Who Is a Journalist?

“I am not a journalist … but I play one in the newspaper”

It’s Election Day today in San Francisco, and The Bay Citizen marks the occasion by throwing a rock at its journalistic competitor, The San Francisco Chronicle. Why? The Chronicleemploys a columnist named Willie Brown Jr., who, were it not for term limits, might still be either the Mayor of San Francisco or the Speaker of the California State Assembly.

What irks The Bay Citizen is that Mr. Brown, whose day job is political consulting, uses his Chronicle column to toot his own horn as a kingmaker and power broker. Much of his tooting lately has been on behalf of his client Ed Lee, who Mr. Brown maneuvered into the interim mayor’s job earlier this year, and who is expected to win the election today.

Although the Bay Citizen stops just shy of saying so, the implication is that Mr. Brown uses his Chronicle column to advertise his own political consultancy. In other words, he has a significant financial interest in the things he writes about for The Chronicle. In other words, he is in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

From today’s Bay Citizen story:

“Brown helped orchestrate Lee’s January ascension as interim mayor. He is a key advisor to Lee. Brown is a consultant advising clients with a stake in government policy. And the ex-mayor has used his Chroniclecolumn to depict himself as a confidante of, and gatekeeper to, San Francisco’s next mayor.”

The Bay Citizen then notes: “The San Francisco Chronicle’s ethics policy drafted in 2004 prohibits business or outside work activities that “could create or appear to create a conflict of interest.””

To which The Chronicle‘s editor, Ward Bushee, responded via email: “Willie is not a journalist or a member of The Chronicle’s news staff. He is a newsmaker who is politically active, of which our readers are quite aware. While he’s not bound by the ethics policy, Willie has shown his respect for his readers and the rules of conflict of interest.”

Willie Brown Jr. — or rather, his proxy, Ward Bushee — thus becomes the latest prominent not-a-journalist to invoke the “I am not a journalist, and therefore the rules of journalistic ethics do not apply to me” defense.

It started innocently enough. When a Time magazine online pollrevealed that Americans considered Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” as “America’s most trusted newscaster,” Stewart quickly hoisted the garlic and wolfbane. “I’m not a journalist,” the comedian said. “I don’t want to be a journalist.”

But then people began invoking the “I’m not a journalist” defense when accused of actions or behaviors that appeared to violate traditional rules of journalistic ethics.

“I am not a journalist, I’m an opinion guy,” said Glenn Beck, who until this summer was employed by Fox News. This may not come as a shock to some readers, but the fact that it’s called Fox News, and that its motto is “We report, you decide,” does not mean that newscasters are journalists.

“I’m not a journalist,”said Greg Mortenson, when someone pointed out that his nonfiction best-seller, “Three Cups of Tea,” had about two cups worth of fiction in it.

“You know I’m not a journalist, I’m a columnist and a commentator and working on being a media personality,” said Meghan McCain, a columnist for The Daily Beast.

“Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?” The New York Times columnist David Pogue said. “Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?….I am not a reporter. I’ve never been to journalism school. …. I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career … I try to entertain and inform.”

“I am not a journalist,” Michael Arrington said when several rival publications questioned the ethics of being a tech investor while the tech news site he founded, TechCrunch, covered the same companies.

In Arrington’s case, as with Willie Brown’s and David Pogue’s cases, the boss came to his defense. TechCrunch is owned by AOL, and AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, said: “TechCrunch is a different property and they have different standards. We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch, which is different but is transparent about it.”

Which is basically what Ward Bushee of The San Francisco Chronicle says about Willie Brown’s exemption from traditional journalistic codes of conduct. Mr. Brown is not a journalist, therefore he is not subject to the same rules that other Chronicle writers must obey.

And it’s not that the Chronicle has a zero-tolerance policy even for official journalists. This from The San Francisco Chronicle‘s ethics policy:

“Perfection is seldom possible amid the rush of daily deadlines, but it is possible to set our sights high. The following guidelines are offered in that spirit and are intended to be altered and amended to suit specific circumstances.”

I guess that clears it up.

Here’s what I think:

The need for quality journalism is growing. To save money, newspapers are replacing trained staff journalists with freelancers, contract writers and rookies. As their dependence on these “outside” writers increases, newspapers need to strengthen, not weaken, the rules of ethical reporting. Newspapers are also laying off editors, and the editors who remain are often too taxed with other responsibilities to thoroughly vet the temporary writers for ethical adherence.

The American public’s trust in newspapers is eroding, and the “I am not a journalist, although I play one on TV and in the newspapers” defense is one reason why.

By the way, the latest entertainer to deny accusations that he is a journalist is The Onion‘s Baratunde Thurston.

When asked if journalists need to be funnier to get their information across, Thurston said: “I’m a satirist, not a journalist. We’re not trying to be journalists at The Onion. Court jesters can get away with more.”


The “I never went to journalism school” argument is another way of saying “I never thought much about the journalist’s code of ethics.”

Please indulge me while I pay homage to five guys — my journalism professors — who would kick my ass if I ever hired someone for a news job and told them, “The normal rules of ethics do not apply to you.” (Bremner is dead, but I guarantee you he’d find a way to kick my ass anyway

JOHN BREMNER (1920-1987)
JOHN BREMNER (1920-1987)