Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
– Thomas Jefferson
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
― Thomas Jefferson
One of the latest discussions on the Society for Professional Journalists LinkedIn group was started by the question, “Should ‘journalists’ be licensed?” The point was that “[t]he public generally doesn’t see much difference between a journalist, blogger and other writers. Just because you cook doesn’t make you a chef; just because you write doesn’t make you a journalist. Should there be some license or mechanism for journalists?”
There are issues of concern for journalists involving eligibility for coverage under shield laws, for example, or the credibility of the journalist’s work, or willingness to hew to ethical standards, that lead to a question such as this one.
But my answer is NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT! Just because you are what even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would call a journalist doesn’t mean necessarily that you are a good writer who cares about accuracy and ethics.
Say the word license and one immediately thinks of government, as in business license, marriage license, or driver’s license. The press, which in theUnited States, holds a privileged position among occupations under our Constitution, is supposed to be a government watchdog. Do we really want the government to license its own watchdogs?
The thought boggles my mind. As it is, I am offended by the thought that the California Highway Patrol issues press credentials. I don’t like the idea of press credentials at all. I suppose they serve a function for letting press into a limited-space event and letting them set up in a designated area of the room. But the idea of uniformed individuals being able to check what is hanging around your neck and making disparaging remarks if one of the cards lacks a photograph is just too close to “Your papers, please!” for me. I know firsthand. A security guard said “No picture, eh?” to me, and looked at me suspiciously, when I went into the San Francisco Board of Supervisors chamber to cover a regular open meeting for a Bay Area radio station over a decade ago. Since she turned away from me at that point, she must not have considered me a security risk. So why bother, except to try to make me uncomfortable. I was not one of the regulars and she impressed that fact upon me with her comment and her displeased look.
The government, in any form, has no business weighing in on who are journalists, much less licensing them. In Communist Romania, typewriters used to be licensed. Samples of the typewriting that the particular machine produced had to be registered with the government so that the provenance of any articles unfavorable to the regime could be traced. Now, we have the government demanding backdoors into computers, and various other surveillance mechanisms on all of us, journalists or not. Everything just goes from bad to worse when a government feels the need to keep a close eye on its citizens. All the more reason to have more journalists, not fewer, keeping a close eye on the government.
Someone in the discussion believed that the mark of a journalist should be “being paid a professional rate for their work on magazines and/or newspapers, whether that’s as a staff writer or a freelance.” As a demonetarist, I find this wholly unacceptable. Money should be consigned to the dustbin of history. Even in the current monetized environment, should a journalist be punished for the fact that his or her outlet can’t pay much? Such a distinction would knock a lot of writers for small-town and ethnic newspapers from the ranks of journalists. Additionally, how much one is paid has no bearing on the quality of one’s work. Anyone watching The Daily Show during the past several months has seen Jon Stewart totally trash, with reason, the substance of CNN’s reporting. Although not all Fox News reporters are terrible–some of their field reporters are very good—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Roger Ailes aren’t advancing Fox News’ reputation as a quality news source. Veteran left-wing journalist Chris Hedges is now being accused of plagiarism. If the concern is for ethics, credibility and accuracy, how does the fact that these people are paid quite handsomely contribute to that?
The same can be said for college education, another would-be marker of journalistic quality, pointed to by one of the participants in the LinkedIn discussion. I am college-educated, but not in journalism. I defy anyone to tell me I am not a journalist because I am not thousands of dollars in debt for a journalism degree. My degree, paid off nearly two decades ago, is in economics. Given the amount of economics in the news these days, including the economics of journalism itself, that wasn’t a bad choice for this profession.
As another group member pointed out, ABC’s World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings dropped out of high school.
To me, the biggest problem is not ethics or credibility but exceptionalism. People who have worked in traditional media outlets, such as newspapers and magazines, don’t want to be compared to bloggers. You know, those losers who work in their pajamas from a room in the basement of their parents’ house. Those people who, if they make any money at all, do so from a few donations rather than actual paychecks. “Real” journalists are very uncomfortable with the change in technology that puts the act of journalism within the reach of people who threaten journalism as a paying profession by working for little or for free.
A journalist is someone who does journalism. There are good, even great journalists, bad ones, and those in the middle. How well an act is done does not change the inherent nature of the act. Journalism involves covering issues, and telling stories, be they of events of one day or investigations of several months or even years. Journalism may, in fact, be openly opinionated. The value and even reality of journalism’s much vaunted objectivity standard is finally and deservedly coming under fire these days. What is important is that the journalist has a place to publicize what he or she is covering. Telling your parents or an office co-worker at the water cooler doesn’t count as journalism. A blog does because of its potential reach.
It does not matter whether a story is on Joe’s Blog or the front page of The New York Times, it is still journalism. Joe has the same rights and may face the same risks as James Risen. Joe has responsibilities to the truth, and ethics, and if he is not formally educated in these subjects, he can acquire that education through some good online sites such as Poynter and IRE. He is not per se fast and loose with the truth just because he is a blogger.
You have all heard of reporters for big media outlets all along the political spectrum, whose credibility is not questioned, who have turned out to be nothing more than government stenographers, passing along, objectively, of course, anything government officials tell them, especially about why we have to make war. They are paid; they have their press credentials with their pictures on them, they work for big businesses (in more ways than one!) They have editors, (the lack of which is a big knock on bloggers). So what? Does the name of Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller ring a bell, anyone?
The press has been knocked in the United States since its earliest days, which is why I have the two quotes from Thomas Jefferson at the head of this article. Journalism is a pain in the neck sometimes, but when journalists are doing their job right, it is a great, non-violent defense against the predations of both government and big business. If journalism’s quality has declined, it is not because many bloggers have entered the field. Some bloggers are poor journalists. But the decline is largely the fault of media institutions that care more about the prestige of access to big names than about truth. It is the fault of those who continually quest for corporate bottom-line profits through cheap production rather than quality; it is the fault of exceptionalist journalists who want to be recognized as something different (read: better), than a blogger. (After all, wouldn’t the blogger have gotten a real job in journalism if he or she were really any good? If you believe that in today’s economy, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.) The problem also rests with a public that allows itself to be dumbed down everyday by infotainment. If journalism is of poor quality today, is it because journalists are writing down to the public’s expectations… or is it creating those low expectations? That seems like a chicken and egg question to me.