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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Geoffrey Cowan

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-26

Geoffrey Cowan says he's "just starting."

Just starting? How to parse that statement from a man who's completing a decade as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California?

The tall, lean Mr. Cowan, a native New Yorker, may look youthful, and certainly possesses a boyish smile and a dulcet voice, but "just starting" is a phrase one would associate with a far junior person. For more than 30 years, he has raced through several careers with distinction - lawyer, civil-rights activist, academic administrator, playwright, television producer, best-selling author, owner of a baseball farm team, and director of the Voice of America.

"I was raised to believe that it's a privilege and responsibility to do good things in one's life," Mr. Cowan said. "My parents taught me to constructively engage with society."

His parents were famous people. Louis Cowan was the creator of several quiz shows, including the celebrated "$64,000 Question." He was also president of CBS. Polly Spiegel Cowan's family launched the popular Spiegel Catalogue, and she was a noted political activist. His parents also ran a publishing house, and were friends with Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and other literati.

"I met them all," Mr. Cowan said. "I was amazingly lucky to have met such giants. I was amazingly lucky to have grown up in the literary world of New York."

So what's with the "just starting" bit?

Mr. Cowan smiled.

'Well, not just starting in the conventional sense," he said. "I mean, I've had a pretty diverse career, and I've been fortunate. But this is a time for new challenges."

Those challenges primarily have to deal with the future of the media, as Mr. Cowan sees it.

"The whole nature of journalism is changing - there's a serious financial challenge that journalism faces," he said. "This is a business that may well not be there in a few years - particularly the print media."

"One of my concerns is that young people who graduate from schools such as ours are starting at a time of tumultuous change in journalism," Dean Cowan continued. "We've got to remember that journalism is also a business. In addition to journalists, we need business executives. So that's our emphasis, too."

And that, he said, was what he meant by "just starting."

The Annenberg School - which has a counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia - has introduced courses that focus on the relationship between journalism and good management practices.

"It's not that journalism will perish," Mr. Cowan said. "But what kind of journalism will it be? Entirely Web based? Are we moving toward a new economic model for the media? How can we better monetize the New Media? How would we need to re-invent local broadcasting? Exciting and innovative things are happening, and communication schools need to prepare their students for this emerging world whose rules are still being shaped. We want our students to be at the forefront not only as journalists but also as business executives."

Dean Cowan's school has 1,900 undergraduate and graduate students, with another 80 or so enrolled in doctoral programs. Its $43 million annual budget - and other special grants - enables the school to conduct extensive surveys about the Internet, examine communication policies in other parts of the world, and offer study programs ranging from everyday journalism to video games.

"We're increasing the ways with which students can better deal with a world that's rapidly changing because of globalization and technological advances," Mr. Cowan said. "Physical geography is no longer what it used to be. It's now the geography of special interests - in America and everywhere else."

Because of this shift, it's important that America develop and sustain strong ties with other countries - not only traditional allies and aid-dependent countries but also regions where suspicion of American political and diplomatic motives in a unipolar world is rising.

That's why Mr. Cowan is also "just starting" with a new Center for Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School. It was mostly in connection with advancing the school's programs that he was visiting New York this week.

"Every country is interested in public diplomacy - this isn't a topic confined to a particular moment, or simply to America's policies in the Middle East," Mr. Cowan said. "But public diplomacy cannot be about spin or public relations. Everything needs to be smartly thrown into the mix - American popular culture, a better understanding of our political and judicial systems, how policy is made in our country, how American business works. These are all interconnected issues - and we need to tell the American story better, but in a way that's sensitive to other people's cultures."

But shouldn't public diplomacy be the domain of government?

"It should be a cooperative effort that includes government, educational institutions and business," Mr. Cowan said. "We all have the responsibility here."

In that context, what did he think of Karen Hughes, President Bush's envoy for public diplomacy, who recently made a controversial trip to Islamic countries?

"People here misunderstood the purpose of her visit," Mr. Cowan said. "She wasn't traveling to change people's attitudes about America. She was out there to listen to them. Good communication is as much about listening as it is about projecting one's own values such as democracy and free enterprise."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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