Journalism is a totally unregulated profession. It always has been and it should always be so, even when it fails miserably to do its job.
The dirty little secret about journalism is that you don’t need any special training to call yourself a journalist. You don’t need a license, you don’t need to join a union, and heck, you don’t even need a job or income to call yourself a journalist.
So, if you would happen to wake up someday disgruntled with your miserable life, you could grab a pen and a paper and write a news story. Once finished, you could declare yourself a journalist. It’s that easy. Well, almost.
Here’s a quick history of journalism in America from a little book published several years ago by the Indiana University Press.*
“During the first half of the eighteenth century, seventy-three newspapers were begun in the U.S. colonies. These early newspapers and the people who produced them established some enduring images, both positive and negative, that helped to define the craft of the journalist in the United States. Colonial printer-journalists, like copy editors and many supervisory editors of news organizations today, generally wrote very little. Instead, they relied on other papers, letters, travelers, ship crews, and official sources for their news. But they also relied on a second kind of journalist – the correspondent who then, as now, reported on what was going on in the hinterlands. The work of these usually unpaid correspondents was largely a combination of the functions of today’s reporter, editorial writer, and town booster. Their services were in great demand, because of the irregularity of intercolonial and transoceanic communication.” Pg 2.
A few pages later the book says this:
“Sociologist Michael Schudson has written that the idea of paying reporters ‘was not only novel, but to some, shocking. Until the late 1820s, New York coverage of Washington politics relied mainly on members of Congress writing occasionally to their home papers.’ But by 1834, two of New York’s eleven papers each employed four reporters. ‘exclusively to obtain the earliest, fullest, and most correct intelligence on every local incident.’ The occupation of ‘hired’ reporting was not accorded instant respect, however.”
I get from these quotes two conclusions:
1. The original journalists were CITIZEN journalists and
2. The respect for the profession has really not changed much over the last 100-years.
First, the “correspondents” referred to in the first quote were what we call today, citizen journalists. They had no training and little editorial supervision. Their stories were either published or not, according to the decision of the “printer-journalist.”
Second, the respect for the profession of journalist has not changed. Even with expensive J-school educations, most journalists are underpaid and most really serious journalists go their whole careers underpaid and under appreciated.
Now, what with the JournoList scandal, respect for the profession has diminished even more.
Here is another quote from the book: Somewhere around 1889 “Harvard University President Charles William Eliot was quoted as saying reporters were ‘drunkards, deadbeats, and bummers.’”
And that was over 100 years before 400 so-called professional journalists colluded through email communications to destroy Sarah Palin, hide the shameful and racist statements of candidate Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and to spin or kill news stories that might damage their favorite candidate.
Personally, I’d rather have “drunkards, deadbeats, and bummers” as journalists than unethical propagandists posing as them.
No matter how corrupt or depraved individual journalists may become, I still don’t think journalists should be licensed, unionized or otherwise selected, scrutinize or controlled by the government.
The best antidote for corrupt journalists is the same as the best antidote for corrupt politicians: sunlight. Let the way they operate, the biases they bring to their work, the people who pay their way, and the influences that surround them be known to all.
Then let the people decide.