldstein, also an ex-reporter for the New York Times. The people now steering the Columbia ship seem to be asking themselves: Can a more intellectual strain in journalism be isolated and taught to the best and brightest, without ruining the school’s reputation as a place to get practical training and a leg up? Bollinger suspects it’s possible.

That he’s willing to try, and risk ridicule from hard-boiled professionals, would be hard to explain. Unless you think, as I do, that he’s serious about all this.

Related Posts

No related posts.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.