Slate editor Jacob Weisberg has a sweet little essay today granting press credentials to anybody who wants to be a journalist. I totally agree with Weisberg’s sentiment, but I think he’s asking the wrong question — and I post this because I think a lot of “journalists” do.
“Who is a journalist?” strikes me as a fairly useless question, and not just since the arrival of the Internet. It seems to me we should be asking “what is journalism?”
Journalists derive the title exclusively from the function of journalism — not how good they are at it, not what institution they represent, not what stories they cover — but the bare fact of what they do. Judith Miller and Matt Cooper of Time can’t claim any special place in American democracy from the word “journalist” appearing under their names on their business cards.
But the acts of gathering information, synthesizing, and disseminating that information publicly in an essentially verifiable report — those acts, when done in tandem, can and should receive special protections, no matter the context in which they are performed.
It’s journalism, not journalists, we should be struggling to protect. I think we sometimes lose that distinction (hat tip to Rebecca MacKinnon, who might agree with me). Whether bloggers constitute journalists is abstract and immaterial. What in newspapers and on blogs and on television constitutes journalism, now, that strikes me as a provocative question.
Despite 1) appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, and 2) being funny, this, I would argue, is not journalism. Haul Jon Carroll’s pajama-wearing ass into court and make him testify. This, however, strikes me as journalism. Others might quibble. But at least we’d have a good conversation.
Weisberg notes that bloggers are trying to have it both ways in terms of the law — the folks being sued by Apple want to be treated like journalists, while those in danger of being regulated by the FEC want to be considered something else. “A more consistent stance would be to assert that the First Amendment should apply equally to everyone who practices journalism,” Weisberg says, “Whenever and wherever they do it, and that political advocacy online should be treated consistently with advocacy offline.”
An even more consistent stance would be to assert that the First Amendment should apply equally to all acts of journalism, no matter the source.