The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Gag Order on Future Reporters: Teaching Self-Censorship at Columbia

(Nat Hentoff—February 20, 2001—Village Voice)

The constitutional guarantee of the liberty of the press gives immunity from previous restraints.
Near v. Minnesota, U.S. Supreme Court, 1931
I have spoken at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism—and at other universities and journalism schools around the country—and I have never been told beforehand that the students will be forbidden from reporting anything I've said. Or that the press can't come in.
Yet, when Al Gore arrived at Columbia's prestigious training ground for journalists on February 6, newspaper and television reporters were banned from the classroom. Moreover, the students—drawn from both the journalism school and the school of international and public affairs—had been unequivocally instructed that they were under a gag rule, imposed not by a judge but by their own school.
The dean of the school, Tom Goldstein, himself a former reporter, told the February 7 Daily News: "That's our policy. Classes are off the record."
When I asked Associate Dean Evan Cornog when this policy was implemented, he didn't know. I asked if there is a written copy of the rule. He didn't know.
But in a February 5 e-mail to the Columbia students about to be in the presence of the former presidential candidate, Associate Dean David Klatell wrote: "Unless he tells you otherwise at the beginning of tomorrow's seminar, Vice President Gore's remarks are off the record."
So it was Al Gore who imposed the gag rule? Yet, when asked by a New York Post reporter as he arrived, Gore said of the muzzling of the students: "That's the school's policy."
Reporter Dan Mangan told Gore he could change that policy since he was the star of the lecture series. "Gore shrugged and laughed, saying, 'I'm new here.' "
Gore was also asked by a Newsday reporter, Mary Voboril, if he could waive the policy. "It's a school policy," Gore said again, unhesitatingly. "I'm new here. That's above my pay grade."
But on the same day, Gore said to Felicity Barringer of The New York Times: "I think normal classes are off the record, and they wanted it to be as normal as possible. I would have the option of asking them to put it on the record, but I think the students will get a better experience if it's as much as possible a normal classroom experience." (Emphasis added.)
That's why Gore isn't president. You never know from day to day which Al Gore he is. But where did he get the idea that "normal classes" are off the record at Columbia or anywhere else? And what "better experience" will gagging these journalism students provide?
It is a fact—as I have substantiated, and as Gabriel Snyder wrote in the February 12 New York Observer—that "Mr. Gore was clear from the beginning that he did not want press in his classroom—no pool, no video camera, not even a Webcast." And he wanted the students gagged.
So why didn't any of the Columbia deans say that forthrightly? Were they covering up for Gore?
And as for the mandate that the students remain silent, why did Gore first evade the fact that he could have released the students from the school's gag order? Some of the students had been hired by news organizations to report what he said, but they were to be prevented from getting that real experience as reporters.
As for the journalism experts running the school, why couldn't they put together a single, clear explanation for why the outside press was barred from the classroom while the future journalists were learning how the news is managed? In another example of the communications disarray, Associate Dean Klatell told The New York Observer that he'd made the "the final decision" on how this momentous event was to be handled all by himself. Klatell told me that as well.
But what about Klatell's e-mail that the final decision was up to Gore? At least the Clinton White House spinners didn't let their threads get all tangled up. Maybe the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism ought to hire Clinton's famous former press conduit, Sid Blumenthal, to be the school's spokesman from now on.
By Friday of that historic freedom-of-the-press week, Tom Goldstein, the J-school's maximum leader, according to a Times report, "retracted the 'off the record' designation, saying, 'Our aim was hardly that restrictive.' " And Associate Dean Klatell told the New York Post that "students were mistaken if they thought they were under a 'gag order.' "
But, as mentioned, I have his actual e-mail to the students. It says clearly that they would be gagged unless Professor Gore freed them—and Gore didn't. Maybe even Sid Blumenthal can't help this journalism school.
In a letter to The Wall Street Journal complaining of "this reporting," Tom Goldstein said: "We had no intention of preventing students from talking to the press afterward."
A professor at the school, Dick Wald, was the managing editor of the best daily newspaper I've read in this town, the New York Herald Tribune, and he later became head of ABC-TV News. To show me that some of the reporters trying to get the real score on Gore were themselves embroiled in the irony of the occasion, Wald said: "Five working reporters asked me if I'd like to talk off the record. Here they were—being self-righteous about Gore's closed classroom!"
It's Journalism 101 that you never make that offer at the start. First find out what a source will say on the record.
Dick Wald thinks the Gore story will blow over in a month or so. I doubt it. It will be remembered that this famed journalism school did not have the integrity—or the respect for its students—to tell Gore that if he insisted on gagging the students, he should go lecture somewhere else. Why didn't any of the professors, themselves journalists, publicly object to the gag rule?
At the renowned University of Missouri Graduate School of Journalism, where Gore will also lecture, the dean—whose full name is Dean Mills—told me that "Columbia's instinctive secrecy has no place in, of all places, a journalism school! We have no such policy here."
Gore will also teach some classes at Fisk University and Middle Tennessee State University. (I've lectured at the latter's journalism school.) Neither university will allow Gore to make his talks off the record.
After Gore's first lecture in New York, the Nashville Tennessean quoted a Gore spokesman saying, "The former vice president had nothing to do with a gag order for his class at Columbia." George Orwell lives!