Editorial: Top journalism school sells out to corporate media


No other word better describes the state of our society today. We hear about it all the time with regard to politics, sports, Hollywood, the corporate world and the media. And greed, particularly in media and politics, is the single greatest threat to our democracy and the liberty it provides.

Parts one through three of this editorial series will focus on greed in the media. Subsequent parts will focus on greed in politics and government.

The first two parts will focus on journalism schools and the journalists they are producing. Particularly, part one will focus on Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Greed is playing a role in journalism schools across the country, as they “one by one” are conforming to the tenets of the “new” corporate media world. The transformation is a trickle-down result of corporate media giving readers what they want, and journalism schools giving the corporate media what they want—a journalist trained to the bottom line.

Corporate media want to hire journalists who are trained in “bottom-line journalism”—or journalism that costs little to produce and gives readers only what they want, instead of information readers need to be informed citizens. These changes could have long-term impacts on the future of our democracy.

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern has long been viewed as one of the top journalism schools in the world. However, a recent shake-up in the school’s administration has long-time faculty, alumni, and current and prospective students concerned about the future of the school, as the following reports from various Web sites indicate.

As reported by Michael Miner in his June 22 “News Bites” column in the Chicago Reader:

“The faculty senate at Northwestern University has formally accused NU’s administration of abolishing democracy at the Medill School of Journalism. A resolution passed unanimously June 6 by the General Faculty Committee says it found NU’s ‘suspension of faculty governance at [Medill] to be unacceptable and in violation of the University’s Statutes.’ The resolution predicts ‘curricular changes that are ill considered…the demoralization and enmity of the faculty…damage to the national reputation of the School…the loss of and the inability to hire faculty who believe that the faculty’s role in governance is important for students, faculty and the public.”

“The backdrop to this blunt resolution is a series of internal and external audits in recent years that judged Medill—which enjoys seeing itself as a journalism school without equal—as an academic basket case. President Henry Bienen and provost Lawrence Dumas stepped in. Skipping the usual faculty search committee, they named John Lavine the next dean in late 2005, and in early 2006 they booted aside the incumbent, who had months to go on his contract. Lavine was already on site: he was the founding director of NU’s Media Management Center, a fee-charging profit center housed in the journalism school.

“An article on Lavine in the fall 2006 issue of the university alumni magazine said he’d been given ‘free rein to transform the school.’ It explained that Bienen and Dumas ‘suspended formal faculty oversight at Medill for the 3 1/2-year transition period in which Lavine will shepherd the integration and revamping of the [Integrated Marketing Communications] and journalism programs and faculty.’ IMC and journalism are Medill’s two basic divisions.”

As reported on nowpublic.com by a former temporary adjunct professor at Medill:

“When I taught there in 2003, I was gobsmacked by how much money it had—the amount of tech toys was phenomenal. But what I did not know (being a temporary adjunct professor, you’re not really part of things) was that the school was the source of much concern about its future direction. In fact, that concern has now blown up into public controversy. In a new plan devised by the dean of the school, Medill will barge ahead with a new range of educational ‘deliverables,’ including a raft of marketing-based offerings for the thoroughly modern journalist:”

As quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education at http://chronicle.com: “The most controversial change, though, is the increased emphasis on marketing. This fall, lessons in audience behavior and motivation will be taught alongside drills in crafting leads and meeting deadlines. Students will be encouraged to connect with readers by writing out of storefront newsrooms in diverse Chicago neighborhoods.

“Some praise the changes as long overdue; others dismiss them as a sellout. But what irks critics the most is the way they were devised. Last year, Northwestern’s president and provost announced that they were suspending faculty governance in the journalism school for three and a half years to give the new dean ‘free rein’ to revamp the school.”

The former adjunct professor continued: “The dean, John Lavine, had been the founder and director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center. The Center catered to news managers who would come to Medill to upgrade their business skills. And there was no doubt how successful that was: it generated a lot of money for Northwestern and, in some ways, began to outshine all other Medill activities. Levine believes that it’s no great crime to teach new journalists about marketing approaches which will help students become more successful journalists:”

As quoted from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Now journalists must understand what their audiences are interested in, as well as the best way to grab their attention. The dean believes that Medill is uniquely poised to straddle the line between journalism and marketing since it consists of both a school of journalism and a program in integrated marketing communications.

“Critics contend the changes, which affect both undergraduate and graduate-level programs, will dilute the schools’ focus on strong writing and reporting—a charge the dean disputes. They bristle at the informal name change: Since Mr. Lavine took over, the Medill School of Journalism is now referred to simply as the ‘Medill School.’”

From a reader comment on the Chicago Reader’s blog by someone calling himself/herself “A Medillian”: “Some of us alumni fear that Mr. Levine [sic] is hurting Medill’s national reputation. Though journalism is in a flux, and needs bold leaders, it does not need its basic principles abolished—and that is the perception of what the new dean is doing.”

What is happening at Medill is happening at journalism schools across the country. The next part of this series will look at how two other journalism schools are dealing with this dilemma of corporate vs. civic-minded journalism, and explore the “old” tenets of journalism through the teachings of professors of a disappearing breed.

from the Sept. 26 – Oct. 2, 2007, issue

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