Michael Wolff Takes Issue with Columbia’s J-School

After announcing last week, the new appointment of a dean at Columbia’s school of journalism, Michael Wolff piped in with some not-so-constructive criticism. Wolff, a columnist for Vanity Fair, and a sometime contributor to, New York, thinks traditional journalism school in general, is a waste, and Steve Coll particularly, was the wrong choice for dean. Wolff describes Coll’s style as decent but “boring.” Wolff opts instead for a more sensationalist, stylized writing style in order to succeed in new journalism.

Is Wolff offering useful criticism, or just trying to stir up controversy to get some attention? Whatever the case, Emily Bell, who’d been subjected to Wolff’s criticism as well, invited Wolff to Columbia’s  j-school to speak about his piece, and answer questions.

Bell is a web-editor from London. As part of a put-down on the digital journalism department, Wolff questioned Columbia’s decision to hire an international web-editor to head their digital journalism department. Wolff mused that Columbia had “curiously hir[ed] a Web editor from London to run it.”

During Wolff’s speech, he explained his ideas, as to what a successful journalism education would entail.

“You may not have learned this in Journalism School,” Mr. Wolff explained to the Columbia journalism students he’d come to answer to, at Bell’s invitation. His advice to sell papers, and succeed in journalism, “is to find an interest group and alienate them.”

Michael Wolff

By Andrew Dermont (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Is there any validity to Wolff’s claims? Joan Konner, the dean of Columbia’s graduate journalism program doesn’t think so. In a letter to the editor of USA Today (who’d run Wolff’s original op ed piece), Konner retorted that Wolff’s piece was, “Ill-informed, because the J-school has more than kept pace with the media revolution.” and “Mean-spirited, because Wolff grants that Coll is an accomplished journalist but doubts Coll’s ability to provide up-to-date leadership.”

Furthermore, she takes issue with the Wolff’s claims that style, and sensational headlines, are more important to teach young journalists, than ethics, and proper form.

“Wolff’s acceptance of “style” as a standard of journalistic excellence is in the regrettable trend of “buzz” and “edge” in the popular mainstream media, which has encroached on facts and fairness.” Konner writes.

Many are writing-off Wolff’s criticism as trolling, claiming that Wolff is just stirring the pot to get himself some attention. While journalism is seen by many as a questionable degree choice, Wolff’s criticism of Columbia’s choices seem to be a bit over the top and personal. While sensational and stylistic journalism may make business sense, there will always be a place for thorough, well-researched, unbiased, ethical journalism.

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