Calling bloggers “amateur” misses the point entirely

Few things irritate me like the use of the term “professional” as it relates to contemporary journalism. John Podhoretz wrote a nice little piece for the New York Post about blogging and made some interesting points. Some of his positions are argumentative, but one sentence crosses my line and reveals much.

The success of the Swift-boat vets’ ads is the tale of the triumph of the nation’s alternative media. The mainstreamers didn’t want to touch the story with a 10-foot pole, and they didn’t. But the alternative media did. Amateur reporters and fact-gatherers offered independent substantiation for some of the charges. It turned out the criticisms of the Swifties weren’t quite so easily dismissed.
Here the term “amateur” isn’t so much pejorative as it is defining. Bloggers aren’t professional reporters, so they must be amateurs. Let’s follow this thinking a little further.

By definition, a professional is a person who gets paid for their specified activity, and an amateur is somebody who doesn’t get paid. Implicit in this is the assumption that anybody who’s not getting paid has a lesser degree of skill, for after all, if they HAD the skill, they’d get paid, right? It’s incomprehensible to us, for example, that Bobby Jones didn’t “turn professional” and get paid for his great skill at the game of golf.

The term “professional” also applies to a person who is part of a profession, which is further defined as a vocation or calling — especially learned or scientific. The profession itself determines who’s qualified to be a member of the club. Sometimes it’s a license. Sometimes it’s education.

I do not believe the term should be applied to the news business, and the fact that the press considers itself a profession is at the heart of the loss of the public trust. It suggests a separateness, a pedestal from which “professionals” are given special insight into truth. But journalism is not a profession — it’s a trade. And it’s best practiced by those who live and breathe among everyday people, not those who dine at the table of power. We owe the fruit of a “professional” press to Walter Lippmann and his Creel Committee cronies, who manipulated the culture to suit their own ends. As Chris Lasch so brilliantly noted, the decline in participation in the political process in the U.S. can be directly tied to a rise in the professionalization of the press. Lippmann didn’t believe people were capable of governing themselves in any walk of life and needed an educated élite to do the job for them. Thus was born journalism’s artifical hegemony — objectivity. But I digress.

When people like Mr. Podhoretz put bloggers in the category of “amateur,” they not only do a disservice to the movement, but they reveal that they can’t possibly understand the phenomenon whatsoever. Blogging may be many things, but one thing it is not is a group of wannabe amateurs posing as the press. Unfortunately, only those with eyes to see can see this, and the mainstream press is still largely left in the dark.

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