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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Mitch Albom—Off the Record and Off Mark at Columbia

I remember the first moment I felt like a journalist. I was 22, and it was just before classes started at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I was enrolled there, green with inexperience, and I went to the admissions office.

There was a brusque, short-haired woman behind the counter, and I guess I peppered her with inquiries “When does this start? What do I do next?” and finally she lowered her glasses and said, “You ask a lot of questions.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“It’s all right. You’re a reporter. You’re supposed to.”

I always loved Columbia for that. I loved how, on the first morning of my reporting class, I got a phone call at 6 a.m. telling me there was a fire in Harlem and to get up there, right now, and write a “story” about it.

And I loved The Speech.

The Speech comes on the J-school’s first day. It is given by the dean. My dean spoke passionately about choosing the news business. He said you might not make much money, but you’d have a sense of purpose, and once in a while you nail the bad guys.

He said journalism requires a “fire in the belly,” a willingness to stand up to things on principle alone.

I loved that speech. And I have always been proud of my alma mater.

Until last week.

Last week, my alma mater allowed Al Gore, the former vice president, to begin teaching a class on “Covering National Affairs in the Information Age.” In an apparent agreement with Gore, the class was to be “off the record.”

Huh?

How does a journalism school allow a class to be “off the record”? How does a school that teaches you to hold politicians accountable and watch out for their spin, then make a deal with a politician and weave a spin of its own?

Students had to push past reporters and TV cameras to get into the building. They clearly knew it was a newsworthy event. Yet the school was telling them to keep quiet? What kind of training is that?

Afterward, in a scramble to regain its principles, the current dean, Tom Goldstein, issued a press release on the school’s Web site. A Web site! You couldn’t get the man on the phone. I tried. In fact, in a radio show I do, I gathered a fellow alum, Doron Levin, a business columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and a former outstanding J-school professor, Melvin Mencher, and we called the school and asked to speak to Dean Goldstein. That’s two working alums and a professor emeritus.

Guess what happened? We were put off by a secretary type and finally picked up by someone else, who told us a statement would be up soon on the Web site.

Great. Nothing like accountability from the school that teaches it.

It’s true, there are times in journalism where you agree to go “off the record” with a source. But that is usually to substantiate an important part of a larger story.

Lectures by professors in public institutions do not fall into that category. And there is no larger story here. What could Al Gore say that was so secret? To me, this smells like the very celebrity swooning that good journalists decry. Columbia was so thrilled to put Al Gore in its stable, it was willing to make a deal.

How embarrassing. It should have come to the students and said, “Folks, we could have had Gore lecture here. But he insisted that what he say be off the record. So we passed. That’s a good lesson for what you’re going to face. Tough choices. Hold your ground.”

Instead my alma mater caved like wet mud. The “Web statement” defensively claimed “we never muzzled or gagged or forbade our students from talking to anyone.”

Oh yeah? When I interviewed one student from that class, Andy Pergman, he squirmed every time I asked what Gore said. “The whole idea,” Andy told me, “was to keep (Gore’s) conversation off the record.”

Some idea. The kid was 22, just like me on that first day, and something was happening to him, too, but something quite different.

I was feeling like a journalist. He was being taught not to act like one.

Mitch Albom is the author of the best seller “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

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