Thursday, February 02, 2006

On Balance (By Nicholas Lemann, The Columbia Journalism Review)

Note to the image: Graduation 2003, Journalism Graduation, Columbia Commencement, May 21, 2003. Photo by Annie Price.

link to the image source

David Horowitz, the left-wing activist turned right-wing activist, recently produced a study of the ideological leanings of faculty members at leading law and journalism schools. He found that they are overwhelmingly liberal, with the sole exception of the University of Kansas journalism school, and this finding led to a flurry of press attention, including a column by John Tierney in The New York Times. The charge itself — that the liberal bias that conservatives have long detected in the “mainstream media” also exists, and may even originate, in journalism schools — is not new. In the two and a half years that I have been dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I’ve heard it repeatedly. One year Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News star, made the charge on the air, and then graciously accepted an invitation to come to the school and elaborate.

What was original about Horowitz’s study was that it was a study, not just an assertion. He and a coauthor, Joseph Light, got hold of voter-registration information for just over half of about a thousand faculty members at eighteen “elite” law and journalism schools. They found many more registered Democrats than Republicans. At Columbia’s journalism school it was fifteen to one; at Stanford’s law school, twenty-eight to one; at Berkeley’s journalism school, ten to zero. He seemed to have moved beyond the realm of mere supposition and anecdote.

Before getting to the larger issues involved, it’s worth noting that Horowitz did not actually build a lay-down-the-cards case for the existence of bias at professional schools. He has not studied — yet — what they teach, which is the real issue. He also has not found out what the students’ political affiliations are. At the outset of this academic year, Columbia had a visit from Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, author, and blogger, who was also looking for liberal bias. He polled students in one class — “How many of you own guns? Go to church regularly? Voted for Kerry?” — and found them to be, by his lights, overwhelmingly liberal. That was only a couple of weeks into the school year, which meant that if we were guilty of anything, it was not of having ideologically indoctrinated our students but of having failed to move them from left to center. Horowitz didn’t prove as much as he says he proved.

Horowitz has been campaigning for some time against ideological bias in universities — journalism schools and law schools are only his latest targets. What he says he is for is the kind of ideological balance that he didn’t find on professional school faculties, which is an idea that sounds much more commonsensical and innocuous than it really is. The great American universities in their current form are the result of their having embraced, in the late nineteenth century, the “German model” of higher education, in which professional scholars conduct disinterested research according to strict rules. The idea of objective journalism emerged at about the same time. So did institutions like think tanks and professional associations. All these Progressive Era inventions were aimed at creating trained experts who would rise above their personal passions and biases in order to expand knowledge in ways that would benefit the public. Columbia’s journalism school was founded by Joseph Pulitzer in precisely this spirit.

For many years, the legitimacy of expertise and value-free research has been under attack. This very magazine published a cover story not long ago questioning the standard notion of the journalistic ideal of objectivity. But the attacks have come mainly from the Left, and often from within the academy. Michel Foucault coined the term “power/knowledge” to communicate the inextricability of information from the social position of its provider — that is, he did not see information as standing free from ideology. Lately, however, roughly the same idea has been taken up by conservatives, and that is significant, because in the United States, the conservative movement is a lot more powerful than the academic Left. Horowitz’s argument is quite similar in structure to the argument (made, again, mainly by the Left) about diversity and multiculturalism: since there is no such thing as transcending one’s perspective, important institutions in society, including universities and news organizations, should consciously create a balance of perspectives. That’s why Horowitz wants universities to hire conservative faculty members. As he writes:

Physicists teach the same laws of motion and optics whether they believe in high taxes or low ones; economic freedom or a welfare state. But, when it comes to interpreting the law or reporting on public affairs, everyone will agree that ideology and political pre-disposition matter. If law school faculties predominantly represent the views of the political left — as they do — this has far-ranging implications for the training of future lawyers and judges. The same holds true for journalism schools that are responsible for training future members of the nation’s press corps.

At the very least, to carry out Horowitz’s program would require our asking prospective faculty members (and, perhaps, students, too) to tell us their political views, which we don’t do, and which seems intrusive to me. What’s more important is that Horowitz assumes that everything we teach has a political view embedded within it. Journalism is not physics, but most of what we teach does not have any obvious ideological content. There is not a liberal or conservative way to teach students how to write clearly and accurately and quickly, or how to work by high ethical standards. Almost all the craft-style teaching we do in the various journalistic media, and much of the subject-matter teaching, have no ideological dimension that I can see. To follow Horowitz’s prescription would be to make our school more ideological, not less.

Also, even in the realm of political journalism, if perfect objectivity is unattainable, it can still be a goal worth striving for.

Horowitz recently attended the White House Hanukkah party; here’s his account of his moment in the presidential presence:

I hadn’t been at an event with the President (who is looking slim and trim) in four years and didn’t know if he would recognize me. But the minute he saw me in the line he called out “Horowitz” with a big smile on his face, then embraced me in a bear hug. In the moment I had his ear I said, “Thank you for taking all those arrows for the rest of us.” Graciously, he said, “You take more than I do,” which I don’t and said so. Then as I was walking away he called out, “Don’t let them get to you.” I called back, “Don’t you either,” and he replied in a strong voice. “I won’t.”

There is a long tradition — which is in no danger of ending anytime soon — of journalism operating as a branch of politics. When objective journalism emerged, it was supposed to create an additional social role for journalists, as providers of information from which people could draw their own conclusions. To do that requires the journalist to try to suppress (of course, always imperfectly) personal feelings about a subject, and to seek out and convey information without regard to which side it might arm. What the Horowitz approach may gain in refreshing honesty is outweighed by what it loses by just giving up on the informational mission entirely. You have to be awfully cynical to believe that in the aggregate, reporters who work in an opinion-suppressive, rather than -expressive, vein do more harm than good to the public discourse.

I will confess that I have personally engaged in an act of ideological balance-seeking at Columbia. For the past two years, I have co-taught a course called “National Affairs Reporting” with Tunku Varadarajan, the editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. I chose him mainly because he is an excellent teacher and thinker, but secondarily because I thought he could do an especially good job of acquainting the students in the class with what is the majority position on a series of major national issues. But I did this because the content of the course was explicitly how to cover policy debates. Our mission should be to rid our students of automatic or blinkered thinking; to teach them to recognize and try to overcome the assumptions and preconceptions they bring to a story, to make them push themselves to find alternative perspectives. Sometimes this entails explicitly considering ideological positions. It doesn’t always, though. For us to build in liberal-conservative balance in every hire and every class would be to take us away from our core assumption, which is that reporting can get you meaningfully closer to the truth. Not a version of truth — the truth.

Nicholas Lemann is dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and a New Yorker staff writer. His next book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2006.

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