“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”
– Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, 1947
“Catholic Universities will seek to discern and evaluate both the aspirations and the contradictions of modern culture, in order to make it more suited to the total development of individuals and peoples. In particular, it is recommended that by means of appropriate studies, the impact of modern technology and especially of the mass media on persons, the family, and the institutions and whole of modern culture be studied deeply.”
– John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990
In the springtime of 2011, Notre Dame Trustee Cathie Black resigned from her position as New York City Schools Chancellor.
Appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the magazine industry veteran faced stiff public criticism for her lack of education experience and stepped down after only 95 days on the job.
Thanks to a freedom of information act disclosure, the public has been given an insider’s view of the fight by Black to retain her appointment. In one particular email chain, Black plans to persuade a skeptical public through a celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey.
Mayor’s aid to Cathie Black: “Please call Oprah. She’s received both emails from you and Gayle and would like to clarify who she should call and what she should say.”
Cathie Black: “[I] know that you and Dennis Walcott have been talking also by email. All of this is coming down to the wire. What Dennis hopes to do is a brief exclusive telephone call with adam lisberg of the Daily News in which Oprah would offer her support.”
Mayor’s aid (later): “Walking past the newsstand this afternoon, I was surprised to learn that we succeeded . . . “
The front page headline in the New York Daily News that day read:
This questionable mass media tactic contradicts the academic ethos of a would-be chancellor. Its tabloid style is a kind of “battery of words, words, words” to which education reformist Dorothy Sayers might have referred.
In fact, the entire episode of Black’s selection and rejection as Chancellor raises questions about her role as an ND Trustee.
As an executive with deep ties to the media industry, does her presence endanger the institutional autonomy and truth-based discourse that are essential to the Catholic university model?
Does she by her attitudes and judgement threaten the integrity of academic speech and expression at Notre Dame?
In the end, does she help improve, or contribute to a hollowing out of, Notre Dame’s culture?
Despite her high-profile failure in New York, this May the Board of Trustees extended an honor not extended to all Trustees, elevating Black to Trustee Emeritus. Thus, it is timely to try to understand more clearly the nature of her role in ND governance.
Back in Black: Her Career and Background
As Chairman of Hearst Magazines through 2010, Black supervised a portfolio of iconic American titles, including Cosmopolitan, O – The Oprah Magazine, Seventeen, Town and Country, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and others.
She began her career in advertising sales for Holiday magazine, and in 1979 became the first female publisher of a US weekly consumer magazine, New York. From 1983, as President and Publisher of USA Today and Executive Vice President of its parent company, Gannett, Black oversaw the paper’s breakout success.
Black’s resume impresses greatly for its trajectory as well as her board and community activism.
Black is a member of the international think tank Council on Foreign Relations and in addition serves or has served on the following boards: IBM, The United Way, The Coca-Cola Company, The Advertising Council, Trinity University, The Kent School, the Harlem Village Academies Charter School and others.
Both Notre Dame and the magazine industry rely predominantly on the same kind of toolkit — one built on language — in pursuit of their respective end goals.
The commercial nature of Hearst’s journalistic content and ad copy is well-accepted and even celebrated as part of the fabric of modern culture.
But when commercial speech is co-mingled with university speech, as can happen when a magazine executive acts in a governance role, the latter can become tainted.
According to the official NYC Schools Chancellor Announcement, regarding her impact at Notre Dame, Black “has been involved in educational issues affecting the university, and in approving curriculum changes, and high level institutional appointments.”
While it’s difficult to know the full scope of influence of a Trustee, a good place to start would be the issues, curricula changes, and personnel decisions that Black claims to have influenced.
Likewise, given her role on the University Relations and Public Affairs and Communications Committee, one could easily wonder how Black has impacted the ND Administration’s approach to managing its relationship with alumni, students, and other stakeholders who are often reached through the media.
Given the University’s penchant for self promotion, we might wonder about Black’s contribution to a strategy that, while it creates a polished “product,” obfuscates more than it reveals, and tends to bury the need for institutional self-reflection that would only be possible with a more truthful public discourse.
In a speech several years ago in Atlanta, ND President Jenkins spoke of the importance of epistemic humility when discoursing with those who hold spiritual beliefs different from one’s own. By comparison Hearst Corporation appears to embrace an attitude of epistemic hubris. The company’s media rarely blush as they crow over developments in fashion, beauty and, yes, even geopolitics.
In fact, the incongruity of Esquire Magazine, the sexy monthly that dishes on Beautiful Women, Men’s Fashion, Best Music and Drink Recipes, owning the beat on the world’s number one terrorist can truly cause one to question the order of things.
In February 1999 when Osama bin Laden was still an obscurity to most Americans, Esquire threw a coming out party for him. The imaginatively titled Greetings, America. My Name is Osama Bin Laden. A Conversation with the most dangerous man in the world titillated with an intimate, even glamorous, account of the up-and-coming evil-doer. But its length at 7,000-plus words begged the question of where Bin Laden found his publicist. In other words how did an unknown terrorist lay claim to a novella in a mainstream American fashion rag?
More recently Esquire scored a first person account of the Bin Laden takedown from the US Navy Seal assassin himself.
In The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden…is Screwed, February 2013, a single, non-independent, anonymous source furnished a gripping though unsubstantiated tale. This combination would fail to meet normal journalistic standards and the even higher standards of an academic environment as at Notre Dame.
Importantly, the story seemingly offered confirmatory evidence of the Bin Laden assassination itself–that corpse-less event that our leaders watched in real-time but which was declared on faith to the American public without DNA and other physical evidence, despite appeals for such evidence by the major media.
If one harbors doubts that American pop culture can be susceptible to propaganda, he should recall that the 1980’s film Rambo III was dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan” and that the film romanticized the groups that are today’s Taliban and Al Qaeda. This is not to say that shifting strategic winds can’t warrant shifting alliances; only that the placement of national geostrategy memes in mainstream American entertainment cannot happen by chance.
In the two examples above this writer believes Esquire and Hearst have served as conduits for disinformation. Hearst has a strong historical association with ‘yellow journalism‘–a kind of catch-all for interweaving fantasy with fact to mobilize public opinion around already-fixed foreign policies. With magazine product and other media in one hundred countries, Hearst has a tremendous capacity to touch the public mind.
Council on Foreign Relations and Control of Education
Had Black simply brought her vast Hearst Corp experience to Notre Dame, she would be less conspicuous, but when one looks at Hearst, her NYC Schools appointment, and her ND Trusteeship in combination with her Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) membership, he is forced to wonder about Black’s integrated world view and where Notre Dame fits.
To the extent they conflict, how would Black choose to priority-rank the value systems of each of these institutions? In particular, would she place Notre Dame higher than Hearst and the Council on Foreign Relations? Or would ND fall below the other two?
If the latter, this implies that Notre Dame’s research complex and its undergraduate student experience could be subordinated to some degree, both in context and content, to powerful political and commercial interests.
Indeed, CFR’s desire to subordinate educational autonomy at the primary and secondary schools level appears in a recent CFR Education Task Force report co-authored by Black’s predecessor at NYC Public Schools, Joel Klein. The report recommended an increased presence in the traditionally locally-controlled public education sphere by the national security apparatus, including Department of Defense and the intelligence services, in the name of national security. These proposed widespread measures would include: expanding the State Standards Program known as Common Core from two subject matter areas to five; subjecting standards to review by the Defense Policy Board which advises the US Secretary of Defense; implementing centralized tracking of student grades and test results; implementing an annual national security readiness audit of schools; and conducting periodic national media advertising campaigns linking student performance to national security.
Besides the eerie 1930’s Europe feeling the report engenders, these recommendations have troublesome implications in terms of who controls American public education — parents, families and local communities, or military intelligence and a private think tank.
In his 1990 directive on the Catholic university, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II highlighted the importance of academia acting as a carrier for truth and as a cultural resistant to the mass media industry.
The document described a winner takes all battle for no less than control over the meaning of the human person.
In such a battle, it is too much to ask this longtime media executive to balance opposing imperatives: one that, clouded by profit and power, bends language toward its own ends; and the other that, to harmonize faith and reason in a search for truth, relies on speech and expression uncontrolled by outside interests, and the sacrosanctity of words.