What makes up ‘the press’ and who is a ‘journalist’?

Times are hard for the mainstream media. They are suddenly waking up to the fact that they are not such an exclusive and desirable club after all and that people do not need them that much anymore. In response they are trying to desperately reserve the label of ‘journalist’ only to those who belong to their club. It is amusing to see how some courtier journalists like David Gregory are forced to interview people like Glenn Greenwald and yet try to avoid at all costs calling him a journalist, instead referring to him as a blogger, columnist, activist, lawyer, and the like.

This is not merely an issue of turf and prestige. The freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution provides some real protections for journalists, so the idea of who belongs to ‘the press’ is not a trivial one. But what constitutes ‘the press’ and what extra rights and privileges that confers that are above and beyond those covered by the guarantee of freedom of speech is something that is up for debate.

For example, is a journalist defined by what he/she does or by the organization he/she belongs to? Jason Stverak argues that it should be defined by what the person does and that as a result bloggers and citizen journalists should also be considered members of the press. He cites in support of his case the opinion of Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in the 1938 case of Lovell v. City of Griffin, GA involving tracts being distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said:

The liberty of the press is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. These indeed have been historic weapons in the defense of liberty, as the pamphlets of Thomas Paine and others in our own history abundantly attest. The press in its connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion. [My italics-MS]

Jeff Cohen has an excellent article where he says, “I know several journalism professors who view Greenwald as one of the world’s best journalists. He’s known as accurate, thorough, well-documented and ethical.” So why are alleged journalists like David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin talking about having Greenwald arrested? Cohen says that the US media sees itself almost as an arm of the government, and points to all the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of this, such as using the pronoun ‘we’ when talking about actions taken by the US government. But they are finding themselves increasingly isolated because of their pro-government stand.

When a huge swath of the country is on the side of the guy-on-the-run and not the government, it’s much easier to see that there’s nothing “objective” or “neutral” about journalists who so closely identify with the spy agencies or Justice Department or White House.

The standard exclusion of dissenting views – panels often span from hawk (“he’s a traitor who needs to be jailed”) to dove (“he may have been well-intentioned but he needs to be jailed”) – offers yet another reason why young people, more libertarian in their views, have turned away from these outlets. Virtually no one speaks for them.

[David] Broder was a reporter, columnist and TV talking head—yet no one questioned whether Broder was a genuine journalist. That’s because, unlike Greenwald, the reporting and opinions of a David Broder were militantly pro-establishment, pro-bipartisan consensus.

The reason Glenn Greenwald’s credentials as a journalist are being questioned by some mainstreamers is not that he blurs the line between journalist and advocate. It’s because of the anti-establishment content of his journalism and advocacy.

Xeni Jardin writes about how the New York Times repeatedly used Alexa O’Brien’s coverage of the Bradley Manning trial at Fort Meade (the Times did not even think it worthwhile to send a reporter to cover this major story) while referring to her as an activist and not a journalist. Jardin says that O’Brien finally got fed up and fired off a wonderfully scathing letter to the Times ordering them to correct their story. After detailing her background as a journalist, O’Brien’s letter ends as follows:

I find the term activist used here by Mr. Carr and Mr Somaiya– pejorative. So, you will accordingly correct your error immediately.

I am at Fort Meade. Where are you, New York Times?

You are reading my journalistic work, using my journalistic work, capitalizing off of my journalistic work, and linking to my journalistic work about the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source.

More importantly, you are not here.

The Times meekly complied, but only partially, by adding the term journalist to the activist description and not replacing it. Of course Gregory and Sorkin are as much activists as she is but because they are activists on behalf of the establishment, they do not see themselves as such.

The courtier journalist class seems to be gagging at the thought of calling anyone outside their limited circle journalists. The fact that Greenwald writes regularly for a major mainstream publication like the Guardian should be more than sufficient to say that he is a journalist.

But what about bloggers? As far as I know that has not yet been adjudicated. But it is only a matter of time before the Obama administration, in its harsh crackdown on whistleblowers, accuses a blogger or freelancer of espionage or some other crime involving reporting and that person invokes the First Amendment defense of a free press. For all I know, it may have already happened and is working its way through the lower courts.


  1. Mano Singham says

    Very interesting. If even four-star generals start leaking information, who knows where this will end up?

  2. says

    What amazes and disturbs me is that I continue to be shocked and disappointed by each instance of courtier journalism, despite the fact that I know the problem is systemic and not at all new (I’ve read stories in the NYT about social justice movements a century ago, and they take pretty much the same line they do now). And I always want to temper my criticism with a recognition of some of their good work. I have to try to stop.

    Their “reporting” on Latin America has long been abysmal – might as well be written by the State Department and the CIA. Their coverage of the implosion of biopsychiatry has also been obsequious and dreadful, and then they took it upon themselves to publish an editorial basically telling people “Move along – nothing to see here. Keep trusting the APA.” In each instance I begin to wonder if they’re on the payroll of the government or the corporations, but then I remember that they don’t have to be – it’s who they are.

  3. slc1 says

    The problem is that journalists who work for the lamestream media are under pressure to cultivate those in power, in order to get “scoops” based on official leaks from them. Quite obviously, if a journalist starts badmouthing the powerful, he/she will find their access cut off in short order.

  4. slc1 says

    Way back when Stuxnet first came to public attention, it was alleged that the leak came out of Israel, possibly from Mossad head Meir Dagan, since it was a joint caper of Israel and the US.

  5. jaxkayaker says

    “The freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution provides some real protections for journalists, so the idea of who belongs to ‘the press’ is not a trivial one.”

    This is wrong, and unfortunately a common misunderstanding. The freedom of the press in the 1st amendment referred to the printing press, not a protected class of individuals with more or special rights, which would have been contrary to the whole equal rights/ due process concept. With the advent of defining “the press” as a group of individuals with special protections, and not a protected activity, other individuals lose a right the founders intended everyone to have: to communicate, by speech or other means, i.e. print media, political ideas freely and without suppression by the government.

  6. says

    There was a security leak regarding the Israeli involvement in Stuxnet – a sign at a Mossad executive’s retirement party said something about congratulations for accomplishments, and listed Stuxnet. But it was played off as mere hijinks.

  7. says

    Cue the mainstream press calling for his head, and calling him a “traitor” and a target for a drone strike. Right? That’s what they’re going to do, right? Because leakers all deserve to be strung up, etc, right? I mean, they woudln’t cut a general slack because he’s part of the establishment, or anything hypocritical like that, would they?

  8. says

    The good thing is that Greenwald is showing us that the “scoops” are not always what’s doled out by the government in return for favorable coverage. Suddenly the establishment media’s carefully farmed pulitzers don’t look so impressive, and there’s more than a little bit of professional jealousy.

  9. says

    Yeah, really. Journalists aren’t protected at all by the Constitution.

    Think differently? Ask Judith Miller of the New York Times who was jailed for refusing to give up her sources. And many, many, many others.

    Publishers are protected by the Constitution. Journalists — not so much.

  10. trucreep says

    Alexa O’Brien is awesome – I follow her twitter feed and it’s truly amazing what she’s doing. Follow @carwinb if you can! :]

  11. Mano Singham says

    That is interesting. I had no idea. Could you please point to to the source of the idea that the press refers to a machine and not people? Thanks.

  12. Mano Singham says

    Thanks. So it looks like thew special privileges granted to journalist arise from ‘shield laws’ passed by various states that give journalists greater rights than the general public, not from the First Amendment itself.

    One keeps learning new things all the time!

  13. says

    Cohen says that the US media sees itself almost as an arm of the government, and points to all the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of this, such as using the pronoun ‘we’ when talking about actions taken by the US government.

    Have you noticed that the Daily Show has been right on board with this – repeatedly using “we” and even (last night) talking about our not being able to “get our hands on him” and mockingly referring to his “punishment” of being (as far as they know) stuck in the Moscow airport. Oliver and the writers – and I suspect Stewart as well – seem to think even their audience views Snowden in the same terms as the administration. Nor have they had much to say about the revelations.

  14. jaxkayaker says

    This doesn’t direct answer your question or support my assertion about press referring to the printing press, rather than “the media”, but it is supportive of my assertion that the freedom to publish was intended to be held by all persons, which is really the more important point:


    ‘Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
    28 Aug. 1789
    Papers 15:367

    . . . the following alterations and additions would have pleased me. Art 4. “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak to write or otherwise to publish any thing but false facts affecting injuriously the life, property, or reputation of others or affecting the peace of the confederacy with foreign nations.”‘

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