"One important way to defend journalism is to practice and contribute bold, independent journalism''

Statement From Dean Coll On Press Freedom

Welcome back.

This is a time of great energy and commitment at our school, for reasons you can imagine. It is a privilege to support our students and faculty and to contribute to journalism at a time when our profession is under attack. And journalism is indeed under serious threat today, in the United States and worldwide, in ways that I have not witnessed in my lifetime.

Forgive me for taking a few minutes, but I’d like to name a few of the threats we face, and to speak of our response.

The 2016 election campaign and the policies of the Trump Administration have presented startling departures in political rhetoric, propaganda campaigns, and in the relationship between the press and the Presidency. I don’t have time to address all of these challenges here but I thought I would talk about two.

One concerns the President’s words. The other concerns the law.

As some of you will recall, one feature of a Columbia Journalism School education is learning how to be yelled at. As a reporter, if you are doing your job properly, you can expect to be called names. Even by the President of the United States. Of course, none of us should be dismayed or cowed by such attacks.

From day to day, we know that our mission is to get right back to doing our jobs, reporting hard and fairly on all of those who exercise power in our government and economy.

Yet when President Donald Trump publically referred to journalists as “enemies of the people” and then repeatedly called them “dishonest” or “dishonorable” he crossed into new territory for an American President, at least in the postwar period.

With such language, the President is evidently seeking to delegitimize the place of an independent, professional press in our constitutional system, for the purpose of weakening it. We must all recognize and resist this attack.  

This is not a matter of partisan or electoral politics. It concerns specific threats to free speech and journalism under the First Amendment. This should galvanize all of us, whether we are working at big news organizations or at small opinion journals on the right or left.

Some of you came to Columbia from countries where journalism has never been safe or free. One reason a President’s words matter is that they influence the behavior of dictators abroad, with sometimes fatal consequences. America’s place in the world has long been informed by ideas, – above all, the ideals of freedom and due process enshrined in the Bill of Rights. When our leaders seek to delegitimize those rights in the United States, they inevitably encourage those who never honored or governed by them in the first place.

Last year, 259 journalists were imprisoned worldwide, a record, and 48 reporters were killed. In other fields of civil society, some 260 human rights defenders were killed around the world. These are darkening times.

Here at home, the more immediate threat concerns the rights of journalists under the law. It is important to remember that the libel laws and court decisions under the First Amendment that shaped the independence many of us have enjoyed during our professional careers are relatively recent achievements in American constitutional history, really dating to the 1960s and 1970s, with the Supreme Court cases in Sullivan v. the New York Times and the Pentagon Papers.

Fortunately, for now, it is not within the direct power of any American President to rewrite libel laws, or to withdraw the rights of journalists to protect confidential sources. These are mostly matters of state law and Supreme Court jurisprudence. However, there IS an area of Presidential power we should be concerned about in the short run.

During the Obama Administration, the Justice Department came close to criminalizing journalism by seeming, in at least a few cases, to describe reporters who obtain classified information as co-conspirators in federal crimes, including espionage.

I fully expect this Justice Department to file a case of this type against a journalist. It may be brought against a relatively controversial group such as Wikileaks or it may be brought against a more traditional reporter. For the interests of free journalism, it hardly matters who the defendant is – bad law for one is bad law for all.

It is not a coincidence that these assaults on the First Amendment are taking place at a time when commercial journalism institutions are weaker than they’ve been since the Second World War. For two decades now, our profession has endured a dramatic loss of economic strength and independence.

This brings us back to Columbia Journalism School, where I am happy to say the news is brighter. Our school is economically strong, led by bold faculty and determined to play its part. And we are strengthened even more by our thousands of alumni. We are in touch with many of you in professional newsrooms, inspired by your work and even, in a few cases, partnering on projects of public interest reporting.

At Columbia, we are fortunate to have a First Amendment lawyer running the university, President Lee Bollinger. This year, the Journalism School joined with the Law School to help Lee launch the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia. The Institute’s first director, Jameel Jaffer, joined us from the American Civil Liberties Union. Late last month, Knight filed its first lawsuit against the federal government, concerning the searches of smart phones and laptops at America’s borders. There is much more to come.

In our corner at Pulitzer Hall, we are expanding our investigative reporting projects, carried out by teams of faculty, professional reporters and students. We think that one important way to defend journalism is to practice and contribute bold, independent journalism. Our projects run in partnership with major media organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, Slate, the New Yorker and ABC News.

We have also seen a revival of Columbia Journalism Review’s visibility and influence. Under its new editor and publisher, Kyle Pope, CJR has been vigorously covering and commenting on the Trump Administration’s battles with the press and its departures in matters of press access, transparency, and truth-telling. CJR’s audience has grown dramatically since November. Become a member! You can sign up at www.cjr.org.

And of course, we continue to educate the finest young journalists in the world. The main change in our curriculum this year was the addition of a seven-week course in investigative reporting techniques that is now required for all M.S. students. Our faculty is recommitting to deep, meaningful reporting and storytelling.

This winter, we saw applications to our main M.S. degree program rise by about ten percent. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences of resilience and a revived sense of mission in the newsrooms where you work.

These are all examples of how the recent attacks on the press have actually strengthened the press. Yet I believe we are entering a prolonged struggle. It will ask much more of us yet, I’m afraid.

When I see all of you here, when I hear you speak about your work and your passion for journalism, I am greatly encouraged.

I’m proud to stand with you, our faculty and students in defense of a courageous, diverse, independent, fearless press. We have work to do.

Thank you.

Steve Coll

Dean Coll's remarks from the 2017 Alumni Awards Luncheon are also available HERE.