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Pioneering in Journalism (Archival)

By Carl W. Ackerman ’13
Dean Emeritus

From "Journalists In Action," a book of essays created for the Journalism School's 50th anniversary in 1962-63.

Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism from 1931 to 1956 – and now Dean Emeritus – Carl W. Ackerman was responsible for a multitude of the innovations that brought the School recognition as a leader in the field of journalism education. In 1934, he initiated the exclusively graduate program at the School, and in 1946 helped found the American Press Institute.

Less well known is the fact that Dean Ackerman (Class of 1913) was a foreign correspondent during World War I, covering first the Central Powers for the United Press and later the Allied Army in Siberia for The New York Times.  He wrote magazine articles from Mexico, Spain, France and Switzerland, and was the author of several books based on his experiences.

Dean Ackerman was foreign editor of The Philadelphia Public Ledger and assistant to the president of General Motors before assuming his duties at Columbia.

 

In September of 1912, when classes in journalism met for the first time at Columbia University, there were no precedents. The present Joseph Pulitzer building was under construction. Our city room was in Hamilton Hall and we attended other classes in buildings around the campus. Our assets were Pulitzer’s ideals, President Nicholas Murray Butler’s confidence and support, and the inspiring instruction of the first director, Dr. Talcott Williams, and his staff of teachers.

Student enthusiasm matched these assets. Our greatest liability was the skepticism of the press toward education in journalism, a doubt shared by educational institutions throughout the United States. As a member of the senior class,  a group composed of students who had received A.B. degrees from other colleges, I was one of the pioneer graduates in June, 1913.

Politics and crime dominated the New York City news; we were assigned to cover these stories. My first beat was the National Democratic Headquarters. Woodrow Wilson was making his first campaign for the Presidency. There I met practically all the future members of his Cabinet, future ambassadors and other public officials. Several of these party workers became historic figures: James W. Gerard, Ambassador to Germany; Joseph P. Tumulty, the President’s secretary; and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After the election in 1912 my next big story, as a student, was the “Becker Case,” one of the great crime stories of the past half century. Herman Rosenthal, a gambler, was murdered by four gunmen. Police Lieutenant Charles Becker, who had made bank deposits of $70,000 allegedly received for protecting gambling, was accused of having ordered the execution. Hollington K. Tong (a classmate who later became Nationalist China’s Ambassador in Washington) and I were assigned to cover the trials. All five of the accused were convicted. Holly and I were ordered by our city editor, Professor Robert E. MacAlarney, to accompany Becker and his guards to Sing Sing prison on his journey to the electric chair. Thus we became the first journalism students to be sent to jail. That was the end of my career as a crime reporter, though Holly and I still enjoy recalling our prison association.

In 1912-1913, few public men or editors thought about or even dreamed of the possibility of a World War, though Dr. Williams forecast it in his lectures. When war did begin in Europe, I was on the staff of the United Press in Washington. I became the first School of Journalism graduate to be assigned to the White House; in 1914, the first to become a war correspondent in London and Berlin.

These opportunities were directly related to my student experiences. And they took me far – to Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain and Cuba.  Even farther: In July, 1918, there was a brief item in the newspapers reporting the execution of the Czar and his family in Ekaterinburg, Siberia. Carr V. Van Anda, managing editor of The New York Times, asked me to go there and get the story. Because there was no airplane passenger transportation in the world at that time, my wife and I crossed the Pacific by ship to Japan (where she remained), while I proceeded to Vladivostok and then traveled 5,000 miles across Siberia by train. Finally I was able to call upon the American Consul General in Ekaterinburg. He knew a monk who had seen the Imperial family daily. We hired a troika – three horses hitched to a sleigh – and the driver took us to a monastery far from the city. It was cold – 40 degrees below zero – but we were bundled in furs.

The monk had kept a notebook in which he recorded the events of the family’s last days in the Ipatiff house. I had previously examined this home, room by room, including the basement, where the Czar and his family had been shot. As the monk read, the consul interpreted; then he borrowed the precious document, which he translated afterward at his home while I typed my story.

Since there were no telegraph or wireless communications to and from Ekaterinburg, I had to wait several weeks until a freight-refugee train left for the two-week journey to Vladivostok. There I cabled my story. Six months after I had left New York the story was printed on the front page of the Times. It was the first exclusive account of the last days of the Romanoffs, and was reprinted throughout the world.

On our School’s fiftieth anniversary I salute the pioneer teachers who inspired me to continue pioneering until University statutes made it necessary for me to retire as Dean in 1956. I served for 25 years; during those years radio and television were introduced in the curriculum, the Maria Moors Cabot prizes and the American Press Institute were established. In World War II Holly and I founded a Graduate School of Journalism in Chungking, China.

Now education in journalism is as firmly established as in other professions. Our alumni are pioneering throughout the world. There is nothing within the realm of news communications that cannot be accomplished by a Journalism graduate.

 

Posted by: AlumniAlumni, FacultyFaculty March 2012

One Comment

  1. Posted 10.14.12 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    A great introduction for the history of journalism.

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