Who is a journalist?

The government’s vicious assault on whistleblowers and those who report the leaks has led them to a confrontation with the press and opened up a debate on who is a journalist and what protections they should have to report the news. The First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and the press should protect everyone who publishes any news or opinion in any forum. But the government does not want that. What they want is a compliant media, and they have sought to find a way to separate the ‘good’ media (i.e., those who know their proper role is to be subservient to the government) from the ‘bad media’ (i.e., those who actually break news even if it is not in the government’s interest).

The Department of Justice, under the guise of creating a federal shield law similar to the ones that exist in many states, has issued new guidelines that seek to provide protections, not for the broad category of ‘journalists’ but to separate the establishment media from the rest. (Emptywheel takes a close look at the new guidelines.)

There is already a rough divide along those lines. The media in the US can roughly be split into two categories: the major media that largely seeks to cozy up the government and the business elites and does not stray far from reporting what is officially approved, and the rest (the smaller publications, freelancers, bloggers, whistleblower sites like WikiLeaks, and the like) who are not beholden to the powers that be and are thus more likely to break major stories. There are of course some journalists who straddle the two worlds, people like the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer and the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest who have done some outstanding work on national security issues.

A leading Democratic senator Dick Durbin recently weighed in on this issue, saying that it is time to specify who is a ‘legitimate journalist’. According to him:

A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.

Of course, being the good ‘liberal’ he is, Durbin says that he wants to protect journalists, except that he wants the government to be able to decide who qualifies, which will in practice mean the compliant establishment media.

As Frank Rich argues, a journalist should be someone who commits the act of journalism and who the person works for or the medium used for dissemination should be immaterial. Rich says it is deeply ironic of NBC’s David Gregory (who would be considered by the establishment as a journalist) to question Glenn Greenwald’s claim to that title when Gregory has not broken a single significant story in his entire life, spending most of his time giving softball interviews to Washington hacks, while Greenwald has broken one of the biggest stories of recent memory.

So who is a journalist? Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the New York Times has a good essay examining this question and says that there is one quality that journalists must have.

A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.

Those who fully meet that description deserve to be respected and protected — not marginalized.

On the occasion of his retirement, veteran Australian investigative journalist Andrew Fowler looked back on his career and had some interesting reflections on what makes a journalist and why he thinks that Julian Assange qualifies for that label.

Julian Assange is a kind of Rupert Murdoch figure. He’s an outsider, and that’s what I like about him. I think that as journalists, we’re really all outsiders. If we’re not outsiders, then we’re insiders, and if we’re insiders, we are very often captured by the people we’re inside with.

It gives us more access to information but it’s information that others want, and to quote Hugh Cudlipp, I think it was, famously of the Daily Mirror in London, he said, “News is what others want kept secret. All else is publicity.”

Assange is a change agent. He’s a very good journalist, and many journalists don’t like me say that and don’t like the argument that sees Assange as a journalist – they want to see him as something else – because I think what Assange did was to show how badly we had done our job, and how much we’d become part of the corporate state, and the corporate entities.

So, he stood against those powerful groups and showed us up for the failures that we were, in many ways. We didn’t take chances. We were too willing to take the press release.

So those are all the reasons why journalism has failed, but what Assange did was he shone a bright light in everyone’s face and said, “This is a failure. You didn’t even ask hard questions about the Iraq War, Afghanistan. You’ve not held the government to account”, and I think that’ a good point. And that’s a point where I think the epitaph of Assange is that he showed journalism up for the failings that it has.

“News is what others want kept secret. All else is publicity.” I like that.


  1. Corvus illustris says

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Well, you already need a permit peacefully to assemble (of course if you don’t have one, then you’re ipso facto not peaceful), and speech is confined to “free speech areas” sufficiently far from politicians and MSM cameras that the speech is unheard. Why not license journalists (or allow a governmental agency to determine who is one and who isn’t)? In fact, why not license printing presses? And just to foil lawbreakers, a typewriter license, an internet-connection license, etc.? We don’t want any of that communist samizdat stuff here either. All sounds perfectly consistent to me.

  2. slc1 says

    In the case of Greenwald, since he now writes a column for the Guardian, which is a newspaper by any definition, that would seem to qualify him as a journalist, contrary to Gregory’s claims.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    In other news, the Harper government recently enacted Bill C-309, which can get you a five-year sentence for wearing a mask during a riot or “unlawful assembly”*. So if you have a scarf when the cops start with the tear gas, don’t put it around your face.

    *”unlawful assembly” seems to mean whatever the police want it to mean, given what happened during the Quebec student strike.


  4. TGAP Dad says

    “Journalism is publishing what someone doesn’t want us to know, the rest is propaganda.”
    -Horacio Verbitsky,

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