Free Press

Journalism Is an Act, Not a Profession

Sometimes great acts of journalism are the work of average citizens.


SACRAMENTO – Watching some recent debates about who is a "real journalist" and who isn't has been a source of amusement for me given that being a real journalist has not always been that great of an honor. When I told Mom I was getting a job in journalism, she was miffed that her son would waste a decent education on such a low-rent pursuit.

That question of journalistic authenticity, though, has been in the news as Congress has debated a "shield law" designed to protect journalists from government prosecution – an outgrowth of the Obama administration's legal pursuit of people who leak and publish sensitive government information. (Without leaks, there would be little real journalism, by the way. And to government officials, everything is sensitive.)

Sen. Dick Durbin, that noted journalistic expert from Illinois, wrote that "we must define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive."

Courtesy of America

An outraged Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor, rightly called Durbin a "constitutional ignoramus if he thinks that when the Framers talked about freedom of the press, they were talking about freedom for the press as an institution." Reynolds was writing in the New York Post, but only Durbin would know if that makes Reynolds a real journalist or a poseur.

Reynolds' point is a good one: It's scary to think of the government as the final arbiter of what separates a real journalist from a fake one. It's typical of government to want to put everything in a box, which makes it so much easier to control, regulate and subsidize (just another way to control it).  One of the big problems with the herd journalism often practiced in White House press corps or among those journalists "embedded" with the military, is that they curry favor with government officials lest they lose their access to information.

Newspapers and other large media organizations often publish good journalism, but they often publish bad journalism also. The media world has changed so dramatically with the Internet and cable TV and talk radio that these debates seem so arcane that only Congress can have them with a straight face.

We're just as likely – sometimes more likely, based on recent events – to see great journalism practiced by nonprofessionals or by professionals who work for small or independent media as by those working for the major national media. For most of my life, readers were stuck relying on the talking heads featured on the network TV news shows, all of whom produced stories with the same establishment tilt to them.

We also relied on major liberal-oriented newspapers and had few alternatives for getting and publishing contrarian information. The Internet changed all that, but one can be sure that the likes of Durbin will end up protecting only those journalists who fit a more traditional role if they get to put their definitions in law. Bloggers and others like them will be on their own. That's not only elitist, but dangerous for those who value good watchdog reporting.

Government already holds the cards. It is so big and powerful, so secretive and arrogant that we ought not to hobble efforts by reporters and bloggers to expose its dealings. Look at how the government has reacted to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, who provided that NSA spying information to media sources.

The New Media World, with its plethora of nontraditional reporting voices, has so changed the journalism landscape that even denizens of the major national media understand that any shield law should protect the practice of journalism, not a caste of journalists who work for organizations approved by the federal government.

The New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted recently noted how news organizations sometimes dismiss serious writers and reporters as "bloggers," as if to diminish the work they do. She quoted Times' columnist Frank Rich, who recently savaged NBC anchor David Gregory for suggesting that one reporter ought to be charged with a crime for his work reporting on the information that Snowden provided.

Wrote Rich: "Is David Gregory a journalist? … [N]ame one piece of news he has broken, one beat he has covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he's conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin or Chuck Shumer."

Ouch. Bravo to Rich. Journalism is about covering news, not echoing the talking points of government officials. How dare anyone suggest that the ridiculous Gregory is a real journalist, whereas the dogged Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer at issue here, is not.

Sometimes great acts of journalism are the work of average citizens who use their cellphone to record, say, a police beating or pound out some news on an infrequently read blog. This is no more surprising that realizing that great acts of Christian charity often take place by people outside of church institutions, or that the best teaching takes place outside the halls of your local high school!

When I started a small investigative news site in Sacramento, the Assembly speaker refused to grant us credentials even though we were doing the same work as "real journalists." But the press organization at the Capitol kindly went to bat for us, which shows how much the new media has changed the thinking even among the old media.A shield law is a good idea, but only if it recognizes that real journalism is an act, not a credential.

NEXT: Hundreds Escape from Indonesian Prison

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  1. I gotta OT somewhere so I’ll just leave this here

    1. What is…I don’t even…huh?

    2. Initially I was, like, what? Its a black fraternity, with pictures of the black version of bros. Nothing weird or unusual about that (outside of how races other than white are allowed to self-segregate).

      Then I read further.

      1. I thought they were men . . . I thought they were MEN!

    3. I’m offended by their inability to differentiate dominant and dominate. When will the oppression of good language use end?

      *clutches pearls*

    4. Here, let me help.

      1. Thank you for introducing me to that site. I feel it not only helps with erasing mental images but also aids in stress relief.

  2. We already have a fucking shield law, it’s called the fucking First Amendment. This entire discussion is fucking retarded.

    1. As usual, Epi, your insights are as keen as a sledge hammer and subtle as a summer breeze wafting off a rendering plant.

      1. And his breath is as fresh as a summer ham.

        1. This ham gum is all bones!

      2. “subtle as a summer breeze wafting off a rendering plant.”

        My daddy told me it’s an ill wind that blows off the stockyards!

    2. Exactly, though I typically expect government employees to be stupid enough to think that the press referes to journalists and the founding fathers were giving rights to a specific group of people by profession.

      1. Fortunately the language of most state constitutions’ bills of rights is more explicit on this point.

    3. All this bullshit about passing legislation to guarantee certain rights and privileges is pointless. As you point out, we have all the shield law we should need. Anything more is just a licensing and limitation scheme on freedoms already recognized and supposedly guaranteed by lawsuicide pact.

  3. Of course what the Constitution actually was meant to say doesn’t matter anymore. But the idea of the “journalist” was very new at the time of the writing of the Constitution. The were always publications but there wasn’t an idea of there being something called a “journalist” until the 18th Century. Generally Danial Defoe and Swift are considered the first “journalists” in the modern sense. And such people were pretty rare in the 18th century. It was a pretty small club of people who would have called themselves “journalists” in 1789.

    Given that, there is simply no way the drafters intended “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” to apply only to journalists. When they said “the press” they meant newspapers and publications collectively, not the individual people writing them. According to the OED, the first instance of using the term “The Press” to include the writers individually and collectively as opposed to the publications was 1868.…..&result=1#

    In 1789, the term “the Press” meaning journalists themselves as opposed to publications did not exist. The Amendment protects expression and publication, not a class of people.

    But hey, if what the drafters intended doesn’t mean anything when talking about gay marriage, why should it mean anything here? Clearly, if the Supreme Court decides that the Amendment means something different than intended, they must be right.

    1. always thought “the press” simply meant the printing press. That is, the means for distributing speech.

      1. That is what it meant. The freedom of speech (speaking) and freedom of the press (printing your speech so people can read it).

        1. If they meant to protect any particular profession, it was printers like Benjamin Franklin. He would publish works by anyone (including himself), journalists or non journalists. If someone besides himself wanted to publish something, they’d have to lay out some money for Franklin (all about the Benjamins).

          But anyone could write a pamphlet and commission a printer to run off some copies for you – a merchant, a lawyer, a planter, you didn’t have to be a journalist by profession. And since so much stuff was published under pseudonyms, you wouldn’t be able to tell what the author’s job was.

          1. As I said below, the professional “journalist” was a very new concept in 1789.

            1. And in those far-off days, editors and journalists were generally part of a political party or faction – not independent operators putting the government under an impartial microscope, the way they do today.

              So freedom for journalists/editors would have been considered part and parcel of the freedom of political advocacy, just like freedom for someone who distributed a campaign circular.

              1. PS – Part of the above was sarcastic. Can you guess which part?

          2. And if you’re going by a pseudonym, how do you apply to the government for accreditation as a journalist?

            1. That is a great point. Anonymity is one of the great protections against the power of the state. Licensing journalists would destroy that. I somehow think the power loving bastards who support this view that as a feature.

      2. No, for legal purposes “the press” means the print and broadcast arms of large corporations, corporations which are beholden to the federal government for their continued existence, whose officers can be threatened if they print or broadcast anything that the federal government deems objectionable. Got it?

    2. IANAL like you, but I always thought they meant the press to mean the printed word so that no one would say they only meant to protect the spoken word when they said freedom of speech.

      1. If you read the OED, it gives the history of the word. The press, as a noun, means

        Newspapers, journals, and periodical literature collectively. Freq. with modifying word.

        That term had existed since the 17th Century. The OED gives two examples of it that occurred before 1789.

        1661 A. Brome Songs & Other Poems 129 And carefully muzled the mouth of the press, Least the truth should peep through their jugling dress.
        1776 Pennsylvania Evening Post 16 Jan. 1/1 Prosecutions have been commenced by the officers of the Crown, apparently for no other purpose than that of silencing the Press.

        That is clearly what they meant. They didn’t mean to only protect printing presses. They meant to protect all newspapers and journals and any other public literature from censorship by Congress. It is about protecting the publication, by whatever means, not protecting a class of people.

      2. As I said below, the professional “journalist” was a very new concept in 1789 sewa mobil murah lombok

    3. All people are equal, but some are more equal than others.

    4. In short, the Constitution says whatever it is that our bosses and moral and spiritual and political superiors, say that it says… Not what it really says.

  4. You scurvy shiester bastard. I’m a doctor of journalism man! Get in there and clean your shorts! Clean your shorts goddammit like a big boy!

  5. OT Police professionalism in Sweden.

    Policewoman sics dog on man and beats him 14 times with stick for being drunk and apparently confused.…..erkad-man/ (with video)

    1. Some people pay good money to get beaten up by a Swedish woman.

      1. Or to have her roll around in beans.

  6. being a real journalist has not always been that great of an honor

    Yeah, the effort they have put in recent decades into getting themselves sainted has been pretty successful. Kind of like teachers.

      1. I enlisted like a dumbass and felt compelled to +1 this comment.

        My personal adherence to the NAP gets sorely tried by all the “hero talk” my relatives and others try to force onto me. I want to backhand them. With Slick Rick’s rings on.

  7. The title of this article applies to pretty much every profession. If someone chooses to make a profession out of a particular act, so be it.

  8. Good article

  9. Probably too late for comment, but I doubt I’m alone on this board as regarding most congresscritters as being derelict in their duties re: their Oath of Office, their oversight of the Executive branch’s bureaucracy, etc. So, then, when will they have a conversation about who is a real Congressman/-woman or Senator?

  10. A journalist is someone who keeps a journal, duh.

  11. Free to assemble; free to speak; free to publish — the rights of a free people not the definitions of occupations.

  12. How do you know it’s journalism unless the government says it is?

  13. Journalism is almost criminal in their untruths and propaganda. This Zimmerman stuff is among the most outlandish. I wonder if he can sue them for trying to get him convicted. They have not even tried to report on a trial, they have indicted this guy from day one and no one knows what happened. That is called reasonable doubt which means acquittal.

  14. Just look at the attendees of the press club dinner and that is all you need to know about these starfuckers. The news media is just as dumb as Hollywood. Just get to the naked news already. We’re getting close with fox. All it takes is a few more inches of cleavage and we’re telemundo.

    1. I am Mustakrakish, and I approve this message.

  15. It’s scary to think of the government as the final arbiter of what separates a real journalist from a fake one.

    But municipalities have long been doing so in their bestowing, and requiring, press passes. It’s easy to understand their desire to do so when it comes to crowd control, such as at a fire or rescue situation. However, they have extended it to cases where no such danger exists, as NYC did when it came to release of the unofficial tally at elections.

  16. We are all journalists, when engaged in the ACTIVITY of journalism. The average joe has the right to engage in journalism and enjoy its first amendment protections, just as he has the right to use self defense force and force to protect others near and dear to him – it’s not only limited to cops.

    Ever since the “throbbing memo” (Rathergate), the dinosaur media has been running scared, as they should be. The average joe with a cell phone camera videotaping a traffic stop? Journalism. They don’t like it.

    Dinosaur journalists are like the catholic church, fighting the translation of sacred texts into the common language, as they want to be the buffer doing the translation.

    We see that in internet articles all the time, like the recent one about the corrections officers being rehired per arbitrator decision. One had to search high and low to actually find the link to the arbitrator report. 4 different articles reporting on what the arbitrator report said and NONE of them linking to the actual arbitrator report so people could make up their own goddamn minds. It’s incredible hubris that only “professional journalists” can interpret such source documents.

    1. There’s far more journalism going on in one day on videos posted to youtube, than the dinosaur media engages in, in a week, and it’s a good thing. The technology has been a game changer. Nowadays nearly everybody has the equipment (cell phone video camera) and the access (the internet) to record and publish to the masses. The dinosaur media hates that- the empowerment of the people, kind of how the Guardian Angels got a lot of flack from the powers that be when they started doing ‘citizen law enforcement’

      1. From your comments it seems safe to assume that you wouldn’t mind if I was standing on a sidewalk and recording video of a traffic stop you were engaged in. I wish I could meet more cops that thought this way.

        1. I *love* when people videotape me in action. Happens a lot. It’s only going to protect me if some incident happens and I need proof I did the right thing. If I screw up, and that gets caught on tape, so be it. I can live with that, too. Either way, it helps the truth come out and most importantly protects me from false complaints.

          I read a poll the other day where the vast majority of cops supported (wished their agency had) body cameras to record the stuff they did. But yea, some cops don’t like being filmed by other people. Tough shit. We’re in a fishbowl and people should be free to film us at will. And vice versa.

          1. Right. The police should consider people recording them as helping them. It’s record of what happened.

          2. Your body camera comment makes me think that police might be issued such equipment in the future. A hardened and stripped-down version of Google Glass or something.

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