Monday, October 22, 2007


[50 years ago last summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will exhume some of his writings]

[From the DC Gazette in the 1970s]

SAM SMITH - It was nice to learn the other day that the National Labor Relations Board agrees with me that journalists are not "professionals." The ruling came in a labor dispute over which union reporters and other newspaper workers should join. The NLRB probably didn't mean to, but it nonetheless struck a small blow for freedom of the press -- and the rest of the country as well. One of the most serious of the infinite misapprehensions suffered by reporters is that they are somehow akin to lawyers, doctors and engineers. They long for initial letters after their name.

As late as the 1950s more than half of all reporters lacked a college degree. Since that time there has been increasing emphasis on professionalism in journalism; witness the growth of journalism schools, the proliferation of turgid articles on the subject, and the preoccupation with "objectivity" and other "ethical issues." There has also been an interesting parallel growth in monopolization of the press.

Among the common characteristics of professions is that they are closed shops and have strong monopolistic tendencies. The more training required to enter a field, the more you can weed out socially, politically, and philosophically unsuitable candidates; and armed with a set of rules politely known as canons or codes of ethics but also operating as an agreement for the restraint of trade, one can eliminate much of the competition.

The professional aspirations of such formerly unpretentious occupations as journalism, teaching and politics is one of the most dangerous of the numerous anti-democratic currents of the day. Professionals hoard knowledge and use it as a form of monopolistic capital. For example, one of the most constructive ways to improve health in the country is through preventive action and personal habits, which depend upon widespread information and education. Yet it has been largely through governmental intervention (the FDA, EPA, etc.), renegade doctors so few they are household words, investigating legislators, health nuts and consumer groups that the country began to understand that health is not something that you buy from a doctor. The medical profession regarded this as a trade secret.

Lawyers have been more successful in withstanding the democratic spirit. The fact that there are ways of dealing with civil disputes and community justice other than in the traditional legal adversary system is still not widely known. Through semantic obfuscation, a stranglehold over our courts and legislatures, and an arcane collection of self-serving contradictions known as law, attorneys have managed to turn human disputation from a mere cottage industry into a significant factor in the gross national product.

The First Amendment says nothing about objectivity, professional standards, national news councils, blind quotes, deep backgrounders or how much publicity to give a trial. Its authors understood far better than many contemporary editors and journalistic commentators that the pursuit of truth can not be codified and that circumscribing the nature of the search will limit the potential of its success. Nor can there be an institutionalization of the search for the truth; it always comes back to the will and ability of individuals.

Check a reporter's bookshelf and you'll find a dictionary, Bartlett's, a thesaurus and, perhaps, Strunk & White and lots of junk reading. No stacks of maroon or blue texts with thin gold titles like "Compton on Trial Coverage." Doctors need such tomes and lawyers have made it necessary to themselves to have them. But journalism does not depend upon the retrieval of institutionalized stores of knowledge, and won't -- until we presume to know as much, as definitively, about the working of human society as a doctor must know about the workings of the stomach.

Journalism has always been a craft - in rare moments, an art - but never a profession. It depends too much on the perception, skill, empathy and honesty of the practitioner rather than on the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills.

The techniques of reporting can be much more easily taught than these human qualities and they can be best learned in an apprentice-like situation rather than in a classroom. Too many reporters have nothing but technique. Trained not to take sides, to be "balanced," they lose the human passion that makes up the better part of the world about which they write. They are taught to surrender values such as commitment, anger and delight that make the world go round and thus become peculiarly unqualified to describe the rotation. Disengaged, their writing is not fair but just vacuously neutral on the surface while culturally biased underneath.

All memory of the newspaper trade short of printing could be wiped out and in a matter of days someone would start publishing a newspaper again, and probably a good one. Someone would want to tell a story.

The institution of journalism functions like all large institutions; it is greedy, self-promoting, and driven towards the acquisition of power. The thing that has saved it has been the integrity and craft of individual journalists. Preserving that integrity and that craft is not only important to reporters but to everyone, for when reporters become merely agents of an overly powerful profession, democracy loses one of its most important allies, free journalists practicing their craft.