Nicholas Lemann
Dean, Columbia Univ. School of Journalism

How is the Internet changing politics?

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The Web is just one organizing tool in a bigger toolbox, says Lemann.

Nicholas Lemann

Nick Lemann is the Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a former New Yorker staff writer. While at Harvard – where he  graduated in 1976 –  Lemann served as President of the Crimson. He has worked as a reporter and editor at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post, focusing primarily on national affairs.

Lemann is the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, about the SAT, and most recently, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, about the failure of Reconstruction. At Columbia, where he was hired as Dean of the Journalism School in 2003, Lemann implemented a two-year curriculum and has focused on teaching alternative journalistic mediums in the Internet age.


Nicholas Lemann: American politics is a miraculous thing in its adaptability, particularly as to technique. Technique is always changing, or has throughout my life. I think anything you hear about the Internet’s effect on any realm of society, you should immediately sort of knock off by about 50 percent, just because of the millenarian rhetoric around the Internet is so exaggerated. You know if past is prologue, every time there’s a new communications technology it revolutionizes politics but . . . It changes politics greatly but doesn’t wipe everything else off the table. And that’s true of, you know print, and radio, and television, and so on. The Internet is clearly a useful organizing tool, and a way of, you know, reaching targeted populations that aren’t necessarily in the same neighborhood. My suspicion is that we’ll find that the Internet is especially important insofar as it promotes face-to-face contact within people . . . between people. I still think . . . I think we’ve forgotten, because we’re so sort of “me” oriented, how important personal contact and group dynamics face-to-face still are in politics and in American life in general. There’s a tremendous tendency toward the aforementioned chattering classes to say, “Oh, you know, we’re a nature . . . a nation of ...individuals. And no one knows their neighbors. And no one knows anybody else. And we all just sit at home and access the world through television and the Internet.” And you know, “Well at least Internet isn’t a sort of one-to-many model, and it’s more distributed.” Fine, but I think people are still out meeting and greeting each other more than that model allows for. And the Internet becomes a way . . . a sort of enabling mechanism for doing that.  It’s an organizing tool. It’s not the only organizing tool. It doesn’t make all the other organization tools and communications tools irrelevant, but it’s an important new, you know, tool in the tool box.


Recorded on: 11/30/07