The Big Idea

Who Is a Journalist?

Anybody who wants to be.

In the Valerie Plame case, two well-known reporters have been sentenced to jail for refusing to rat out a confidential source or sources who told them the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent. Lawyers for the two journalists, Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of the New York Times, are asking the courts to recognize a right for reporters to decline to testify about their newsgathering activities. Failing such a ruling, media outfits including the Times insist on the need for a federal “shield law” that would create a privilege for journalists akin to privileges for lawyers, doctors, and priests.

A majority of states have such media protection ordinances on the books. But there’s a big problem with journalist shield laws, which advocates have yet to answer. How do you decide who is a journalist? If you create a privilege that applies to a group, someone has to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. That’s not so hard in the case of lawyers and doctors, who are credentialed by professional organizations and licensed by the government. But as reporters like to remind one another, they’re joined together in something more like a trade or a craft than a profession. Journalism does not require any specific training, or institutional certification, or organizational membership, or even regular employment. It’s just an activity some people engage in that is protected under the Constitution.

Even before the advent of blogging, the issue of who qualified as a journalist was a tricky one. Were the pamphleteers of the American Revolution journalists? Was Mark Twain? Is Oprah Winfrey? With the proliferation of new modes of communication online, deciding who is and who isn’t a journalist has become pretty much impossible. Thanks to the Web, the Jersey barriers separating amateur and professional authors have been replaced with roundabouts and green lights. Until a decade ago, practicing journalism was an intrinsically expensive proposition, requiring either the ability to make a profit or subsidy from a sugar daddy. Today, a limitless number of people with no institutional backing can establish themselves as reporters, analysts, or commentators, abide by whatever rules they prefer, find audiences of varying types and sizes, and perhaps even earn a living. The old A.J. Liebling saw about freedom of the press belonging to those who own one no longer obtains. These days, freedom of the press is available not just in theory but in practice to an unlimited number of individuals.

In response, many old-line journalists have tried to define their work in a ways that exclude the new aspirants. Insitutionalized journalists argue that bloggers don’t do conventional reporting, aren’t accurate, aren’t responsible, or aren’t paid—and hence are not genuine reporters. They fret that the current influx of amateurs will undermine professional standards or that seasoned professionals will be unfairly brought down by an electronic lynch mob, as some posit that Dan Rather of CBS and Eason Jordan of CNN were.

Disregard all such self-interested whining. The breakdown of what once were formidable barriers to entry in the field of journalism is good news for democracy as a whole and for the press itself. The great cacophony of voices in the blogosphere means that more views are being represented, that more subjects are being examined in detail, and that more sunlight shines into institutions of all kinds. Thousands of bloggers ranting from their soapboxes mean that our political culture encompasses bracing debate about everything people disagree about. If you don’t like this raucous clamor emanating from cyberspace, you’re not really comfortable with democracy.

For journalism, the Internet is having an even more immediate but no less beneficial effect. Blogs and Internet publications have essentially solved one of the biggest worries of the past few decades, that media consolidation is diminishing independence and plurality of voices. At another level, the ability for readers to respond to the mainstream press is raising standards of accuracy, care, and professionalism. Simply put, you can’t get away with being lazy or careless anymore, because too many self-appointed patrolmen are trying to catch you jaywalking. The “MSM” is unlikely to embrace competition from bloggers, because what business ever really embraces new competition? But competition is healthy nonetheless both for those who face it and for society as a whole.

Of course, bloggers play games with definitions as well, choosing whatever identity suits them at the moment. In a case pending in California, Apple Computer has subpoenaed three bloggers who reported what the company believes are trade secrets about its future products. The bloggers want to be admitted as part of the journalist class protected under California law. But in an altogether different set of circumstances, bloggers and Web sites facing the prospect of being regulated by the Federal Election Commission take the position that they are neither independent media (which faces one set of restrictions) nor partisan advocates (who face another), but rather belong to a privileged category called “the Internet,” which government mustn’t tax or touch in any way. A more consistent stance would be to assert that the First Amendment should apply equally to everyone who practices journalism, whenever and wherever they do it, and that political advocacy online should be treated consistently with advocacy offline.

None of this is to say that limited shield laws are an unreasonable way to protect the public’s right to know from overzealous prosecutors and bullying corporations. There are also cases where government bodies can’t avoid discriminating among journalists and recognizing a de facto hierarchy. Jeff Gannon notwithstanding, the scarce resource of credentials to cover White House briefings or to cross police lines in New York City must be distributed according to some formula. But those who advocate a special legal privilege for journalists must accept that anyone who thinks he’s a journalist is a journalist, and figure out how to protect the activity rather than a defined group of people. Properly understood, journalism has never been simply a trade or a profession. In a democracy like ours, it’s a basic right.

Correction, March 11, 2005: A sentence in the “Related on the Web” section of this story originally claimed that an article on the Plame case appeared in the January-February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review; in fact “Attack at the Source” was in the March-April issue of CJR.