| Home | Orville Schell, Univ. of California, Berkeley -- Sept. 2002
September 23, 2014

Orville Schell is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. Schell, 62, is a long time contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, The Nation, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Granta, Newsweek, the China Quarterly, Vanity Fair, and The New York Review of Books. He served as a television commentator for ABC, NBC and CBS, and has worked as a correspondent and consultant for a number PBS 'Frontline' documentaries. Schell graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, and received an M.A. and Ph.D in Chinese History from the University of California, Berkeley. He spoke with about the state of journalism schools.

James Fallows What is the biggest challenge facing journalism schools?

Orville Schell: The biggest challenge is trying to find a way to bridge the discontinuity between young journalists who are trained well to do thoughtful, thorough credible, accurate journalism and the paucity of jobs in media outlets that want people to do this kind of work. Protecting journalism in its best form is a difficult thing to do particularly when the marketplace is making such massive inroads into the ability of media outlets to do good journalism. That to me is the mother of all problems. Never mind the problems of running a good journalism school -- finding the money, finding people. But in actuality, there's a paradox here because as fewer media outlets allow journalists to do the kind of good journalism they want to do, there's more and more people who are looking for a place to jump. If schools have the resources, the paradox is they can now find very good people because the best people are the most dissatisfied people. Are journalism schools doing a good job preparing students for the working world?

Orville Schell: I would have to say most of them probably aren't doing such a great job. I think journalism schools as a whole are institutions that are very unclear in content. They're riddled with public relations, advertising, mass communications -- all things that in my view do not really belong in a journalism school. There really needs to be some discussion about what is a good journalism school. Is it a place that just teaches how to write a lead and the craft? Is it a place that tries to teach some history, literature, foreign affairs, how to look critically at what's happening in the media? All of these things are a bit vague. Should journalism schools do more than teach the craft of journalism, and include courses that emphasize intellectual and theoretical rigor?

Orville Schell: In my view, absolutely. I think there's a very narrow and uninteresting cast of mind that comes about when people start studying 'journalism' too early as undergraduates. They should be out doing history, politics, philosophy, art, literature. Even when they get to journalism school, in my view, they should construe a broad sense of what their mandate to study is. This is the last chance they're going to get to become truly thoughtful, well-read, literate, politically-savvy people. What's your take on what's happening at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in appointing a new dean?

Orville Schell: I think [Lee] Bollinger, the new president at Columbia, realized that this was going to be his first appointment and the Columbia School of Journalism was a very important school. He began to hear from the faculty not only a lot of dissension, but a lot of lack of clarity about what the school was about, what its identity was, what it should be. I think quite courageously, he decided that they'd better stop and have this discussion. It's a discussion that we'll all profit from. It means Columbia is going to be somewhat of a headless horse for the next year, but it may be able to facilitate precisely the discussion that I alluded to earlier, namely to clear up the sort of unclear concept dilemma that bedevils so much of journalism education. Do you think it might be the impetus to change all journalism schools?

Orville Schell: It might although I think the inertia is huge. A lot of these undergraduate programs are sort of training people to take up positions in local television. But local television really needs to be changed if it's going to do its job well. Local television is really an appalling mess in this country in terms of providing this nation with a forum for intelligent discussion of the issues. It's bedeviling. Again, there's a real conflict between training students to do things well and these expectations of being able to find a job where they can carry out that kind of career with dignity. You have a very interesting background as an academic. You've written a number of books on Asia. How did you end up merging your academic career with journalism?

Orville Schell: When I finished my Ph.D orals in Chinese history, I basically knew that I did not want to contend with the academic world and went off and somewhat accidentally fell into the world of journalism. I found that all of the things I learned as an academic -- what books are written, history, even literature, knowing who the various scholars are in different specialties -- have been an enormous help in being a journalist who predominantly covers Asia. It's a very interesting kind of journalism that is somewhere in between just newspaper stories -- writing a lead, a nut graph and a conclusion -- and being an academic. Bringing lucid writing to complicated subjects but not a lot of academic jargon and a lot of bad writing. Sometimes I'm just appalled by what I see in the academy in terms of the poverty of the writing. There's an interesting overlap area. Unfortunately, it produces exactly the kind of journalism for which there is less and less of a demand, namely long-form, thoughtful, thorough kind of pieces of writing or film that the market finds more and more indigestible. You've written a number of op-ed pieces on the state of television news and convened a meeting of journalism school deans to discuss the issue. What do you hope to accomplish? Do you risk alienating the media companies that your students will be looking to get jobs from?

Orville Schell: One always risks alienating those you criticize. I would say if journalism schools and journalism deans can't rise to the occasion of having a little bit of critical oversight, then we're a pretty sorry lot. After all, we depend on this industry to hire our students. If we're just going to train them to be obsolete, what's the point? I think broadcast journalism is in a state of crisis. I was listening to the BBC over the weekend, a most incredibly elegant program of about five reporters around the world reflecting on one fellow who had been in Russia as bureau chief in the seventies and he went back to Russia. He wrote this really interesting essay about how Russia has changed. Someone else had gone to Libya with the British Foreign Secretary. This was very elegant well-done journalism. Where the heck is that on American broadcasting? Nowhere. What is going on? Why isn't it there?

Orville Schell: It's not there because people can make a lot more money putting something else there. But the truth is we do need to know about the world. We're stuck with it. We're in it. Maybe only 50,000 people want to know what's going on in Libya, but those 50,000 people are really important. You don't want to have more planes blow up. But maybe six million people want to watch Jerry Springer. Well, who owns the airwaves? Basically we do. Anyway, if we can't say something about it, I think it would be pathetic. We have an interest. I mean, this is my world. This is my craft. Even if I wasn't dean, I would want to be out there saying something. You've also written about your concerns about media consolidation. Why is this such an important issue to you?

Orville Schell: I do believe that contention and diversity are good and it's the way we create a real richness in the media and keep it honest. If everything is consolidated and everyone is just running around chasing Fox, you get a kind of sameness that is not good for the nation and not good for the nation's ability to discuss things creatively and intelligently about new solutions to problems. So I think it's as plain as the nose on your face. Consolidation of the media has had some good effects, but I think the ill effects outweigh them and are most obvious. In the short run, I think the process of high-speed consolidation might be somewhat arrested. I think the industry is starting to see this megalamaniac dream of synergy and just piling on every kind of media outlet in one great heap certainly doesn't necessarily make good journalism and it may not even make good shareholder value. What's wrong with local television? Is it the drive for profits?

Orville Schell: I think it is. The staggering fact is that while newspaper chains strive to make 20-25 percent, television expects to make 30-40 percent profits. To do that, they've got to pander to the absolute largest possible profit denominator. In other words, you don't get diversity. You don't get different channels serving different interests. You've got them all chasing after as many possible people. It doesn't matter who they are. The result is one dreary car chase and murder after another. What's next for you?

Orville Schell: I don't know. I can always go back and be a journalist. Although I must say that the world that I come from is a world that's shrinking behind me. Being able to write a long, multi-part series for the New Yorker, where can you do that today? Not very many places. It's very hard to make a living doing the kind of journalism that one would like to do. I just don't know what else I'd like to do. It's pretty bleak out there. There are some notable exceptions, some really fine media outlets. But I think it's institutions that are having a increasingly difficult time trying to figure out how to do this craft well and still keep their head up in the marketplace.

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved.

Other interviews:
  • Tracy Wood, editor, Ms. Magazine, August 2002
  • Mike Hoyt, executive editor, Columbia Journalism Review, July 2002
  • Louis Wiley, executive editor, PBS 'Frontline,' May/June 2002
  • John Sasaki, reporter, KTVU-TV (FOX), March/April 2002
  • Dan Fost, reporter, San Francisco Chronicle, February 2002
  • Carol Guzy, photographer, The Washington Post, January 2002
  • Roger Cohn, editor-in-chief, Mother Jones Magazine, December 2001
  • Mike Luckovich, cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- November 2001
  • Lisa Chamberlain, editor-in-chief, Cleveland Free Times -- October 2001
  • Ben Fong-Torres, former reporter and editor, Rolling Stone magazine -- October 2001
  • Raul Ramirez, news director, KQED Radio -- September 2001
  • James Daly, former founder and editor, Business 2.0 Magazine -- August 2001
  • James Fallows, correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly -- July 2001
  • David Ignatius, executive editor, International Herald Tribune -- July 2001
  • David Talbot, founder and editor, -- June 2001
  • Ed Fouhy, former CBS, ABC and NBC news executive -- June 2001
  • Linda Cohn, anchor/reporter, ESPN -- May 2001
  • Sol Levine, former producer, CNN -- April 2001
  • Charlie LeDuff, reporter, New York Times -- March 2001
  • Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
  • Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000