Nicholas Lemann was named dean of the Columbia School of Journalism in 2003. It's too soon to tell whether he is making Columbia a stronger school. It's not too soon to say that Lemann, the author of two good books and many compelling articles, has made himself a weaker writer. Evidence of this decline comes in the current New Yorker, where Lemann devotes 5,000 words to asking, "Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media?" without saying anything clear or consequential in response.
Lemann does give us this scoop: the "heads of several large news organizations...insisted that they try to present the news without bias." Lemann's interviews with these editors are devoted to addressing "the question of how, if the reality is what the editors say it is, the perception can be so different." Their surprising take on this anomaly? It's not our fault. We try so hard to do the right thing, and no one appreciates our contribution, or the difficulties we face. Our critics are mean, they don't care about the facts, they have this hysterical determination to find bias in the most innocuous places, and they've been brainwashed to hate us by cynics and zealots. Don Wycliff of the Chicago Tribune observes that the conservative critics of the mainstream media "do not have the governors on their behavior that we have in our industry. We may be liberals, but we have ideals of objectivity to which we aspire."
It would be interesting to learn whether Wycliff thinks that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were aspiring to the ideal of objectivity when CBS aired its story about George Bush's National Guard service. Lemann never asks. No reporter for the Columbia student newspaper would turn in a feature story about media bias and the 2004 election without at least mentioning Memo-gate. But the dean of the Columbia J-school did.
Instead of racing across town to cover that five-alarm fire, Lemann prefers to remain seated, notebook open, until the meeting of the Ladies' Auxiliary Committee on Parks and Beautification is adjourned. The editors he speaks with plead guilty to misdemeanors, journalistic transgressions one step up from spelling mistakes. The mainstream media "failed to appreciate fully the dimensions of the Republican organizing effort." They "misunderstood the way that the Republican Party's religious base lives and thinks," and now feel an "anthropological" duty to acquaint themselves with this surprisingly large tribe. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, concedes more than his peers. Conservatives, he says, don't always "see their ideas taken seriously or treated respectfully" in the mainstream press, and "it's bad journalism to caricature anyone with reductionist portraits and crude shorthand."
Lemann himself offers the opinion that, "Conservatives are relativists when it comes to the press. In their view, nothing is neutral: there is no disinterested version of the news; everything reflects politics and relationships to power and cultural perspective." He may be right about that. Permit this conservative to suggest that the problem with Lemann's article is that the dean of the country's leading school of journalism has a very close relationship to the mainstream media, which obligates him to try much harder to be disinterested if he's going to write about it.
Instead, Lemann openly commiserates with the captains of the industry where his graduates will seek work. He notes that "newspapers and the network evening-news shows are losing their audiences at an alarming rate, while openly ideological, anti-mainstream-media, quasi-news programs like Rush Limbaugh's radio show have huge followings." He shares and voices the concerns of the country's media leaders: "Mainstream journalists want to think that the public is aware ofand respectsthe boundaries that separate real journalism from entertainment, and opinion, and propaganda, and marketing. If, instead, the public not only enjoys the quasi-journalistic pleasures that lie outside the boundaries, but also doesn't accept that what's inside really is distinct and superiorwell, that would sting." Lemann wonders, finally, whether there is still a large enough public to sustain journalism that is "inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles."
This conclusion, that the mainstream press is suffering because people don't appreciate the nobility of its mission, would be easier to accept if Lemann and his subjects were less inclined to treat the intellectual honesty of the press as self-evident. It's hard for mere citizens to revere the boundary between journalism and propaganda, however, when the people who run CBS News disdain it. Americans may be more receptive to bracing journalism than Lemann fears, but they resent being enlightened by a press establishment that wants to have it both ways, to get credit for its ideal of objectivity while taking a "How dare you" posture to anyone who questions its political agenda. If it is good to be surprised and unsettled, then it's good for the editor of the New York Times to find out how deeply so many people distrust his newspaper. There is, unfortunately, very little in Lemann's article that would surprise and unsettle any of his fellow lodge members in the media establishment, anything that would force them to confront the disquieting possibility that the critics of the mainstream press are not all "wacky" and "paranoid"that a few of them really might be on to something.