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OPINION: Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, fostering a culture of liberalism

Posted By Brian Schneider On 12:46 AM 08/25/2010 In | 23 Comments

As my time at Medill comes to end, I am reminded of an article that I read last year, just weeks before I moved to Chicago and took the plunge into graduate school. Michael Lewis, then a senior editor at The New Republic, wrote an editorial in 1993 titled, “J-school Confidential,” taking the position that journalism schools refused to call a spade a spade.

Instead of accepting journalism for what it is (observe, question, report), Lewis deemed journalism school a “pretentious science [designed to] distract from the journalist’s task” and dubbed Columbia University’s graduate program nothing more than a “trade” school.

Just days away from surviving J-school, I can’t help but wonder if Lewis was onto something.

For Medill’s one-year grad program, it costs approximately $44,000 in tuition. Add living expenses and students are looking at about $60,000. All that money for what is billed as the best journalism school in the country. But the question Lewis posed, and the question I am left pondering is: Was it worth it?

A former undergrad professor of mine recently told me, the reason he attended graduate journalism school was not to learn a “trade,” as Lewis put it, but to “learn how best to learn.” Looking back, I would like to think that is exactly what I did. Through Medill, I was afforded the opportunity to spend a good portion of the summer covering Capitol Hill and going places and meeting people that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

But as my summer in D.C. progressed, I realized certain discrepancies that not only plague the media as a whole, but Medill too.

People often complain about media bias. They say media outlets only cater to the right or the left; that there is no media objectivity anymore. Perhaps, they are right. After spending some time on the Hill, it seems like the media and Congress reflect each other. There is no middle ground.

For the record, I fall on the political right.

At Medill, professors hammer into our heads that there is no room for bias in our reporting. However, it seems to me that what is preached by Medill isn’t followed by some of those very preachers.

I am reminded of an e-mail sent out to the fall first quarter graduate Medill student body and professors this past November with a video link to a Daily Show segment in which host Jon Stewart caught Sean Hannity using footage from a rally sponsored by Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project to make a November anti-health care bill rally look bigger than what is really was. The e-mail read: “Have you all seen this?” While I didn’t cry foul on the initial e-mail, what shocked me were the immediate responses. One Medill professor responded, this “is just one reason why [The Daily Show] is considered in some circles to be more credible than so-called ‘real’ news organizations.” This professor was, of course, referring to Fox News. Another responded, “A fine journalist like Sean Hannity? Perhaps Michelle Bachman simply has the power to turn leaves green.” I responded to the e-mail chain with the video of Hannity’s apology and said it would be nice if other media entities also apologized when errors were made.
Throughout the year, I’ve noticed a similar trend of bias among some Medill professors, whether intentional or not. One of the big points of pride for Medill is bringing in guest speakers who are experts in their fields to speak with us young reporters. But the speakers tend to fall along similar ideological lines. One came from the progressive Truman Project (sponsored by the left-wing Center for American Progress); a speaker from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (the FBI is currently investigating CAIR for having roots in a Hamas-support network); and a Chicago physician who preached about the merits of a single-payer health care system (a liberal viewpoint).

Even more surprising: About 15 percent of the full-time Medill journalism faculty has contributed to Democrats running for political office (including three of my professors), according to a database of campaign contributions dating to 1990 on OpenSecrets.org. Dean John Lavine has contributed about $13,000 to Democrats over those several election cycles, including $4,300 to President Barack Obama since 2004. (To be fair, he did donate $250 to a Virginia Republican). Only one full-time Medill professor contributed exclusively to Republican causes.

In an e-mail response, Lavine said, “When I covered campaigns, I never gave money to a candidate, and I don’t believe reporters should … (While) pure objectivity is unobtainable; rigorous reporting and full disclosure is obtainable.”

Lavine also suggested I “expand my premise about journalistic objectivity” and gave a response worthy of any media ethics class. He said he and his wife did support Obama, but quickly pointed out they also once supported a Republican for governor.  However, “supported” only means so much.  There’s an old saying that goes, “Put your money where your mouth is,” and Lavine’s money hasn’t gone to a Republican in 14 years, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Lavine’s email talks about transparency and journalistic integrity, yet he did not respond to my question on the hypocrisy of those Medill’s professors donating money to a political cause.

Medill preaches, above all else, that if our integrity as journalists is compromised, we lose our credibility. But to have teachers openly criticize a conservative news network with such animosity and have some faculty members financially contribute to Obama smacks of arrogance.

I understand I am an outlier among my graduate classmates when it comes to my political views. I was called a “lone wolf” by one professor for having conservative views. I often hear professors, guest speakers and classmates mock Fox’s “fair and balanced” slogan. What I am forced to ask is whether it’s ethical for some of a journalism school’s professors to participate in such a culture. The culture of any organization comes from the top down. When the top leans strongly one-way, a trickledown will surely spill into the learning environment.

That trickledown effect is unacceptable.
Michael Lewis notes that just past the front doors of Columbia’s journalism school lays a bronze plaque with a quote from Joseph Pulitzer that reads, in part, “… 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.”

Lewis, in his 1993 editorial, said he believes a word is missing between demagogic and press. “The word is CORRUPT,” Lewis wrote.

As I reflect on my year at Medill, I am left wondering whether the culture of journalism schools is biased. Whether journalism professors donating to political candidates is morally and professionally responsible.

So I’ll take Lewis one step further and add another word between corrupt and press. And that word is LIBERAL.


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