Joseph Dembo: FCLC Patron Saint of Practicing Professionals


op: Dembo shares her cheery demeanor with members of the Fordham community. This photo originally ran in The Observer’s March 31 issue in 1993 to mark Dembo’s move to NPR as acting president. Bottom: Dembo attends “Darkness and Light: New York City in 1968,” an event he supervised in 1994. (Top: Sean Gallagher/Observer Archival Photo; Bottom: Nena Conte/Observer Archival Photo)


“Ninety-six percent of our faculty have terminal degrees in their field.”

The information rings in the empty eighth-floor hallway as the tour guide taps the faculty publication book case, directing potential students to the number of books our faculty have authored, the number of journals they have been featured in.

But not all of our faculty members are strictly academics, entrenched in the world of scholarship, nor should they be. In fact, the presence of many successful practicing professionals enhances our academic environment here at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC).

As a group of students, our collective memory often fails us. We are here for only so long, a fleeting moment of our lives, and are not exposed to the great students and faculty members that have come before us. This is especially the case of Professor Joseph Dembo.

Dembo was more than a teacher, he was a newsman, more specifically a CBS newsman through and through. His career at CBS began in 1960 when he joined WCBS Radio, promptly being promoted to executive producer of the station. His work at WCBS pioneered the “up-to-the-minute” news concept.

His list of credentials is dazzling. When National Public Radio (NPR) was left without a president, he stepped in as acting president and continued to serve on the NPR Board of Directors. He served as a Vice President of CBS News, CBS News Bureau Chief in Rome, and as the Vice President and General Manager of WCBS Radio in New York. His body of work, spending 28 years at CBS, yielded two George Foster Peabody Awards among other accolades.

He was truly an accomplished individual, respected in his field, a member of the construction party responsible for where we find ourselves today.

“He was hired and joined the department, because he really was eminent in his field. And so, he was brought in to really educate students in terms of his own massive media experience,” Elizabeth Stone, professor of both English and communication and media studies, said of Dembo.

But résumés mean nothing when it comes to teaching.

Fortunately for FCLC and all the students’ lives that he touched, this wasn’t the case for Dembo.

Dembo joined FCLC in 1988 with a history of teaching journalism courses at such prestigious institutions as Yale University, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia and New York University. Above all, Dembo had a respect for the field of journalism and revered the ethical approach to journalism, leading him to find great pleasure in teaching the course “Ethical Issues in the Media.”

“What I think is great about having Mr. Dembo was that here was someone from the outside world who not only had experience but also came from an organization, CBS News in particular, that had the highest standards of ethics and conduct. He was able to bring to our students decades of real-world experience and how it was possible to be a working journalist and still have a serious experiences with the first amendment and all sorts of legal issues and how they affected journalism,” Brian Rose, professor of communication and media studies, said.

His passion for the ethical approach to media studies was apparent to many of his students, but what was more striking to those who worked along side or took classes with Dembo was the fact that he was a part of the history they learned about.

“He was a part of all of that. He lived the history before he became a professor,” Bonnie Turner, FCLC ’00, now a producer for CNN, recalled. “He really got me more and more interested in broadcast journalism. I work for CNN now, but he really inspired me to do what I do as a journalist.”

Anthony Hazell, FCLC ’02, said, “I thought that his experience in the media was probably not only the greatest asset to what he taught but also to the Fordham communication department. I don’t think there was any other professor with the knowledge and experience he had that was available to students to learn from. You’re talking to someone who worked with Walter Conkrite, Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather.”

“His experience was the history of the industry. He wasn’t talking about something he didn’t know, he was talking about the life he lived and the work he had done,” Stone said.

His experience in the media industry, dealing first-hand with the ethical issues he lectured on, was unmatched in the communication and media studies department at the time, allowing his students to not only learn from someone who represented the most upright practices of journalism but also allowing them to become analytical of the problems facing the next wave of journalists, the downfalls of the media industry as ethical standards and practices began falling by the wayside.

“He brought all that rich experience into every classroom. He was a superb raconteur. At the same time, he could reflect on his experience and apply it to student learning today,” James VanOosting, professor of communication and media studies and a close personal friend of Dembo, said.

Speaking with former students, it became obvious that Dembo felt a duty to help the next generation of journalists strive for an ethical approach to media, to protect the public from a deteriorating sense of right and wrong propagated by the media.

“Joe taught true journalism,” Turner said. “He always taught us to be objective. You need to tell the story, leave your opinion out of it and let the viewer make up his or her mind.”

“He was very open to students and to what was going on in modern journalism even after he had retired. It wasn’t just what happened in the past. The classroom was an open door to everything that was happening in the world and after he retired he saw so many changes in journalism. CBS News became a very different organization after he left it,” Rose said.

But success in the industry never tampered his attitude towards students; he always respected his students perspective.

Dembo died in March 2010 at the age of 83 after a battle with cancer, having retired from FCLC in 2009, and his passing sparked many to remember him and his impact on their lives, both here at Fordham and throughout the industry he helped to build.

In a remembrance piece, a former student and current attorney with the Student Press Law Center, Adam Goldstein, FCLC ’99,  recalled the late Dembo. “Professor Dembo was a news man. You didn’t need to be a journalist to tell that; neither coat or tie ever traveled much farther than the back of his chair,” Goldstein wrote.

“He had a booming voice and a laugh to match. He wasn’t very tall and didn’t like height jokes,” Larry McCoy, former executive at CBS, recalled in a memorial piece.

“He was such a character from another era. He had this crazy deep, smooth voice that was perfect for radio—and it worked out really well holding people’s attention in the classroom too. I never heard him yell. He didn’t need to. He wasn’t necessarily intimidating but he was commanding. And he had a dry sense of humor too,” Joanna Bonfiglio, FCLC ’04, said.

“He was a cute little Italian guy. He was a total New Yorker; he was just fun. He had a smile on his face, always, all the time; its really hard to forget,” Turner said.

“He was a quiet man, completely non-confrontational, with a big laugh and a deep voice. Students loved him,” Stone said. “He told lots of war stories.”

His second retirement, this time from teaching, in 2009 marked the end of an era for FCLC. Almost an entire generation of students has passed through FCLC without him, unfortunately wiping the slate clear of Dembo’s memory.

But his influence has by no means ended.

“There is a continuity of his impact that extends beyond 20 years and his former students are now well-placed in broadcast journalism. So, his impact or influence started at Lincoln Center, but the circle gets wider and wider and wider across space and time,” VanOosting remarked.

“Professor Dembo was the first person to teach a college course on the career of Edward R. Murrow. No one else was doing,” Rose said of “The Murrow Years,” a course pioneered by Dembo during his time at FCLC.

Lori Knight, a professor at communication and media studies, is now his successor in teaching the “Ethical Issues in Media” course.

Knight and Dembo are strikingly similar in their career arcs. Both are graduates of Rutgers University. Both have held positions at CBS; Dembo in radio and news, and Knight in “60 Minutes,” working as a part of a team that earned two Gracie Awards, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and an Emmy Award for the documentary “Legacy of Shame.” And, above all, both dedicated to the protection of ethics in the media.

“Her background at CBS News was not quite the same as when Mr. Dembo was there many decades before, but CBS still stands as the model of a kind of serious, committed approach to how journalism should function at its best,” Rose said of the two Rutgers alum.

One of Knight’s early roles at CBS was serving as an assistant to Charles Osgood.

“Because I was working with talent, I would talk to the presidents of all of these news divisions. And sometimes they would invite me, as a courtesy, to some of their luncheons and programs. So I only knew [Dembo] peripherally, because he was much higher above. But he was very, very, very well-respected,” Knight said.

Knight began teaching the course “Ethical Issues in the Media,” a course Dembo taught passionately before her, in the fall of 2010 and cited her family’s history as teachers and administrators as one of the motivating factors of her decision.

“The other reason that I did was, and it may speak to the connection that Joe and I have by coincidence, CBS News was considered, still is, to an extent, the big grand-daddy of all television broadcasting, particularly in news, and because we had the giant of broadcasting, Edward R. Murrow, start at CBS, set us up at CBS, develop the standards and practices,” Knight said.

“[Murrow] was so good, so smart, and so humble. That ethos was handed down to those people who started working at CBS News, and because Edward R. Murrow developed it, along with the Murrow boys, it was a tradition that was handed down through the generations.

“My generation, we all started at the same time because we were right out of college, and our generation was the last one to learn from the real Murrow Boys, and what they would tell us was that, ‘One day, you are going to be an old hand at this, and your responsibility is to pass it down to the next generation.’”

Prompted by her time with the “Murrow Boys,” Knight often volunteered to aid CBS interns in understanding the importance of the integrity of journalism, the tradition and the legacy passed down to her.

“I feel that its my chance now to not only teach people here about the ethics, but its my passion. A passion and a duty,” Knight said.

A passion and a duty. Dembo would approve.