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Outgoing Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann On Obama Scandal Coverage

Friday, May 24, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Nick Lemann. He is the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, long time writer for the New Yorker, and a wonderful guy. Nick, I just read that you were leaving the deanship. Are you all deaned out?

NL: Yes, I am. Yesterday was my last graduation ceremony. I’ve been doing this ten years, which is about double the national average for deans. And it’s time to move on to some other phase of my life.

HH: Well, congratulations. That’s a heck of a run. And I really do mean that. Are you going to stay at the school and continue to teach and continue to write for the New Yorker? Or doing something completely different?

NL: No, that’s my plan, is to do just what you said. So I’m on sabbatical as of July 1st, and I’m going to hopefully return to my former life writing books if I can find a good topic.

HH: Well, I hope that you’ll be more available like your colleague, Ryan Lizza, is for this show. But Nick, I wanted to talk to you as the outgoing dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. We’ve got a problem in this country tracking journalists right now. What is your reaction to it? And what’s the reaction around the Columbia School of Journalism?

NL: Well, the reaction is pretty much outrage. You know, there was a time, a really long time ago, when administrations and journalists were really cozy, and it probably happened more in Democratic administrations such as the famous incident when President John F. Kennedy went from the last inaugural ball to Joseph Alsop’s house for a party. But you know, this is, the Obama administration is taking it a little bit far. But really, you know, the press and White House has a hostile relationship. And this is merely the latest example. Reporters, as is their job, try to pry loose information that administrations don’t want out there. But I do think you do cross a line when you start using legal means to essentially spy on reporters.

HH: Nick, I had on Michael Shear of the New York Times on Monday, Jonathan Alter on Tuesday, Al Hunt on Wednesday, so you’re the fourth East Coast journalist in a row that I’ve asked about this. Do you use the term Nixonian when you see the Obama tactics vis-à-vis James Rosen and others?

NL: Well, I don’t know about my colleagues in the East Coast journalism world. In connection with a long ago book project, I actually spent about a year in the Nixon archives. And so I would say you have to get to a pretty high bar to get to Nixonian. I sat at the next table from the late, Great Stephen Ambrose, who was no great liberal, and he could have had, twice a day, he would smack his forehead and say can you believe this? So I don’t think we’re quite to Nixonian, yet. But Nixon arguably wasn’t as bad with the press as this.

HH: I agree with that. I don’t think…

NL: He had…

HH: I don’t think he ever got close to what’s happened to Rosen, and to Rosen’s parents. That’s why I think it’s a whole new bar.

NL: Yeah, I mean, that’s right. He had the enemies list, but this is different. But again, just in the interest of fairness, if you go and read the very, very well documented, every meeting of the White House with Haldeman’s notes, and Ehrlichman’s notes, it’s not, I don’t know if you’ve done that, Hugh, but it’s not great on a number of fronts.

HH: I’ve read a lot of it, and I know that. And of course, I worked for the guy, so I know a lot of the record of what he did and what he was alleged to do. But I am curious, then, about the IRS scandal. The White House Counsel sits down with the White House Chief of Staff, and they allegedly don’t tell the President about the IRS scandal. You have covered Washington for a long time, Nick. Do you find that believable?

NL: We’re being suppositional here. Yes, I do find it believable, because part of the culture of the White House is always protect the President like crazy, and this administration does that to a T. Most administrations end up having some kind of rogue cabinet member or staffer who builds up a reputation that’s separate from and sort of orthogonal to the President’s, and this administration does not. So I’m not defending what the IRS did, but I do find it plausible that the Chief of Staff would say you know what, the President would want this done, but he doesn’t need to know about it, let’s keep him clean on this.

HH: Okay, Nick Lemann, a last question. I think the best journalism being done on the IRS scandal is being done by Carol Platt Liebau, former managing editor of the Harvard Law Review, and one of the editors of the Daily Princetonian. She’s working for Townhall.com, and by Eliana Johnson, who’s a Yalie who’s up at National Review Online. Are you satisfied that the so-called MSM is doing its job on the IRS scandals and the other scandals of Team Obama era?

NL: I’d give it about a B. I should say if I can put in a plug for one other thing, I recently persuaded a group of fellow journalism deans to sign a statement, kind of the same issue for us, which is the IRS has been very slow to approve applications for non-profit status by non-profit journalism organizations. I got one approved for the Washington Monthly about 20 years ago, and now there’s a big kind of queue of them, and they’re being held up, which is too bad, because the world really needs these organizations right now.

HH: I’ll bet you that you put patriot in the name of some of them. Is that the problem?

NL: No, I think the problem is putting journalism in the name of them.

HH: Well, Nick Lemann, thank you for joining me. Enjoy a well-deserved rest from deaning, and enjoy your summer off, and I can’t wait to hear what you write your next book about. And you go back and read those, though. I don’t think Nixon ever did anything remotely like this, vis-à-vis your colleague in the print press, but we will see, or the broadcast press. Thank you, Nick Lemann.

End of interview.

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