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How to figure out who’s really a journalist

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 27, 2010 12:21 PM

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A blogger named Andrew Breitbart posts a truncated video to his blog making a federal official appear to be a racist. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr headlines a fund-raiser for Republican candidates. Are they journalists?

It’s easy to tell if someone is a physician. We call people physicians who graduated from medical school, passed exams for the profession, and are licensed to practice medicine. Education, certification, and licensure are what make an electrician an electrician, a lawyer a lawyer, a plumber a plumber.

Journalism has no educational requirements, no exam to pass, no licensing authority. So how can we determine if someone is a journalist? We can apply the simplest definition: a journalist is some who produces writing or multimedia for a mass audience. But that would make ad copywriters — or anyone with a blog or a website — a journalist.

When a profession or a trade does not have clear requirements for entry (e.g., education, exams, licensure), then another way to determine who is a member of a profession or trade is to establish whether that person follows the widely accepted norms and practices of that occupation.

Expecting Carr and Breitbart to abide by the accepted standards of journalism is like expecting a crack dealer to follow the Boy Scout Law. It’s not just that Carr and Brietbart violate the accepted standards and values of journalism; the whole point of their work is to violate the accepted standards and values of journalism. Carr and Brietbart — and untold thousands of bloggers – aren’t journalists, they’re political activists.

Here’s how to figure out if someone is a journalist: look at the person’s work and see whether it primarily follows the norms and practices of journalism or the norms and practices of political activists. I’m going to take a shot at defining the accepted standards and practices of journalism and what are the accepted standards and practices of political activism:

Journalism: The gathering of facts largely from primary sources, the verification those facts, and the present of facts in the form of a narrative to media consumers. For reporters, accuracy, balance and disinterest are key values. For columnists, accuracy is a key value but opinion is allowed.

All journalists are expected to retain at least an arm’s length distance from the issues they cover. As my friend Dan Kennedy, in his blog Media Nation, writes:

There are certain ethical rules that journalists -- even rabidly opinionated columnists -- try to follow. You don’t donate money to candidates. You don’t put signs on your lawn. You don’t put bumper stickers on your car.

Political activism: The deliberate attempt to persuade the public to support a particular candidate, party or cause, or to support political or social change. Opinion reinforcement, campaign donating, and voter registration and mobilization are all widely accepted forms of political activism.

The ethical rules for political activism are, um, flexible. The goal in politics is to win. All’s fair in love, war and politics.

As the lawyers say, let’s get down to cases. (Do lawyers say that?)

Breitbart, on his blog Andrew Breitbart Presents BigGovernment, posted a video on July 19 of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Georgia, Shirley Sherrod, speaking to an NAACP meeting in 1986. Brietbart edited the 43-minute video of her talk into a two and a half minute excerpt.

In the unlikely event you haven’t seen or read this story — the national media went a little nutty for this story — Breitbart’s post is here. An Associated Press story giving the details of the controversy Breitbart’s post stirred up is here.

Was Breitbart’s blog post and video more within the norms and practices of journalism or more within the norms and practices of political activism?

Second case: Howie Carr, the Boston Herald columnist and WRKO-AM talk radio host, headlined a $50-a-person fund-raiser for the “New Hampshire Republican State Committee” on July 31. The event was called “Hamburgers With Howie.”

The Boston Globe’s “Celebrties” column ran a story about “Hamburgers With Howie” on July 9. Of course the Globe wouldn’t miss a chance stick a thumb in Carr’s eye. Carr regularly taunts the Globe (and he’ll probably taunt me if he reads this). It’s all good for some laughs.

The Globe item quotes two outrageously distinguished journalists (both Pulitzer Prize winners, in fact), deploring Carr’s burger bash. Alex Jones of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy says, “I suspect [Carr] would say he criticizes Republicans, too, but doing something like this isn’t what I consider objective journalism. But I don’t think he thinks he’s in the objective journalism business.”

Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, says: “You cannot call yourself a journalist — even as a columnist — and actively support a political party. It strikes me that the Herald should now report Carr’s salary to the Federal Election Commission as a contribution to the GOP.”

Carr, of course, did a happy dance. In a July 19 column headlined “Now, my campaign stump speech” and with the phrase “tainted_globe_trots_out_tired_ethics_rant” in the web address, Carr could not contain his glee. It begins: “Hell yes, I’ve done fund-raisers for Republicans, and I’ll do it again.”

Is hosting a political fund-raiser for Republicans more in keeping with the standards of journalism or the practices of political activism?

Over at the Republican blog RedMassGroup, D.R. Tucker plaintively asks:

It may be time to rethink the notion that opinion writers should avoid the explicit embrace of political parties. Why shouldn’t obviously partisan columnists and commentators make clear where they stand in terms of support for, or opposition to, certain political parties?

An odd question, since partisan columnists and opinioned talk radio hosts and TV shout-show stars lie thick on the ground these days. Which of these famous columnists and TV stars follow the norms and practices of political partisanship much more frequently than they follow the norms and practices of journalism: Frank Rich, George Will, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity?

Easy, right? All of them. Not a journalist in the lot.

CORRECTION, July 28, 9 a.m.: The original post spelled Breitbart incorrectly.

Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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