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 such 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.
That's why the this journal
has welcomed non-professional writers -- writers who knew something
other than journalism, who cared about something else. On the
average they make the better writers. They have something to
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