Journalism School Celebrates 50 Great Stories From Trotsky to Tahrir Square

Meghan Berry
May 08, 2015

As Leon Trotsky gave a speech in 1917 as commissar of foreign affairs for the new Bolshevik government, a Columbia journalist sat among the spectators. When American troops stormed Omaha Beach in 1944, a Columbia journalism graduate landed with them. And when men first walked on the moon in 1969, a journalism school fellow may not have gone with them, but did chronicle their historic “one small step” in a full-page spread on the front of The New York Times. As it marks its centennial year, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is celebrating its 12,287 graduates—with 348 more accepting their degrees on May 16—and their impact on journalism, politics, art, social movements and international affairs. The school has published a collection, 50 Great Stories, written by alumni and spanning coverage of World War I through last year’s revolution in Egypt. The stories were selected by a group of judges from the journalism school faculty, board of visitors and alumni board. “This list is a reminder of the historic sweep of Columbia journalists’ work, as well as their courage, compassion, diversity, persistence and versatility,” said Nicholas Lemann, the school’s dean. “These stories celebrate a tiny portion of the vast body of distinguished work that members of our community have produced over the lifetime of the school and of which we are extremely proud.” Endowed by pioneering newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the Journalism School was founded in 1912, a year after his death. Although it began as a college, it became a graduate school in 1935 and now offers several master’s degrees, a Ph.D. program in communications, extensive continuing education classes, and new centers for media research and digital media. “The heart of Pulitzer’s conception of the school was that it would teach journalists to understand the complexities of the world in order that they be better able to inform and thereby to empower ordinary citizens,” said Lemann. The 50 Great Stories cover defining moments and eras in history. A.J. Liebling (JRN’25) wrote the D-Day story for The New Yorker; Trotsky’s speech was covered by George Sokolsky (JRN’58), who would have graduated in 1917 had the school not expelled him for “socialist activism;” he was awarded a degree four decades later, when he was a nationally syndicated columnist. And two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter John Noble Wilford, a Ford fellow at the school in 1962, wrote the Times’ front-page story on the moon landing. Other stories in the collection include coverage of the Great Depression in Nation’s Business magazine by Merryle Stanley Rukeyser (JRN’17), the Lindbergh baby kidnapping by John Hohenberg (JRN’27) in the New York Evening Journal, and the Vietnam War by freelancer Beverly Deepe Keever (JRN’58) as well as reporting on broader issues—guns in America by author Erik Larson (JRN’78), the lives of Muslim women in the book Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks (JRN’83) and the destruction of the world’s rainforests by ABC News correspondent John Quinones (JRN’79). “I feel incredibly lucky to have been allowed to cover one of the great stories of our time,” said Tom Bettag (JRN’67), whose work as executive producer of the CBS Evening News during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square made the list. “I was deeply inspired by the idealism and courage of the young people in Tiananmen—they shaped my view of the world for the rest of my life.” Joan Konner (JRN’61), dean of the journalism school from 1988 to 1997, produced The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, a Bill Moyers’ documentary for PBS that made the list of great stories. The film probes a secret network centered in the Reagan White House that was exposed during the Iran-Contra scandal. “This was a very big story and, naturally, I was delighted that it was selected. It was a true team effort,” said Konner, who oversaw many changes during her tenure at the school’s helm, including the transition from typewriters to computers. Kelly Golnoush Niknejad (JRN’05, ’06), who in 2008 founded Tehran Bureau, now partnered with PBS’s Frontline, was singled out for her coverage of Iran, a part of the world that is still making headlines." “What’s most exciting about this recognition is showing what Iranian journalists are doing and bringing new Iranian voices to an international audience,” Niknejad said. The school marked the beginning of its year-long centennial on April 20, renaming the journalism building Pulitzer Hall and welcoming 44 of the founder’s relatives to campus. “I hope he would be proud, and I hope his descendants are proud, of what has become of his great gift,” said Lemann. The school will celebrate its anniversary through next spring, hosting events around the world. In September, J-school alumni will be invited to nominate 50 more stories. The final list of 100 will be published at the end of the centennial year next April. They can be found at