Columbia’s Jelani Cobb: ‘Everything is on the table.’

CJR · Columbia’s Jelani Cobb: ‘Everything is on the table’

 

The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism announced today that Jelani Cobb will be its new dean. Cobb is a professor at the school, a staff writer at The New Yorker, an author, a documentary producer, and the director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.

On this week’s Kicker, Cobb speaks with Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, about the role of journalism at a politically fraught time, diversity efforts at the J-school and throughout journalism, and the high cost of degrees from institutions like Columbia.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Pope: It strikes me that a job like dean of the Columbia Journalism School is always sort of fraught, and there’s always a lot going on. Big-picture issues, like: How much does J-school cost versus what the job market is? What is happening to the J-school in terms of diversity, both among the students and the faculty? What is the role of journalism in a fraught political time, and what does a place like Columbia do to address that? And then there’s this whole ongoing debate about objectivity. So how do you prioritize all that? What’s your first mission coming in? 

Cobb: I think that the important thing about a job like this is that you have to be able to cook on all burners. But the most crucial thing for us internally is the cost of journalism school. You know what’s happening with stagnation in the American labor market generally. And we’re seeing that in the journalism market particularly. That’s going to be something that we have to address—that’s at the forefront of my mind, actually. In the conversations I had with the upper administration and the committee prior to taking this, that was probably the bulk of those conversations. 

Pope: That’s obviously a practical problem. I don’t know if the word is “moral,” but I see it framed that way, like How dare a place like Columbia charge this much money? Do you understand that facet of the argument?

Cobb: I do understand it. I also understand—and I don’t want to be fence-sitting here—I’m just saying I see it from both these perspectives. I talk to my students. I say, “What you’re paying for is, in part, access to the faculty, access to the facilities, the resources, that amazing library on the other side of the campus. But the network, being very frank. Columbia’s alumni network is astounding, and highly placed, and extremely influential.” And so I understand where that comes from.

At the same time, I think we have to look at some very plain realities. What’s happened, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, which I think has made people question their relationship to work, to question what their priorities are in life, what kind of pressure it places on someone—if we have the price tag that we have, then I think it will impact the way that students matriculate through the institution. If people are, from the second they get there, thinking about how they will pay when they graduate, that has an impact on the decisions people make.

These things are all interconnected. If you think about local journalism and the outlets that can’t afford to pay much, the other side of that is, can a person afford to take a job that doesn’t pay much, if they’re going to be doing work that is really, really essential and really crucial in the places where we need it to be done the most? I look at all of these things and say that they’re part of this big equation. You have to keep an eye on what’s happening in all of these pots. 

Pope: What’s to be done about it? I saw that some schools have been seeking fundraising from donors to—I guess, on the most extreme end, to make school free. What kind of options are on the table, do you think? 

Cobb: I think everything is on the table. Coming in, I would love to see that. I can’t say that that’s what we’re going to do, but when we’re trying to figure out our approach to this, that is going to be one of the options that we consider very seriously. 

The first thing that I want to do is get a lay of the land in terms of what is feasible, and what’s possible from a revenue-generation position. Some of that is philanthropy, and some of that is other ideas I have that you’ll hear more about in time. But what can we do that will make that number more reasonable and more affordable for a larger number of people? 

Pope: Do you have a donor in mind? 

Cobb: I was actually looking at you. I was like, After this interview, hit Kyle up. 

Pope: Okay, yeah, go ahead and do that. We’ll see how far that goes. 

Cobb: You can write the check. You can’t necessarily cover it. 

Pope: Yeah, sure, I can write a check.

All right. So I interrupted you. That’s priority one. And then you started to talk about the next level of priority.

Cobb: There are two things. One is the diversification of the institution, the diversification of the field. Those two things are related. One of the things that I think immediately is I want to strengthen our relationship with the HBCU system, which I’m a product of. I’m a graduate of Howard University. I want to cement some of those relationships to say, “If you were thinking about graduate school, if you were thinking about journalism, we want to be number one on your list.” That will likely involve physically going to places, and building up relationships, and having Columbia’s identity and reputation and standing be at the forefront of students’ minds.

The other part is that question, which we had to answer on the fly. You and I have talked about this. We never had a central idea of how we cover the astounding, atypical, and, in some instances, even jaw-dropping developments that we’ve seen in the United States, socially and politically, in the last five to seven years. 

We need to seriously think about not only what the best practices are for covering authoritarian politics, but what we need to be educating students about, in terms of how they approach the subject matter. There are lots of examples that we can find looking abroad. People who have done this kind of work in circumstances that are even more hostile and unfavorable. The Nobel Prize winners Maria Ressa and the staff of Novaya Gazeta illustrate the importance of a free press operating in unfree contexts. That’s something that we as American journalists need to be more cognizant of. 

Pope: I thought Trevor Noah had a great comment on that, in the closing remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He brought up the Russian journalists who had been forced to leave. Basically, his message to the American press sitting there was like, “You do what they would do if they had the opportunity in this country.” He was getting at the point that we forget how fragile a lot of this stuff is.

Are you talking about the school, as an institution, having a stronger voice on these issues as a collective? 

Cobb: Sure. But I also think we have the opportunity to moderate a bigger conversation. It would be more effective for that conversation to have many partners, and for Columbia Journalism School to be one. 

You know, we have this amazing perch in this city, which is the media capital of the world. If there’s a conversation that should be had on this, Columbia University is as good a place as any I can think of. But we’ll need to have buy-in from a lot of different types of institutions about what we’re doing and how we should be doing it. 

Pope: Can I go back just briefly to what you were saying about going, for instance, to HBCUs and making sure that people understand that Columbia should be something they should consider? Is it your sense that this place is starting with a negative balance in their perception of what the experience will be here, especially for, say, a journalist of color? Or is it just a matter of making sure it’s on their radar? Is there work to eliminate negative perceptions? 

Cobb: That has not been my experience in terms of the pool. I have been here for five years. I have had very frank conversations with students of color—not all of them African American—about the difficulties of the institution, and sometimes feeling alienated, and so on. That hasn’t been everyone—there have been people who felt the opposite. But you don’t want anyone to have those sentiments. 

I want to make sure that we are both presenting ourselves in such a way that people are going, “This is something I should be thinking about” and, internally, making sure that everyone feels like a stakeholder, like they are equally invested, and that this institution is here for the next generation of journalists, whoever they are, and however they look. 

Pope: How hard was this decision to go for this job? You have a lot of great gigs. 

Cobb: I think when the first possibility of it came up, I did a spit take. It wasn’t something I thought about, quite frankly. I didn’t have the kind of personal ambition that said Dean of Columbia Journalism School. But I did have ideas, and I did have a very deep investment in this institution and the belief that it is a really special place. And so I had to think about it. And I know it sounds ridiculous, like every politician says this: I had to sit down and talk with my family and decide. 

Pope: Do I really want to be president?” 

Cobb: Exactly. But I actually had to have those conversations and think about what I could do if I were to get the position. What would be important to me. If I was making my top four, top five things, you would have touched on all of them. That made me decide that if you have ideas and you think that you can actually make a difference, you should do it. 

Pope: Are you worried about what you’ll have to give up? Are you going to have the time? Recently, you’ve done documentaries, you’ve done books, you’ve done writing for The New Yorker, you run a center here. What’s going to have to give, do you think? 

Cobb: Yeah. In initial conversations about that, there’s a funny thing, which is that the two previous deans, as you know, were staff writers at The New Yorker. 

Pope: And so it’s part of the job. 

Cobb: It was part of the job. And so people have been talking about diversifying leadership, in one way, and replicating it in another. But I think that I will likely not be doing any more documentaries in the near future. I have one that I’m in the midst of, and we’re wrapping that up. I don’t foresee undertaking another one. I was traveling around the country a lot, doing a lot of speeches and talking to different groups. I probably won’t be doing nearly as much of that. 

The other thing is that I’ve been a fairly regular presence on television, particularly on MSNBC. I don’t think that I’ll be as visible in that space either. I feel like in a position like this, the dean carries a particular amount of weight. When you speak, you will almost assuredly be assumed to be speaking for an institution, as opposed to speaking as an individual. You have to carefully decide what you weigh in on. It’s important to be above the fray. And then there are other things that I haven’t figured out yet but will probably have to give, because I haven’t been in this role very long. 

Pope: What about social media? You’re active on Twitter—you’re pretty forceful on Twitter. You and I have talked about, you know, whatever stories that come up, you take a pretty strong stance pretty quickly on some of them. Is that following this same sort of MSNBC category, or do you hope to keep that up? 

Cobb: I think you weigh in where it’s important and where you can make a difference. Irrespective of this position, I have been reevaluating my relationship with social media for a minute. I’ve been thinking I wanted to be more selective about it, because, initially, when you know all your followers, it’s almost like a group text. You kind of jump in on everything, and anywhere. That’s the familiarity of it. Now, that’s well beyond the scope of the people I interact with on social media. There’ll be less of that. 

Also, I want to see which direction some of these platforms go in. We’re looking at the unfolding Twitter developments and and leadership changes. I just want to see what happens in that space as well. 

Pope: So you’re coming in in the months before the midterm elections, which will transition us directly to presidential elections. It’s something that we’ve been thinking about reorienting ourselves around, because I think that the press, and how the press operates, is going to be even more central in the conversation this time than in the last two elections. 

And I think it’s going to be a more dangerous time for the press, this time than in the last. I think newsrooms themselves are going to be at battle internally. I assume, from your earlier comments, and even from our conversations, the J-school is going to be very much part of that conversation, right? How does a place like this go about engaging in that? 

Cobb: I think on a couple of levels. One is, how do we cover politics and how are we teaching our students to cover politics? Margaret Sullivan has said, and I think that she’s right, that we really don’t do a very good job of covering the functions of government. We do a great job of covering the transitions and the personalities that are in government. But what actually is at stake, and what things mean, and what the developments are—that’s, generally speaking, a less well-covered terrain. 

We want to make sure that our students are out there, able to do the nuanced, layered kind of conversations, in whatever format that is, about what is at stake, what’s on the table, what are the policy positions, what are the implications of these things. We’re just coming out of this pandemic where we see, very clearly, that policy matters. We’ve seen, given the Supreme Court’s relationship to Roe v. Wade, and the upheaval that that has generated in American society, there are still people who are shocked and wondering how we could get to a point where this is a reality, or a potential reality. And so I think that we need to have an approach to coverage that’s less contingent on the midterms, and that the midterms will be part of a bigger, richer, broader set of coverages—not necessarily a biennial holiday event where we convene and say, “Oh, this is the big thing that we have to be invested in.” 

Pope: Well, it was great to talk to you. Congratulations. 

Cobb: Thank you. 

Pope: Every time I talk to you on the phone, your oldest daughter has got on the line to say hello. What has been her verdict on this move of yours? What has she said? 

Cobb: She did something very sweet. She happened to be standing next to me when the call came in and I was offered the position. 

Pope: From Lee Bollinger? 

Cobb: Lee Bollinger, yeah. I was talking and explaining to her what was happening. In school, when she does something good, you know, you get a sticker, that’s what happens. She ran into her room and came back with a bunch of stickers and was like, “You can have a sticker—you can pick whatever sticker you want.” 

Pope: That is so sweet. 

Cobb: And, you know, I don’t know why—I was just reaching for whatever, I was still on the phone, I took a pig. And so I now have a sticker of a pig on my cellphone. If I look at my cellphone, it reminds me of a very sweet gesture from her.  

Pope: Well, I look forward to working with you. Thank you so much. 

Cobb: Thank you. Likewise. 

 

 

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.