Essayist Clarence Page Considers the Definition of a Journalist

June 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE: As you may have noticed, I’m a member of a vastly misunderstood minority group. I am a journalist. So many people are running around calling themselves journalists these days, claiming journalist access, privilege and protections, that a lot of other people are asking who is a journalist and who isn’t?

REPORTER: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture —

CLARENCE PAGE: The question loomed large as a banner headline after a White House reporter named Jeff Cannon — and also James Guckert — was found to be reporting not for a conventional newspaper or broadcaster but for a partisan Republican Web site. Journalist or propagandist?

Such questions loom large again after Apple Computer sent subpoenas to the authors of online Web sites that allegedly had published trade secrets about a new Apple product. Apple wants to know who the leakers are. The Web loggers, or “bloggers,” claim they have a right to protect confidential sources, as journalists do.

SPOKESPERSON: Like, I upgraded to “blogger pro,” which is —

CLARENCE PAGE: But bloggers may be shocked as some journalists have been to learn that shield law protections depend on the state in which they are subpoenaed. The Constitution does not differentiate between the New York Times or the National Enquirer, nor do the rules for who covers the president. The Secret Service determines who is a security risk but not who qualifies as a journalist.

Are bloggers journalists? The question presumes journalists are more special than we are. The founders might never have forecast the Internet, but they would easily have understood its purpose. We have bloggers, they had pamphleteers. Were pamphleteers journalists? It didn’t matter. They were protected by the very first amendment, because freedoms of political expression, like the freedoms of assembly and religion, were the freedoms from which all others grew.

Today, we have the Internet, a great leveler. “The Drudge Report,” a one-man Web page, broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal story. It also produced the John Kerry sex scandal scoop that proved to be false. Bloggers exposed flaws in Dan Rather’s story about President Bush’s National Guard Service. And the bloggers won’t let us old-school journos forget it.

SPOKESPERSON: Had it been left to the major media, the Trent Lott affair would have come and gone and just zipped right off the landscape.

CLARENCE PAGE: Like unleashed adolescents, they do get a bit full of themselves sometimes, crowing about their independence and their uncensored cleverness, taunting us old-school mainstream media types — or “MSM” in blogspeak. That’s okay.

Reality, like the aging process, awaits the blogosphere and its webhead inhabitants. The new wave media face the same workaday challenges and obligations as their “MSM” brethren. Ultimately, you must feed the beast, the bottomless appetites of an audience always hungry for something new.

Get your facts straight or lose credibility and possibly your house. After all, lawyers say, bloggers can be liable for defamation or for spilling trade secrets just as journalists can. Live like a journo, suffer like a journo. The Internet is empowering, but journalism is humbling. Once the new toy thrill has wafted away, the new journalism will look increasingly like the old, only faster, more interactive and infinitely more abundant.

Who is a journalist? Anyone who wants to be. The audience decides who among us is credible and who’s a crackpot. Journalists sometimes judge others, but always we are judged. I’m Clarence Page.