THIS GAG ISN’T FUNNY

By: Nat Hentoff

Hentoff Chastises Columbia’s J-School in ‘Getting It Right’


In a characteristically direct “Ethics Corner” column in this
space [“Reinventing Gore,” Feb. 12, p. 30], Allan Wolper wrote of
Al Gore’s forthcoming visiting professorship at Columbia
University’s august Graduate School of Journalism. I pick up the
story from there.

What happened on Gore’s first day was a lesson for the students
in how news is managed – not by the government but by their
own school’s administration and faculty and by their celebrity
professor, himself a reporter on The Tennessean in
Nashville long ago.

On arriving, the working press discovered they would not be
allowed in the classroom. Several news organizations hired
students in the class as stringers, but they – along with
everyone else in the room – were silenced.

Tom Goldstein, dean of the school, told the New York Daily
News: “That’s our policy. Classes are off the record.”

That surprised me, since I have lectured at that graduate school
and no one told me or the students about that policy.

When Gore was questioned by the press about this suppression, he,
too, said it was the school’s policy. A reporter for Melville,
N.Y.-based Newsday then asked whether the former vice
president could waive the policy. “I’m new here,” Gore said.
“That’s above my pay grade.” But when Felicity Barringer of
The New York Times caught him unaware, Gore said: “I would
have the option of asking them to put it on the record, but I
think the students will get a better experience if it’s as much
as possible a normal classroom experience.”

Gore did indeed have that option. I found out the next day that
his staff had instructed the school that his lecture had to be
off the record. When Associate Dean Evan Cornog nonetheless gave
me the company line that it was the school’s regular policy to
gag students and bar outside press from its classrooms, I asked
him when the policy had been implemented and whether there was a
copy of it. He said he did not know the answer to either
question.

Meanwhile, I managed to obtain a copy of an e-mail message from
Associate Dean David Klatell that was sent to all the students in
Gore’s class before the former presidential candidate came on
campus. It began: “Unless he tells you otherwise at the beginning
of tomorrow’s lecture, Vice President Gore’s remarks are off the
record.” Gore also stipulated that there be no pool of reporters,
no video cameras, no Webcast.

At least when the Clinton White House was spinning, the cover-ups
were consistent. Why couldn’t the Columbia deans tell the simple
truth? They might consider hiring Sidney Blumenthal, late of the
White House, as their communications director.

Gore’s debut at Columbia was Feb. 6. Three days later, ruffled by
the sometimes sardonic coverage by the press of prior restraint
as a form of education, Dean Goldstein complained in a letter in
the Feb. 9 Wall Street Journal: “We have asked the vice
president to honor our policies and are glad he has agreed to do
so. We had no intention of preventing the students from talking
to the press afterward. If there was any misunderstanding about
this, we regret it, and suggest the term ‘off the record’ either
needs to be better defined or to be discarded.” That term was
quite clear in the e-mail message to Gore’s students from
Klatell. There was no misunderstanding.

I asked Dean Mills – who is the dean of the University of
Missouri Graduate School of Journalism, which had hoped to entice
Gore to lecture there – about the newly minted academic’s
debut in the hometown of John Peter Zenger. “Columbia’s
instinctive secrecy,” he told me, “has no place in, of all
places, a journalism school! We have no such policy here.”

Gore’s tour as a journalism professor also includes Fisk
University and Middle Tennessee State University. (I have
lectured at the latter without any restraints by the
administration.) Both those schools – after discovering what
journalism students were learning at Columbia about freedom of
the press – have made it clear that Gore will have to permit
himself to be fully exposed in his appearances there.

In a follow-up story, The Tennessean reported on Feb. 8:
“A Gore spokeswoman said the former vice president had nothing to
do with the gag order for his class at Columbia University in New
York.”

A letter by Michael Ackley printed in the Feb. 9 New York
Times provided a fitting coda to this story: “As a journalist
and a university instructor, I hope that the journalism
professors at Columbia are advising their students that ‘off the
record’ involves a two-party contract. Because the students are
paying for the class, such knowledge as may be imparted there
belongs to them. If they don’t agree to accept Mr. Gore’s
lectures ‘off the record,’ he has the option of modifying his
planned remarks or of declining his fee and withdrawing.”

And Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism had the option of
respecting its own integrity – and that of its students
– by telling Al Gore to speak openly or move on.



Nat Hentoff is a writer for The Village Voice. His
“Getting It Right” column appears monthly in E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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