Who “gets to be recognized” as a legitimate “journalist”?

So, who gets to call the self a journalist?

The recent queasiness in Congress and the FCC about matters like Section 230 and network neutrality bring this question back.  Yes, I’ve talked about the controversies over “citizen journalism” before, like the day before the Election on November 8, 2016.  And recently (July 19) I encountered a little dispute about access requiring “press credentials”.

The nausea that President Donald Trump says the “media” gives him seems to be directed at mainstream, larger news organizations with center-liberal bias – that is, most big city newspapers, and most broadcast networks, and especially CNN – he calls them all purveyors of “fake news” as if that were smut.  More acceptable are the “conservative” Fox and OANN.  Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos (with his own new site) seem to be in the perpetual twilight of a tidally locked planet.  Perhaps I am in the same space;  Trump doesn’t seem to have the same antipathy (or hostility) to “independent” or “citizen” journalists (which I had feared he would when he said he didn’t trust computers), but a lot of other people do.

I digress for a moment. Coincidentally has set up his “Trump News Channel” on Facebook (Washington Post story) but the URL for it reverts to “Dropcatch”, with Twitter won’t even allow as a link as supposed spam.

The basic bone politicians and some business people pick with journalists is that “they” spectate, speculate and criticize, but don’t have to play, like right out of the script of the Netflix thriller “Rebirth”.  Politicians, hucksters, sales professionals, and perhaps many legitimate business professionals, and heads of families – all of them have accountabilities to real people, whether customers or family members.  They have to go to bat for others.  They have to manipulate others and concern themselves with the size of their “basis”.  Journalists can do this only through double lives.

I could make the analogy to kibitzing a chess game, rather than committing yourself to 5 hours of concentration in rated game.  (Yes, in the position below, Black’s sacrifice hasn’t worked.)

But, of course, we know that renowned journalists have paid their dues, most of all in conflict journalism. Sebastian Junger broke his leg working as an arborist before writing “The Perfect Storm”. Bob Woodruff has a plate in his skull but recovered completely after being wounded in Iraq. Military services actually have their own journalists and public affairs.  Young American University journalism graduate Trey Yingst helped found News2share before becoming a White House correspondent, but had done assignments in Ukraine, Gaza, Rwanda, Uganda, Ferguson, and was actually pinned down at night during the Baltimore riots in April 2015.

That brings us back to the work of small-fry, like me, where “blogger journalism” has become the second career, pretty much zoning out other possible opportunities which would have required direct salesmanship of “somebody else’s ideas” (“We give you the words”), or much more ability to provide for specific people (maybe students) in directly interpersonal ways.

Besides supporting my books, what I generally do with these blogs is re-report what seem like critical general-interest news stories in order to “connect the dots” among them.  Sometimes, I add my own footage and observations when possible, as with a recent visit to fire-damaged Gatlinburg.  With demonstrations (against Trump, about climate change, for LGBT) I tend to walk for a while with some of them but mainly film and report (especially when the issue is narrower, such as with Black Lives Matter).  I generally don’t venture into dangerous areas (I visited Baltimore Sandtown in 2015 in the day time).

I generally don’t respond to very narrow petitions for emergency opposition to bills that hurt some narrow interest group.  What I want to do is encourage real problem solving.  Rather than join in “solidarity” to keep Congress from “repealing” Obamacare by itself, I want to focus on the solutions (subsidies, reinsurance, the proper perspective on federalism, etc).  But I also want to focus attention on bigger problems, many of them having to do with “shared responsibility” or “herd immunity” concepts, that don’t get very consistent attention from mainstream media (although conservative sites do more on these matters).  These include filial responsibility, the tricky business of reducing downstream liability issue on the Web (the Section230 issue, on the previous post, where I said Backpage can make us all stay for detention), risks taken by those offering hosting to immigrants (refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly national security issues like the shifting of risk from asymmetric terror back to rogue states (North Korea), and most of all, infrastructure security, especially our three major electric power grids.

My interest in book self-publication and citizen journalism had started in the 1990s with “gays in the military”, linking back to my own narrative, and then expanded gradually to other issues about “shared risks” as well as more traditional ideas about discrimination.  I had come into this “second career” gradually from a more circumscribed world as an individual contributor in mainframe information technology. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had suddenly become a particularly rich issue in what it could lead to in other areas.  So, yes, I personally feel that, even as an older gay man, the LGBTQ world has more to worry about than bathroom bills (Pulse).  I think the world we have gotten used to could indeed be dialed back by indignation-born “purification” (as a friend calls it) if we don’t get our act together on some things (like the power grid issue).  But I don’t believe we should have to all become doomsday preppers either.  We should solve these problems.

A critical component of journalism is objectivity and presentation of Truth, as best Truth can be determined. Call it impartiality. You often hear Trump supporters say that, whatever Trump’s crudeness and ethical problems, what Trump promotes helps them and particularly family members who depend on them.  Of course many journalists have families without compromising their work. But this observation seems particularly relevant to me.  I don’t have my own children largely because I didn’t engage in the desires or the behaviors than result in having that responsibility.  I can “afford” to remain somewhat emotionally aloof from a lot of immediate needs.

In fact, I’ve sometimes had to field the retort from some people that, while some of the news out there may be dire, I don’t need to be the person they hear it from.  I could be putting a target on my own back and on others around me.  Indeed, some people act as if they believe that everything happens within a context of social hierarchy and coercion.

My own “model” for entering the news world has two aspects that seem to make it vulnerable to future policy choices (like those involving 230 or maybe net neutrality). One of them is that it doesn’t pay its own way.  I use money from other sources, both what I earned and invested and somewhat what I inherited (which arguably could be deployed as someone else’s safety net, or which could support dependents, maybe asylum seekers if we had a system more like Canada’s for dealing with that issue).  That means, it cannot be underwritten if it had to be insured, for example.  I can rebut this argument, or course, by saying, well, what did you want me to do, get paid to write fake news?  That could support a family.  (No, I really never believed the Comet Ping Pong stuff, but the gunman who did believe it an attack it claimed he was an “independent journalist.”  I do wonder how supermarket tabloids have avoided defamation claims even in all the years before the Internet – because nobody believed them?  Some people obviously do.)   No, they say. we want you to use the background that supported you as a computer programmer for decades and pimp our insurance products. (“We give you the words,” again.)  Indeed, my withdrawal from the traditional world where people do things through sales middlemen makes it harder for those who have to sell for a living.

The other aspect is that of subsumed risk.  I can take advantage of a permissive climate toward self-distribution of content, which many Internet speakers and small businesses take for granted, but which can be seriously and suddenly undermined by policy, for the “common good” under the ideology of “shared responsibility”.  I won’t reiterate here the way someone could try to bargain with me over this personally – that could make an interesting short film experiment. Yes, there can be court challenges, but the issues litigated with CDA and COPA don’t reliably predict how the First Amendment applies when talking about distribution of speech rather than its content, especially with a new literalist like Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

A lot of “Trader Joe” type people would say, there should be some external validation of news before it is published.   Of course, that idea feeds the purposes of authoritarian rules, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, or perhaps Donald Trump.  But we could see that kind of environment someday if we don’t watch out.

(Posted: Monday, August 7, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

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