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March 10, 2005

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Who's a Journalist?

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.

mthompson-sig.gif
Posted March 10, 2005 at 3:30 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism

Comments

I agree with your basic point...I think. (Don't want to commit to anything so quick.) But I think columns can be journalism. It's not just about information but also about ideas and language. So I'd give pajama wearing a pass. Even cartoonists. Maybe not the astrology section though.

Totally agree that in our society it's all about the act, not the role. Although, jeez, we're kinda in a rougher spot being left with the question "what is journalism," aren't we? I mean, who wants to tackle THAT one?

But on that note: Since when does the First Amendment just apply to journalism? It's about all speech, right? Okay, yeah yeah I know it's complicated: hate speech and all that. But still. Must we have a shared national definition of journalism? Is such a thing even possible? "I know it when I see it"?

The separation between "speech" and "the press" in the First Amendment has always been a curious distinction to me, but there's now a giant body of legal precedent codifying and amplifying that distinction. A big part of why I see the distinction as necessary is in the "gathering information" part of my description above. As I see it, the act of reporting, not just publishing (speech), is also protected under the rubric of "the press."

Must we have a shared national definition of journalism?

It's the legal definition that I think is troubling in these cases. Still, I think the legal definition is better applied to the journalism than to the journalists. If the court decides the blog entries constituted journalism, they should afford the entries whatever protections apply to journalism. Ditto for the FEC -- although the idea that a hyperlink could ever be construed as a political donation may just take second place in the "Most Ridiculous Thing I Heard in the Past Week" Awards. (First place, of course, going to the headline "Michael Jackson Shows Up Late to Court" appearing above the scroll on the front page of NYT.com, which I think signals the end times.)

Re: columnists as journalists.

I definitely think columnists often perform journalism. Two words: Nick Kristof. I think of Kevin Drum as a columnist who often performs journalism, as in the linked posts. But I don't think all columns amount to journalism. I, of course, don't have the answer to the "what is journalism?" question, but I think it's the right question to be asking.

Posted by: Matt on March 10, 2005 at 09:27 PM

By the way, check me out. I'm donating a hyperlink to Howard Dean.

Posted by: Matt on March 10, 2005 at 09:28 PM

Ooh. . Matt's living dangerously . . .

I was reading over your comments and a particular "publication" came to mind that I thought I would bring to your attention. The webaddress www.badadvocates.com has caused much controversy between a great many people. Seems the woman who owns this website claims she is a journalist and that this is in fact part of her publication which she further claims is protected. I would like to know your opinion on this site as to weather or not it represents the work of a true journalist? Should the average reader consider this true journalisim?

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