J-School Ate My Brain

The desperate futility of journalism instruction becomes clearer the closer one gets to the deed. By Michael Lewis

[The following essay appeared in the July, 1993, issue of The New Republic] As you walk through the front door of Columbia School of Journalism, the first thing you see is this paragraph, cast on a bronze plaque: “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

The four sentences are about as close to the intellectual origins of the American journalism school as you can get. They are taken from an article by Joseph Pulitzer in the May 1904 issue of the North American Review, the only serious defense he offered of his plan to fund the first journalism school at Columbia. He argued that his school would "raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession" and create a "class feeling among journalists." He predicted—wrongly, as it turned out— that "before the century closes schools of journalism will be generally accepted as a feature of specialized higher education, like schools of law or of medicine," and that the elites of Columbia would band together to cast out "the black sheep" from the profession.  [read more]


Five years of college, down the drain. By Bill Vaughn

In a November 29 interview with a website called campusprogress.com, Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi considered journalism and the schools that teach it. “If you have no real knowledge or skill set and you’re lazy and full of shit but you want to make a  decent wage, then journalism’s not a bad career option,” Taibbi said. “The great thing about it is that you don’t need to know anything. I mean this whole notion of journalism school—I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in like three days.”

Writing a couple years ago for the New York Press, Taibbi said that a career in journalism is like “shoveling coal for Satan,” a far less dignified way to make a living than working in a tampon factory. He also observed that journalists are nothing more than “professional space-fillers,” hacks plugging the holes between the ads.

While I have no idea why anyone in the first years of the 21st Century would pay good money for tuition to journalism school, I went there in the 1960s for a very solid reason: to dodge the draft. The experience was mildly entertaining. And it was no more demanding or educational than the three or four hours a day I spent smoking hash and playing Risk with my fraternity brothers. My opinion of  J-School “education” was reaffirmed when I taught publication design there for a couple of years in the 1990s. I was horrified to learn that not only did they still offer a degree in journalism, they offered a graduate degree, as well. Twice the anesthesia at twice the price.

First, the curriculum at the University of Montana J-school was, and continues to be, a snap. Maybe not quite as easy as business administration, say, or music, but it only takes a couple minutes to figure out how to write a lead, and then a few more to make sure your worthless story addresses a reader’s marginal interest in who, what, why, when, where and how.

I knew that the only result of “studying” vapid “disciplines” such as advertising and magazine writing would be access to the people at Lee Enterprises who provided abysmal dead-end newspaper jobs (I worked for the Missoulian for two nights on the sports desk before getting fired for spending one of those nights writing, instead, the obituary of a hermit who had lived with goats.)

But J-school was better than getting shot at by vicious little communists. Plus, the co-eds were cute and perky and always had plenty of cigarettes. And writing near-libelous editorials for the student daily, the Kaimin, afforded me the luxurious entertainment of savaging people who aren’t expecting an attack, like ROTC colonels. That’s when I learned that what your audience really wants to see you do is heave bags of shit at someone.

As for Taibbi, he entertained me during the 2006 election by calling former Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns “a mean-spirited dipshit,” and a “craven moron” who sucked up for years to lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff with the robust ass-kissing zeal of Hillary Clinton working a blue-plate fundraiser.


And here’s Taibbi’s physical description of “Old Yeller,” my moniker for him that Burns earned with a string of loud, stupid, racist, sexist outbursts: “Up close, the senator looks like little more than a big exhausted lump—like a sack of potatoes with a mushy, half-caved-in pineapple on top.”


As for Mr. Abramoff, he was sentenced on Sept. 5, 2008, to four years in federal prison.