A different kind of lesson

A different kind of lesson

Abrams, Floyd

When Vice President Al Gore’s first class at the Columbia Graduate School of journalism was about to begin, the press was interested in what he would say. When it was announced that what he would say would be off the record, the press was no longer merely interested. It was appalled, mortified, convulsed. To put it another way, it was delighted.

For here was a story far better than anything Gore could possibly offer students. A past and perhaps future presidential candidate speaking off-therecord to students? A journalism school permitting him to do so?

Within a day, the inevitable announcement was made that students could indeed tell anyone – even journalists what Professor Gore had to say. Nothing was off the record, everything on. Predictably enough, little was then written about what Gore did say.

There must be a few lessons to be drawn from this and.I offer a few (more abstract than not). First, the effort to prevent disclosure of what Gore had to say was doomed from the start. He was – he still is – far too important. What he says anywhere is potentially newsworthy. What he says to students about covering campaigns may be especially so. The very notion, then, of silencing students about what they heard in Gore’s class was a non-starter, an impossibility.

Suppose, to pick another name out of the hat, former President Clinton agreed to make the short trip from his new Harlem offices to Columbia to teach. Is it even conceivable that what he said to hundreds of students could possibly be treated as confidential? No one would try and no one should have tried with Gore.

At the same time, the notion that what a teacher says to students should be treated as if it were a public address is a serious one. A classroom is not a political convention. An effort to teach students is not supposed to be the same as one to persuade prospective voters.

When William F. Buckley, Jr. sprang upon the world stage a half-century ago with God and Man at Yale, a denunciation of his undergraduate professors for their supposed godlessness, he quoted at length from the notes he took in his classes. His professors were appalled. They had understood (without quite understanding how to explain it) that everything they said in class was between them and their students and, in that sense, off the record. Did Buckley’s extended quotations from his notes change the tone, if not the substance, of what they said to their students in the future? Or their sense of what a classroom was? Can you doubt it?

Russell Baker once conjured up the single course to be taught in his ideal journalism school. As Tom Wicker later recalled it, Baker’s school would require each student to stand in front of a closed door for six hours, after which an official would emerge and utter two words – “no comment.” The exam would be for the student to then write 600 words on deadline.

The journalists who covered the Gore-Columbia flap had more to work with. But the students who observed them at work – some screaming, others offering money to students to reveal what Gore said, many grossly exaggerating the story – may learn a useful lesson from what they saw.

Professor Gore may have much to teach his students. But the journalists who sought to cover Professor Gore may have taught them far more.

Floyd Abrams is the William J. Brennan, Jr. Visiting Professor on First Amendment Law at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Mar/Apr 2001

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