Who is a journalist? (chapter 3,672)

Leonard Pitts JuniorLeonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald has a problem with the term “citizen journalist,” and I have a problem with Mr. Pitts as a result. My argument, however, has less to do with the term than it does with how Mr. Pitts associates himself, and this is always the problem when trying to convince the purists of change.

Let me say up front that I don’t know Leonard Pitts Jr. I’ve read his work, and he’s a really good writer. He doesn’t know me either, so my comments are not personal whatsoever.

Mr. Pitts’ disgust is with James O’Keefe III being referenced as a “journalist,” citizen or otherwise. O’Keefe is the ACORN undercover guy who last week unsuccessfully tried to lure CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau on board a boat loaded with sex toys, where he could embarrass her. He was also caught earlier this year trying to tamper with telephones in the office of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. His methods are, to say the least, unconventional.

But Mr. Pitts uses this to broad brush bloggers and anybody else playing a role that he views as reserved for himself and others of his kind. Notice how he positions professional journalists:

If some guy had a wrench, would that make him a citizen mechanic? If some woman flashed a toy badge, would you call her a citizen police officer? Would you trust your health to a citizen doctor just because he produced a syringe?

…But I don’t believe in citizen journalism because journalism — like any profession worthy of the name — has standards and ethics, and if you don’t sign on to those, I can no more trust you than I can a doctor who refused the Hippocratic oath or a lawyer who failed the bar exam.

Auto mechanics are licensed by the state. Police officers are licensed, in a sense, and employed by the state. Doctors and lawyers are certainly licensed and require considerable training to achieve those licenses. Journalists are not and can never be. After all, we’re supposed to be watching the government. But that doesn’t stop Big‑J purists from bitching about bloggers, and when they do, they almost always pull out the doctor and lawyer examples.

This is hubris gone-to-seed, and the sad thing is they/we can’t see it.

Hubris, in fact, is one of the things driving a wedge between professional journalists and the public they’re supposed to serve. Trust in the press is at an all-time low in the U.S. Our self-righteous indignation at anyone who dares challenge our precious canons is ugly and unbecoming. Oxygen deprivation; that’s our problem. High atop the pedestals we built for ourselves, our brains turn into deceived mush that actually puts us on the same level as the power brokers we cover. Who are they, we question with a bitter harumph, to think THEY’RE better than us?

Every one who lives within journalism’s velvet rope is given the task of keeping others out, and all in the name of, as Mr. Pitts puts it, “standards and ethics.” What standards gave us Anna Nicole Smith? What ethics gave us Jayson Blair?

Oh, and here’s one for you: who makes up a large (perhaps even the largest) portion of the Society of Professional Journalists? Public relations people. That’s right. The people in our culture who benefit most from the standards and ethics to which Mr. Pitts alludes.

I don’t know about James O’Keefe III. Perhaps Mr. Pitts is right and that we should call him something else. What I do know, however, is that journalism is changing before our eyes, and it will survive not only the death of its institutions but also those, like Mr. Pitts, who purport to speak on its behalf.


  1. Earl E. Reiser says

    My father was a mechanic for 38 years. Who licenses them? ASE is not a licensing body. They are a trade organization.

  2. I knew somebody would come along and nail me on that. Good job, Earl, and thanks.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.