Some notes from the James Carey symposium at Columbia J-School.

Victor Navasky of The Nation asks the first panelists about the format of the presidential debates. Jay Harris, now of USC, delivers predictable cant: “They are at best disingenuous. They are propagandistic rather than informing. They are in their result uninformative. . . . And finally, no one says I don’t know.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania disagrees and says that research shows that “however impoverished they are, people of all educational levels learn from the debates.” The problem, she says, is having eight people with no time to go into depth in any issue with answers and followups. If we expect real discussion, she says, “you’re going to have to focus on a single topic . . . and you’d have followup” and “a moderator who relentlessly pursues common definitions.” The other problem is that the debates are controlled by the candidates.

I’ve been thinking that the problem with our extended election (we’re about to see the British do in one month what we take more than two years to do) is only made worse by making primaries yet earlier. But perhaps it’s best that we start getting rid of entertaining but hopeless and distracting candidates so we can push the candidates who may prevail. But that doesn’t solve the problem of them controlling the debates. And with so many players so eager, for good reasons, to have debates — ever more TV networks plus online players now — it allows the candidates to hold those cards still. Who could be in a position to demand the substantive, one-subect debates Jamieson envisions?

: Todd Gitlin of Columbia launches into a screed: “The problem is not partisanship. The problem is not that politicians are misleading. The problelm is that a political force that is systematically committed to distortion and irrationality toward various dark purposes has seized control of the United States of America with the collusion of a press that believes that it is not its mission to tell the truth.” Oh, my.

He continues: “We actually have had two presidents of the United States in the last 30 years who actually believed in public conversation. the first was Jimmy Carter, who was excoriated for presuming to actually launch a conversation about what was wrong with the moral temperment of the country…. The second was Bill Clinton, who launched public conversation, for which he was treated as a blowhard.”

He said he would get to a partison point and he gets to it, of course, on Iraq and Bush: “We are in the midst of one of the great calamities of American history . . . The combination of mendacity and inability to know, to seek truth in an honest way and a journalism that considers its responsibility to be not to notice we are in a the middle of this horrendous war, no end of which is in sight. The damage to not only Mesopotamia but American life and America’s standing in the world is bottomless. This to me is the central emergency of our time and puts the lie to any claim that we have anything approximating a working relation between power and knowledge.” Oh, my.

: LATER: From Jay Rosen and someone else in this morning’s debate, an interesting meme is emerging: a backwards view of what and who starts news. After Gitlin performed his rant, someone here (sorry, I’ll try to figure out who that was) said that “critical engagement doesn’t come out of nowhere.” It comes “partly out of a social movement demanding critical engagement from the press.” This should be obvious: We answer the public’s questions and needs. But that makes the public our boss and though that’s acceptable in rhetoric, it’s not acceptable in reality.

But note well that I’ve been hearing journalism students here and in Germany turn that around and ask how the public can better tell journalists what to do. We’re their resource, no?

Jay attacks this same reverse timeline (in the eyes of those who thought they were in control) when he discusses not the conversation but the argument, the pastime that those who would dismiss blogs say is all we engage in. Says Jay: It’s the argument that gets us engaged in the world in the first place. It’s argument that makes us look for information…. So we need to teach people that. We need to teach journalism students that. Otherwise they’re likely to see argument, opinion, debate as an aftereffect.”

If, indeed, the argument is the start of news, of the process of journalism, then one values that argument higher. If one believes that we work for the public, then one must listen to the public.

: Jay Rosen is speaking and you know I’m a fan of him and his thought. And he was a great fan of James Carey. He talks about Columbia’s effort to find a new head and direction and said: “A great school of journalism has to not only understand the relationship to the profession but what (he asked the faculty) is your connection to the rest of Columbia and the great traditions of learning. He said that James Carey was “the connection between the journalism school and the rest of Columbia.”

Jay also makes an eloquent allusion to the “great migration” of media that we are undergoing. In a forced migration, he says, you need to decide what to take with you and Carey informs that because “everything inessential is boiled away by his work.”

Indeed, this is why I argue to newspapers that they need to stop wasting their resources on commodified news and to do what they do best and link to the rest.

Jay also asks what comes after the watchdog press. “I think the watchdog press finally died under Bush. It had a good run, as Jim used to say…. I don’t think we can believe in that illusion anymore.”

This, again, is a way of saying that the pipe is reversed. We used to believe that journalists started the news. They decided what to investigate and report. They decided what dogs to watch. Now we need to find that way for the public to tell them. Or perhaps the public already is; journalists just need to learn to listen.