Why Hofstra?

April 29th, 2013 § Comments Off on Why Hofstra? § permalink

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This is the time of year that admitted students are making up their minds, and they have been coming to the campus, calling, and otherwise seeking guidance on their choices in record numbers.

When I am asked to answer the question, “Why should I choose Hofstra,” the challenge I find is to make the answer as concise as possible, because I see so many reasons to come here.

But if I had to boil it down to two, I would leave aside many of our favorite talking points — great facilities, proximity to New York, a wealth of curricular and co-curricular activities — and concentrate on two things: top-flight teaching and a culture of collaboration and achievement here at the School of Communication.

Hofstra likes to say that “excellence in teaching is the expected standard” — which can sound like boilerplate. But the reality is that not only is excellence in teaching expected, there are an array of steps in place to make sure that we reach that standard. We perform careful screening of those who apply to teach here; we undertake extensive monitoring of classroom performance (including student evaluations of teaching, observations of junior—and senior—faculty by experienced teachers, and formal assessment of learning outcomes; and we intervene quickly when a teacher is having trouble hitting the expected standard, offering a variety of services on campus to help them become more effective classroom instructors, more caring mentors, and more consistent evaluators of student work.

All of this adds up to both a crystal-clear expectation of teaching excellence and a system designed to support those who need guidance.

Much of what we teach has a collaborative aspect, and the School of Communication has a culture of collaboration inside the classroom and outside. Students work together on film productions, Web sites, televised news programs, magazine production, public relations projects, radio broadcasts, and oratorical performances. For most of our students, internships with local media companies and related industries is a big part of the undergraduate experience, and students collaborate on sharing leads, opening doors, and working to build Hofstra’s network in the New York City area.

I have spoken with many employers in my three years as dean here, and they consistently praise their Hofstra interns for their seriousness, their preparation for the job, and their work ethic.

For incoming students, there is a record of success to build on in their own careers here, and dedicated faculty and staff to help them seize the opportunity and make the most of it. All this makes my job easy when I have to answer the question, “Why Hofstra?”

Books and the Future

March 8th, 2013 § Comments Off on Books and the Future § permalink

1984

In the age of the e-book, with bookstores in retreat and the physical book increasingly seen as an environmental anachronism, I feel the need to put in a word for the old-fashioned book.

I did my best to embrace the new order a few years ago, buying a Kindle and being given an iPad for Father’s Day one year. I ordered some books, and enjoyed the instant delivery and the ability to read across platforms—picking up something I had been reading at home on the Kindle or on my iPad while waiting in line at a store, etc. But after about a year the Kindle broke, and the iPad is now mostly used by my sons to play Minecraft and Plants vs. Zombies. And I am back to buying physical copies of books.

Why? Am I just used to what I am used to? I don’t see it that way. The iPad is, to me, an inferior way to read a book—too heavy, no good in bright sun, apt to need recharging, and useless for the crucial times of takeoff and landing, when a good book is the best diversion from the tedium of air travel. The Kindle is a better weight, works in bright sun—but brings little delight to the act of reading.

A nicely made book is a delight. With a good cover (or even, as above, a cheesy one), well-selected layout and typeface, good paper, a nice binding, a book can be a joy to hold in the hand.

And even if they are not wonderful examples of the printer’s and binder’s art, they can be vivid Proustian reminders of the time you read the book the first time. The “1984” cover reproduced above is the one I encountered in my family’s library when I was quite young—too young to read it. That saucy illustration conveyed to me a sort of illicit excitement, and certainly predisposed me to read the book. In the event, it was a bit less saucy a book than the cover promised—and, of course, a far better one.

Electronic copies lack that sort of resonance—but the fact that so many books are now, essentially, free (in the public domain) is a great thing, and so is the wireless delivery of them for travelers.

And for those of us who love the book as an object, I suspect there will arise a set of businesses catering to our tastes, for a price. After all, in spite of the rise of MP3s, I still can (and do) order new albums from Green Day, or Cat Power, or Bob Dylan on good old black vinyl.

Maybe the pleasure of holding a hardback book in the hands is a taste shared by a diminishing percentage of the population, but I suspect that the book will survive this change of tastes.

As to the new forms that will emerge as the capabilities of tablets and other technologies mature—I look forward to learning to navigate them with pleasure.

Photo: George Orwell, 1984, Signet Books 1951. Cover art by Alan Harmon.

Ed Koch: under the adulation

February 7th, 2013 § Comments Off on Ed Koch: under the adulation § permalink

Originally Published in Columbia Journalism Review (February 4, 2013)

Ed Koch: under the adulation
A press secretary looks back at Hizzoner and the media

By Evan Cornog

The death of former New York mayor Edward I. Koch last week at age 88 brought forth a flood of reminiscences (including my own) about him. Many recollections stressed Ed as a personality—the wisecracking New Yorker (by which many implied New York Jew)—and portrayed his persona as mayor and his persona as the TV judge on The People’s Court as cut from the same cloth.

This line of argument is perfectly reasonable, but tells us more about how the press functioned during his time in office than it does about his mayoralty. I served in his press office from 1980 to 1983, and became intimately familiar with this depiction of Ed. We all realized that Ed’s outsized personality could be a great political asset. After all, Fiorello LaGuardia, whom Ed greatly admired, showed how useful it was to reach his audience as directly and as powerfully as he could. I don’t recall Ed ever reading the comics from the papers over the radio, but he certainly strived to connect, through the media, with the individual citizens. “How’m I doin’” was just one manifestation of that effort.

Representatives of the national and international media would drop by for a few days, gather the requisite quotes and clips, and present their audiences with the standard portrait—the mayor as canny vaudevillian, raising the spirits of a crumbling city that was widely seen as in a terminal tailspin.

Of course, this sort of coverage drove some reporters crazy. Chief among the detractors were Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett at The Village Voice, who anatomized every link between the city government and the real-estate interests, and chronicled the various accommodations Koch the onetime Village Independent Democrats reformer made with the party bosses in the boroughs.

But the people who were really driven crazy by the adulation of Koch were the regular City Hall reporters, the denizens of Room 9 who covered every aspect of city government, fought with their desks for stories they believed in, and really tried to cover the complexity of the city’s travails as it fought to recover from decades of fiscal mismanagement.

And the reality was, we in the Koch administration wanted to help them with those stories, because we felt that our administration was doing a good job. The city was falling apart because for decades politicians from the mayor on down had been more interested in building shiny new schools and libraries and parks than in maintaining the things that had already been built. The perception was that people were only willing to pay New York City’s high taxes for those sort of projects.

The first public event I went to after I joined the press office was a groundbreaking for a sewer renovation in the Bronx. Let me tell you, getting anyone to come on that junket was a challenge. I think The Associated Press sent someone (mostly to be there in case the mayor was assaulted by a lunatic), and perhaps a couple of others attended, but I don’t think a single story was filed. Still, Koch was sending the message that the city had to take care if its fundamental infrastructure, and that it had to pay money to do so. Reporters from Paris or Tokyo or Los Angeles were seldom interested in that sort of detail but, over time, the message began to get across.

Some reporters (and some press secretaries) rolled their eyes in boredom as city officials discussed changing garbage collection from three-man trucks to two-man trucks, over strenuous union objections, or adopting the one-man catch-basin cleaner (don’t ask). Truly, the eyes glaze over at some of this. But that was what was needed. The move to two-man trucks resulted in huge savings, and over the time I was there, in the early 1980s, the city came back to fiscal responsibility and began to right itself.

Koch was hardly alone in making this happen. He would likely have failed if not for the strong leadership in support of the city shown by then Governor Hugh L. Carey. Bob Kiley and David Gunn helped turn around a dysfunctional Transit Authority and began to improve service on the subways and buses that are the metropolis’s circulatory system.

Throughout all this, our “communications strategy” was basically to try to keep our heads above water and tell what we were doing. There was no great Schlieffin Plan for the press—just daily care and feeding.

Sure, we liked some reporters more than others, but overall the relations between the administration and the press were open and cordial. Certainly they seemed that way to veteran City Hall reporters when they looked back on the Koch years during the Giuliani era. At one event held to discuss the Giuliani Administration’s maltreatment of the press, Wayne Barrett came up to me to remark on how open and fair we had been. The wheel turns.

When I recall that time, I am particularly struck by the simplicity of our tools. When I started, we were still doing press releases on typewriters (we finally managed to cadge a superannuated word processor from another city department). We wore beepers, and carried quarters to be able to use public phones when we were out and about. Press releases were hand-delivered to Room 9, and an AP teletype machine sat in a closet for us to monitor breaking news. No Web, no social media, the gatekeepers still firmly ensconced on their editorial thrones—there is a distant, almost artisanal air about it.

But, just as I think the Koch Administration largely did a good job in difficult times, I think the City Hall reporters largely held up their end. Reforms in the city’s managerial and fiscal practices were thoroughly covered, in spite of the fact that they did not always make the most gripping reading. And so, of course, were mistakes and scandals.

Our relations with the press were, fundamentally, adversarial, but they were also respectful. For the truth of the matter was, a lot of our internal meetings were governed by the unspoken question, What would this program or decision look like if we read about it in tomorrow’s Daily News? In a democracy, as it turns out, that’s a pretty good question to have hanging over your head.

Evan Cornog , former associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the former publisher of CJR, is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.

Ed Koch Sweated the Details

February 4th, 2013 § Comments Off on Ed Koch Sweated the Details § permalink

Originally published on Newsday.com – February 1, 2013

Photo credit: AP | Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager, David Garth, in September 1977.

If Fiorello LaGuardia embodied New York for those we now call the Greatest Generation, it was a member of that generation, Ed Koch, who personified the city for the generations that came after. His death Friday from congestive heart failure is a loss felt by just about everyone who loves New York City.

The city that Koch took charge of in January 1978 was still in its fiscal tailspin, and had experienced widespread looting and rioting the summer before when a blackout cut power for more than a day. Had anyone then painted a picture of the city of the present, with its dramatically lower crime rate, redeveloped neighborhoods and confident global profile, it would have been dismissed as a foolish fantasy.

But the city did not turn into the penal colony portrayed in the Kurt Russell movie “Escape from New York.” And while many people, and forces, deserve credit for the change in fortunes, it was Ed Koch who changed the story, and restored New York’s faith in its future.

I worked for the mayor from 1980 to 1983, joining his press office as an assistant press secretary just two weeks before the transit strike. By the time I left my post as press secretary in the summer of 1983, the city had balanced its budget and was beginning to address the legacy of decades of neglected maintenance of its vital infrastructure.

Much of the press about Koch, then and now, has concentrated on his public image, with a generous helping of descriptors such as “feisty” and “combative.” And certainly a lot of his effectiveness as a politician came from his ability to get his positions across through the media. But what this misses is how dedicated he was to the actual day-to-day governing of the city.

In the three and a half years I worked for him, I must have sat though a large number of the substantive meetings he had. And what impressed me above all was that nearly all the time, the question he was trying to answer was: What was the best choice for the entire city?

This is not to say that he didn’t care about his political career, but he had sufficient confidence in himself, and in democracy, to feel that if he found the right answer to that question often enough, his career would take care if itself. And he was right. Of course, he didn’t always find the right answer, and at times political expediency shaped the course of policy more than he would have liked. But in the years I worked for him, I never saw him less than passionate about the city he led.

He came across as a man with a big ego, but he was eager to surround himself with the best commissioners and deputy mayors he could find, and displayed no fear of being overshadowed (as if). As a boss he was certainly demanding, and if you messed up, he let you know it. If you messed up badly, you were gone. But he also was capable of a thoughtfulness about others that is seldom discussed in assessments of him.

One of the duties of press office members was to be with the mayor at any public appearance, no matter when or where. Sometimes this meant getting up in the middle of the night to meet the mayor at a hospital where he was visiting a police officer or firefighter who had been hurt in the line of duty. One night, a call came for me at 2 a.m. that the mayor was on his way to a hospital in Queens to see a cop who’d been shot. A police car came to my house in Brooklyn and took me to the hospital. The mayor met with the doctors, talked to the press about the officer (who survived), and, in the midst of all that, made it his business to find me a ride back to my home. It was a small, but to me very meaningful, example of the sort of person he was.

So while we remember Ed Koch the cheerleader for New York, I want also to remember the man who sweated the details — both for the city he loved and for those who worked with him. Rest in peace, Ed.

Evan Cornog is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University

December 21st, 2012 § Comments Off on § permalink

A Reason to Hope, in the Season of Hope

We live in a time of overpromising. Headlines promise revelations that somehow seem less revelatory in the eighth paragraph of the story; movie trailers nearly invariably make the coming feature seem fantastic—stringing together the 90 best seconds in what may be a two-hour snore.

And with the rise of the Web, mobile devices, and round-the-clock media, it is unusual to encounter anything—a new book, or car, or movie, or flavor of potato chips—without already having had the product heralded, or blasted, or both before you have ever come into contact with it.

That’s why I am, for at lest one thing, grateful to Superstorm Sandy. The tumult that the storm created for many of us on Long Island included (for me) nearly a month without home access to cable, phone, or Internet service. Which meant that when I decided to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” I walked into the theatre almost entirely free of preconceptions.

I did bring some prejudices—including the common one that Spielberg is at his best when directing blockbusters than when trying more “serious” topics. But I knew almost nothing about the film.

And the opening scene, with various soldiers reciting in stages the Gettysburg Address, was a bit contrived, so I was left unprepared for what followed—a film that engaged seriously with the Civil War, the nature of American Democracy, and the character of Abraham Lincoln.

My own academic training is as an American historian, and although the Civil War era is not my specialty, I have certainly read a great deal about it and the era. I found myself marveling at the ability of the filmmakers to inhabit the world of 1865. Not the routine marvels of set and costume design, lighting, etc., but the more unusual ability to encompass a different time, and different set of values.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is extraordinary—the more so because Lincoln is the most elusive of great American historical figures. Day-Lewis’s performance is not only an acing tour de force but also an extraordinary exercise of the historical imagination.

I only hope that you, my readers, will not find this to be another example of the modern sin of overpromising. Please let me know if you do.

No Secrets

September 26th, 2012 § Comments Off on No Secrets § permalink

For a campaign without many vivid images earlier in the year, the Presidential race has thrown off another with the emergence of the secretly recorded Mitt Romney speech to a group of campaign contributors in Florida that took place last spring.

While the image itself is not as arresting as the picture of Clint Eastwood speaking to a chair, it tells, perhaps, an even more important lesson for modern politics—and communication.

There are two aspects to this that I want to point out. The first is that we all have to be aware of the possibility (and if we are famous, the likelihood) that almost anything we do, in public and even in private, is being recorded. (If you doubt that, just ask Prince Harry, or the Duchess of Cambridge.)

But that is not what is new—after all, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, or the video of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, demonstrate that this possibility has been around for some time.

The more momentous development is the ease with which such material can be spread across the world. There is a liberating quality to this development, but that liberty can lead to license, too. As the developments in the Islamic world following the surfacing of a virulently anti-Muslim video made in California have shown.

It underlines for us how important it is to link the technical education that communicators need today with the values, ethics, principles, and perspective that need to be present to inform any work of communication.

Hofstra University School of Communication NewsHub

Debate and Beyond

September 6th, 2012 § Comments Off on Debate and Beyond § permalink

The start of any semester is exciting, but this fall the School of Communication is especially looking forward to being part of Hofstra’s hosting of the second Presidential debate. Students will be attending—and covering—the debate, and faculty members are teaching special courses on the subject, drawing on expertise from such fields as rhetoric, television production, advertising, and journalism.

And beyond that, the debate, and the campaign, give us the chance to reflect upon the way our communications media have become the forum of the 21st Century, the place where the citizenry meet to discuss the health of the republic, and to assess the best ways to move the nation forward.

In the past I have written a bit on the role of images in presidential campaigns, and I was struck at how the image dominating the race so far isprobably Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. Campaigns spend countless hours planning photo opportunities, selecting scenes and backdrops that they think will send the right message to voters. But then reality intervenes and their efforts fall short, and a rogue image comes to dominate a news cycle. To the misfortune of Mitt Romney, this happened to be timed for the evening of the most important speech of his life. For days afterwards, it was the image of Eastwood and the chair, not anything that Romney said, that dominated the conversation.

Clint Eastwood and a Chair

Perhaps you have other images you wish to nominate, and I would welcome your thoughts on what those images of Eastwood from the Republican convention in Tampa convey to the nation as we enter the fall campaign.