THE BLOG
10/05/2007 03:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Honoring the Dean of Deans

James Carey was a true giant -- both intellectually and in his dealings with the oversized and over-fragile egos that dominate academic life. When Carey passed away last year, Jay Rosen appropriately noted that American journalism lost a man many considered its most accomplished professor.

Carey's criticism of journalism history and his ability to articulate a role for media in public life set in motion a sea change that reshaped the fundamental way we think about journalism and brought him to Columbia University as CBS Professor of International Journalism.

But it was his work with students and faculty at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana that earned him the well-deserved, affectionate, informal moniker "dean of deans."

Carey was above all a gentleman who believed in civil discourse and in the rational exchange of ideas in an intellectual marketplace. He had little patience for the course rhetoric, feigned indignation and maumauing that often dominate today's public sphere.

On Friday, an amazing group of scholars from Columbia, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, NYU and other great schools of journalism and communications will honor him in New York.

Carey saw the dawn of a new democratic era in communication and journalism as early as 1995, when Internet access was still billed largely by the hour and neither the phenomenon of Web surfing nor the proliferation of Web sites or Web journalists had occurred.

In his prescient essay, "The Press, Public Opinion and Public Discourse: on the edge of the postmodern," Carey proclaimed:

"Modern journalism and modern democracy, both invented around the 1890s have had a pretty long run. But there was democracy before modern journalism. There will be democracy after it, though there are difficult and dangerous transitions to be negotiated."

With so much criticism leveled at the way journalism works today, I wanted to share Carey with Huffington Post readers who may not be familiar with his work. His books, Communication as Culture and The James Carey Reader are seminal works.

I came to Columbia in 2001 specifically to study with him in a doctoral program he founded there at the end of his career. I've been privileged again to be one of two Columbia students to speak at the event in his honor.

In a spirit of civility and reverence for a great man whom I have the honor to call mentor, here is an abridged version of my remarks:

Jim Carey once told me a story that I assumed was sort of apocryphal -- though I also seem to remember reading it somewhere. It goes like this:

Early in his career, as a somewhat junior faculty member, Carey arrived on time for a routine faculty meeting.

As he entered the room, he noticed the longtime professors -- members of the academic old-guard -- seated at the table comfortable in chairs that no doubt had become their regular place to sit at these ritual meetings.

There was this certain professor, known for his work in this certain field. And there was that other professor widely recognized as a scholar in that other area of research.

As Carey moved around the room looking for a place, he noticed not only were there no places at the table, there were no empty chairs around the wall or anywhere else in the room.

I remember Carey, holding up his arms laughing, "I was walking abound saying to myself, 'Where's my chair? Where's my chair?' and joking that in a way it was an omen -- not just for his time at that institution but in some respect for his whole career.

Well...it seems sort of odd that someone such as Carey could ever have had any type of academic identity crisis, but apparently there is at least anecdotal evidence that it was possible, which leads to the questions I want to raise today.

What was Carey's seat here at Columbia? How did an academic of Carey's stature find a home at the end of his career at a school for professional practice?

What did he contribute to the education of journalists...as well as to those of us who may have come here to study journalism, not to practice it?

My idea -- my contribution to this conversation about Carey -- comes from a conversation I had preparing for this talk with Joan Konner, the dean who brought Carey to Mr. Pulitzer's school.

To put it simply, it's that Carey saw journalism as more a humanity than a social science. And his contributions here mirrored that idea.

I began thinking about "the Carey question" more than a year ago listening to Dan Balz of The Washington Post, a former student of Carey's, refer to him at the memorial service as "educator of journalists."

Of course, that's not how most of my colleagues in the doctoral program here, think of him. I had met Dan professionally years ago, and I was interested in his take on Carey for another reason.

The day I laid out my idea to research the interplay of "fake news" and traditional journalism in presidential politics for my dissertation, I met Carey in his office and presented him with a 20-page proposal that explained the scope, literature, methodology -- what I hoped was all the right academic stuff.

I fidgeted nervously for most of a half hour as he read it, waiting for him to take apart my scope and methods. When Carey finished, he simply looked up and nonchalantly said, "Run this by Dan Balz. See what he thinks."

I was, to say the least, surprised.

I didn't come to Columbia to study with Dan Balz. I came to study with Jim Carey. But as we continued our conversation, I realized Carey saw even before I did, that my research really was as much about journalism as it was political humor.

Characteristically, Carey had responded outside the expected paradigm. It was the way he worked.

A year later at the memorial, Balz captured Carey's ethos, saying: "Carey, world-class scholar that he was, loved journalism and he loved journalists. To him, journalism was not an abstraction to be analyzed from afar - and certainly not be looked down upon from somewhere in the academy. Journalism was a living, breathing, human and imperfect endeavor."

Carey's own thoughts and writing on the subject are clear.

He grabbed the attention of academics and journalists alike in the mid-70s with the opening sentence of an essay that boldly declared "the study of journalism history remains something of an embarrassment."

We're all familiar with his take: That journalism history should do more than document the steady expansion of freedom and knowledge. That journalism ultimately is a sense of consciousness; therefore, its history should operate culturally, through a frame that recovers past forms of imagination and social experience.

To Carey, studying journalism history meant examining the way people in the past experienced reality.

Most of us have read the now-legendary address Carey gave decades ago to the Association of Educators in Journalism, calling on the group to recognize: "that (it was) not merely training people for a profession or for the current demands of professional practice, but for membership in the public and for a future that transcends both the limitations of contemporary practice and contemporary politics."

Carey took the position that if journalism was a profession, then it must have a history, and the task of journalism professors was to write that history in a way that would demonstrate why journalism deserved a place in the university. If journalism was a profession, it must have a code of ethics or at least an enlightened sense of the First Amendment.

This isn't really a leap. But for me, it's where Carey's academic work really fits into the mission of Columbia's professional program. It is, in short, where I believe Carey may have found his chair.

Here at Columbia, Carey didn't teach news writing and reporting, feature writing or copy editing. He was known among the doctoral students for his course in Social Impact of the Mass Media and, along with Steve Isaacs, for the popular and provocative Critical Issues course that is at the core of the professional program.

Notably, Carey's final contribution to the school was the outline of a year-long course on the history of journalism -- the topic that catapulted him to the limelight decades ago.

Contrary to popular notion, I'd argue it was precisely the type of course Pulitzer expected from this school and would have been proud to endow.

As Nick Lemann reminded us three years ago in his Pulitzer Centennial Lecture:

"Pulitzer did not envision a school that would train people in how to operate a newspaper, but rather, a school that would in a way then unspecified, adapt the university ideal of a liberal education specially for future journalists."

Jay Rosen, who knew Carey long before I did, wrote last year that Carey may have come to Columbia at the end of his career because he decided the school had gotten many things right -- and one or to big things wrong.

Carey would hold that the school was right to remain dedicated to the craft of journalism, to preparing future journalists and to keep advertising, public relations and marketing well away from its doors.

But, Rosen argues, Carey's work here showed that he saw the importance of both preaching the virtues of professionalism and teaching new recruits about its cost.

Carey's work here was always more about examining and reshaping the existing paradigm than taking sides in a well-worn argument.

Despite his well-known charm, I can remember occasions when Carey became openly irritated when a discussion of journalism education fell predictably into the threadbare frame of theory vs. skill. Mass communication vs. professional practice.

It's helped me develop my own organic approach to teaching my students here news writing and reporting.

You see, it's the voice of my old city editor at the Wichita Falls Times they hear when I bark the minutia of professional practice:

* Where's your nut graph?
* "According to" is the attribution for documents; "said" is the attribution for quotes. And
* Commas and periods ALWAYS inside the quotations marks, damn it.

But it's Carey I'm channeling when I slip the really big stuff into my critique of their work.

Whether it's discussing Walter Lippmann's ideas of pseudo-relationships and images in our heads, and the challenges those cognitive devices created for most of them just last week as they reported on President Ahamdinejad's speech...

Or the more unconventional interpretation of the First Amendment I offer when they come back from their beats frustrated with the way New York City cops treat them once they identify themselves as journalists...

Carey's academic ideas live as a vital part of the professional program at Columbia University.

Well done, James Carey, educator of journalists.