What Is a Journalist?
I'm a journalist by trade but I consider myself by the more generic term "writer" so that I can include my other ambitions as a novelist, essayis, playwright, screenwriter and occasional haikuist. I find the broad term "writer" appealing because, while it's more pleasant to write some things than others, depending on my mood, my inner beast tends to be well fed by any of those activities. Most of the writers I really admire, like Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, were adept at writing in multiple forms. Everybody has a favorite form and all of those men were novelists primarily, but they could do just about anything and three of them actually made a living as working journalists at one point or another.
So what maks journalism different? Most will tell you that it means you work for a known news source. But, remember, there's no such thing as an "accredited" news source, though you'll see that term thrown around. You don't need a special license to start a newspaper or magazine and you can go to your cable access station and get yourself a half hour weekly news cast right now, if you so desire. I work for Forbes Magazine and people know what that is. That helps me get my phone calls returned, among other advantages, but it doesn't make my work more "journalism."
There is, for course, a sense of a journalist's ethic you must follow. Even if you write an opinionated, essayistic form of journalism, you must fairly understand and present the side of the argument that undermines your thesis. You don't call a person a crook without giving them ample opportunity to dissuade you and, if they can't, without giving them ample opportunity to convince your reader that your thesis is wrong.
But, I don't gather that Bill O'Reilly does that, and he's considered a journalist. On the left, Maureen Dowd doesn't do that and she's a journalist. So, even though I consider the ethic above important and, indeed key to doing journalistic work and feeling good about yourself when you have to report sour news, it isn't integral to what we, as a society, consider a "journalist."
What's most often discussed these days is the question of where bloggers fit in. I consider this blog to be an exercise in short, news-related essay writing. Now, aside from the fact that I don't get paid, it's hard to see how this is any different than the work done by a newspaper op-ed columnist. If they're the press, than so am I. And, so are you, if you want to be.
On strike against bloggers on this is the lack of editorial control. This will be posted because I want it to be posted, not because some greater authority has told me that it's worth reading or that it's not riddled with logical errors and false assertions. But, again, is the live television or radio journalist constrained like that? They say what they say, they don't get approval for their every utterance. I suppose they could be retroactively fired. But, I could be sued for libel if I printed something maliciously false about somebody here. I could also find myself blogging to no one (shall we call that "blogging off") if I destroy my credibility with the few readers I have. So, it's not like this is without some consequence.
Anybody can be a "journalist." Being a good one is another matter and I won't bore you with what I think that entails, though I will point out that it's as subjective as trying to be a "good" poet.
I have a feeling that when we established the rights of "free press" in the Constitution that it was meant to mean everybody. Throw your wares into the market place of ideas and see if you get anywhere. What's a journalist? Just somebody who wants to help others make sense of it all, really. Just a subset of "writer."
This little note was inspired by this on Atrios.