James Boylan. Pulitzer's School: Columbia University's School of Journalism, 1903-2003. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. viii + 337 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13090-5.
Reviewed by Owen V. Johnson (Indiana University)
Published on Jhistory (April, 2004)
Institutional histories are notoriously tricky undertakings. Inevitably they become official histories, often referred to by people in the institution. Individuals who have played a role in the institution expect to be appropriately remembered. Source material tends to be heavily weighted toward the leadership of the institution. The rank and file--whether students or workers--rarely record or are queried about their experiences. Authors often focus so much on the institution that the larger world, including developments in peer institutions and the general field, are ignored.
If anyone writing the history of Columbia University's School of Journalism could meet these challenges, it is Jim Boylan, who was asked by Tom Goldstein, then a new dean, to write this second history of the school. Boylan had been a member of the School's faculty and was founding editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. He has long been active as a historian of contemporary journalism. One of his best-known essays is his analysis of the evolution of the journalist over the twenty-five years following the founding of the CJR.
When writing about himself in this book, Boylan does so in the third person and modestly, even to the point of disparagement. When the course that he and Louis M. Starr had developed, "The Role of the Journalist," came under attack by students, Boylan notes that neither he nor Starr was a "theatrical lecturer." But while chronicling the arrivals and departures of the other members of the faculty, he omits any mention of his own departure for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1979, where he taught until he retired in 1991.
Boylan's book contains forty-five pages of footnotes, nearly one page of footnotes for every five pages of text. He mined not only the Columbia University archives, which were processing the School of Journalism records as he worked, but also collections in the Library of Congress and elsewhere. He also had a clipping file compiled by the School since its founding in 1903. In short, he benefited because so many of the people associated with the creation and development of the school were conscious of the significance of their role and made sure it was properly documented.
Boylan chooses to tell the School's history in short takes: his forty cleverly titled chapters average a little over six pages. The first four chapters describe Pulitzer's long negotiations with Columbia about the establishment of the school. Pulitzer wanted a curriculum that not only would teach students journalism skills that would improve the profession, but would also immerse them in a broad liberal arts background. Because Pulitzer kept changing his mind about exactly what he wanted, it was not until after his death that the school could actually be launched.
If it were not for its New York City location, Columbia University would not have seemed a likely place for a journalism program. Ivy League universities did not normally welcome such "trade schools." Harvard rejected a feeler from Pulitzer about establishing the school there. Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler once referred to journalism as "a province in Bohemia" (p. 27).
Succeeding chapters describe the administrations and activities of the various leaders of the school and accompanying faculty politics. On several occasions Boylan profiles faculty members in considerable detail. By and large, the earlier chapters are better than the later ones. This could reflect the lesser availability of material about more recent years, that Boylan has been less directly involved with the school in recent years (and thus we get fewer anecdotes), or that the school's activities are more complex today than they were in the past and thus are not easily subject to narrative presentation. Perhaps it is a combination of all three.
On at least two occasions Boylan's concerns should have been placed in a broader perspective. The first involves the various machinations designed to limit the enrollment of Jews in the journalism school in the first half of the century. Unfortunately, such activities were not confined to Columbia University, but were a serious matter at a number of universities, especially private ones.
In the second case Boylan describes in detail the establishment of a Columbia University School of Journalism in China in the latter years of World War II during the deanship of Carl W. Ackerman. The project was funded by the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. Ackerman took precautions to make sure that the funder of the project would not be known, aware that the profession's leaders would express concern about accepting government support of journalism projects. The acceptance of the money (again, Columbia was certainly not the only journalism program with such international projects with government funding) reflected different values of a different time. After the war, eighteen countries approached Columbia about setting up a journalism program. A promising lead in Czechoslovakia failed to materialize, probably a victim of Cold War politics; one in Venezuela, supported in part with Venezuelan government and oil company money, took root. A decade later, Dean Edward W. Barrett accepted federal government money connected with a NASA project, then turned it down after a public outcry.
The Pulitzer Prizes have been associated with the Columbia School of Journalism since their beginning, although the connection has grown increasingly thin. Since John Hohenberg has told two different aspects of the prize story in monographs, Boylan usefully focuses on the connection of the prizes to the school and their effect on faculty and administrative relations. The stories of other prizes associated with the school are also presented, including the Maria Moors Cabot prizes, the Alfred I. DuPont broadcast awards, magazine journalism and photography awards, and online journalism awards.
Two major journalism institutions have co-habited the journalism building at Columbia with the School of Journalism. In both cases the relationship has foundered and become testy. The American Press Institute came at the end of World War II and did not leave for Reston, Virginia, until 1974. The Gannett Foundation Media Studies Center arrived in 1984, and stayed for more than a decade. Dean Joan Konner expressed her fear in the early 1990s that the Freedom Forum, as the Foundation had been renamed, was attempting an academic takeover of the School of Journalism. Unfortunately, we learn nothing about the Freedom Forum's side of the story. In 1995 the center moved to central Manhattan. Less than a decade later it folded up its tent there and ceased almost its entire involvement with journalism education.
The Columbia School of Journalism curriculum has not been typical since the mid-1930s, when as a result of university politics and budget, it turned into a one-year master's level enterprise. Only the University of California Berkeley campus has a similar program. Undergraduates do not go to Morningside Heights to study journalism.
Although Columbia participated in the founding of the American Conference of Teachers of Journalism in 1912 even before the school opened, the Columbia faculty has had little involvement over the years with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and its predecessors. The only exception was the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s when Dean Barrett served a term as AEJ president. The annual AEJ convention was held on the Columbia campus in 1952. Boylan does not analyze this lack of involvement. Part of it certainly stems from Columbia's non-participation in the cross fertilization of journalism schools, and more from the absence, except for a few faculty members, of a research tradition. The Columbia faculty's peers are not other journalism teachers, but the journalism practitioners of New York City.
Not surprisingly Boylan pays considerable attention to the Columbia Journalism Review, the longest running evaluator of U.S. journalism. He presented a proposal for its founding to Barrett in January 1960. Regular publication began two years later. Boylan acknowledges in passing that the proposal was "in part an application for a new job" and that the journal's early success benefited from the controversies of the 1960s that practically determined its content (p. 152). The journal's criticism, he admits, has largely been mainstream. Even so, the journal has struggled financially since the very beginning. Large media organizations have not offered it much money. The news business can almost not afford to have a journal of criticism; neither can it afford not to.
Dean Goldstein did not insist on the right to review the manuscript of this book: Boylan could write it as an independent historian. Boylan took him at his word, sometimes leaving the reader to ponder why the Columbia name has been so magical in journalism. Clearly, its graduates often read like a who's who in U.S. journalism. We do not learn very much in this book, however, about their experience in the classroom outside of a few summary comments. Penn Kimball, a member of the faculty, was quoted anonymously (p. 149) in Newsweek in April 1963, as saying, "We don't teach people here to write, we don't make them into reporters.... When a student leaves he has two things: a little control over his work and a lot of momentum. The students deserve the credit for this. Put it this way: we don't hurt them at all."
For much of its existence, the intensive, just-like-the-real-world boot-camp experience has characterized journalism education at Columbia. Perhaps Boylan could have conducted some oral history interviews or solicited comments in the form of memoirs to learn more about what happened in the classroom. It is likely that the industry has showered praise and money on Columbia precisely because it has usually taught nothing but journalism skills. What the industry too often forgets is that as undergraduates so many of these people have already had the broad liberal arts education that is a part of the study program at most other journalism schools.
Although the organization of many of Boylan's chapters suggests the important role of leadership in the school's history, he is hesitant to address this issue in his concluding chapter. Some of the deans and directors have defined their leadership by what they did outside the school and some inside. Only a couple have succeeded in doing both. Historians generally avoid the "what if" approach to history, but different leaders might have led Columbia in quite different directions. For example, Jim Carey first turned down the deanship, then one dean later, was passed over for the job. His intellectual approach might have given the school a much different direction. Elmer Lower, then the president of ABC News, was considered for the post in the late 1960s. If he had come on board at the same time as Fred Friendly did, Columbia's print focus might have been significantly changed. Perhaps the secret to the success of most of the deans at Columbia is the toughness they had honed while working in major positions of responsibility within the media. It's an approach that would not work in most other schools of journalism.
The school's New York location at the center of so much American media activity, combined with the leadership abilities of its various heads, has brought in many multi-million dollar awards that have maintained the visibility, reputation, and activities of the school. No other journalism school in the world has come close to raising the amount of money that Columbia has. Although Boylan catalogs these grants and endowments, he makes no attempt at comparisons. Perhaps as an outsider he does not know how different Columbia is in this regard. That money and all the activities that go with it help explain why the Columbia name remains the envy of schools and departments of journalism and mass communication, even though its curriculum has not been copied much elsewhere.
Because of its detail, this book is not one that will be widely read outside the field of people associated with the school and with journalism education. People interested in a career in journalism administration can learn some lessons from it about how to be better administrators. The disagreements journalism faculty face in virtually every department are very similar to those outlined by Columbia faculty member Melvin Mencher in a note to Dean Elie Abel: "work load, theories (philosophies) of instruction, quality of teaching, the use of graduate assistants, the proper balance of faculty autonomy and administrative leadership, and responsibility to the students" (p. 194).
. The first was written by Richard T. Baker, A History of the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954).
. Pulitzer elaborated these arguments in his famous 1904 article, "The College of Journalism," North American Review 178 (May 1904): pp. 641-80.
. Talcott Williams, the school's first head, was an early advocate of equal opportunity for women in journalism and journalism education; later head Carl Ackerman was opposed. Already at a late 1950s faculty meeting, the dean raised the issue of African-American recruitment.
. John Hohenberg, The Pulitzer Prizes: A History of the Awards in Books, Drama, Music & Journalism, Based on the Private Files over Six Decades (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1974); and John Hohenberg, The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America's Greatest Prize (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997). Boylan makes no reference to the controversy that has developed over the 1932 foreign reporting award that went to Walter Duranty of The New York Times.
. When this reviewer was chosen one of the two outstanding students at a University of Washington summer program for journalists in high school, his prize was a year's subscription to the then unknown (to me) year-old CJR. I remember devouring them with enthusiasm when they came in the mail. Those issues are still in my possession.
. In 1968, Lower was one of two finalists to interview for the position of the chair of what was then the Department of Journalism at Indiana University. After his visit Lower wrote to IU that he did not wish to be considered further until the department and the university had decided what direction they wanted to go. Richard G. Gray, the other candidate, formulated his own vision and was hired to transform the department.
Owen V. Johnson, who teaches journalism and history at Indiana University, is working on three projects: a history of the Indiana Daily Student; the letters of correspondent Ernie Pyle; and a study of media and nation in twentieth-century Slovakia.
Owen V. Johnson. Review of Boylan, James, Pulitzer's School: Columbia University's School of Journalism, 1903-2003.
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