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)

The Quiz


At the start of every undergraduate class at Stanford I asked the students to take the following ungraded quiz. How well would you do?

1) The American Civil War was between:

a)  1750 and 1800

b)  1801-1850

c)  1851-1900

d)  1901-1950


2) The purpose of The Federalist Papers was:

a)  to gain ratification of the Constitution.

b)  to assert U.S. rights in the Western Hemisphere

c)  to give reasons for the War of 1812

d)  to line Thomas Jefferson’s birdcage


3) The controversy surrounding Senator Joseph McCarthy focused on:

a)  Corruption

b)  Communism

c)  Segregation

d)  Baseball


4) The First World War was between:

a)  1900 and 1909

b)  1910-1919

c)  1920-1929

d)  1930-1939

e)  1940-1949


5) The Renaissance was the period in European history noted for:

a)  cultural and technological advances.

b)  the decline of the system of monarchy

c)  the establishment of the Protestant Church

d)  the decline and fall of the Roman empire


6) The guarantee of freedom of speech and religion is found in:

a)  The Constitution

b)  The Magna Carta

c)  The Federalist Papers

d)  There is no guarantee of freedom of speech and religion


7) Who is credited with saying, “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”?

a)  President George Washington

b)  President Franklin Roosevelt

c)  President John Kennedy

d)  President George W. Bush


8) In its Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court ruled:

a)  segregation is constitutional under “separate but equal”

b)   segregation is unconstitutional

c)   students have rights of free speech

d)   classroom walls must be painted puke green


9) Which document includes the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”?

a)  The Federalist Papers

b)  The Constitution

c)  The Bill of Rights

d)  The Declaration of Independence


10) Japanese-Americans were forced into relocation camps during:

a)  World War I

b)   World War II

c)  the Korean Conflict

d)  the Viet Nam War


11) When did Christopher Columbus sail for the New World?

a)  Before 1500

b)  1501-1599

c)  1600-1699

d)  1700-1799


12) The Watergate investigations resulted in:

a)  the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew

b)   the resignation of President Richard Nixon

c)  the resignation of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein

d)  the movie “Deep Throat”


13) Adolf Hitler was:

a)  a German arms dealer in World War II

b)   the Chancellor of Germany

c)  the King of Germany

d)  all of the above


14) The first permanent English colony in North America was established at:

a)  Plymouth, MA

b)  St. Petersburg, FL

c)  Jamestown, VA

d)  New York City, NY


15) The commander of the American army in the Revolutionary War was:

a)  Paul Revere

b)  Benedict Arnold

c)  George Washington

d)  John Paul Jones


16) The idea that each branch of the federal government should keep the other branches from becoming too strong is called:

a)  checks and balances

b)  checks and credit cards

c)  mutual assured destruction

d)  separate but equal


17) The major enemies of the United States during the Second World War were:

a)  Canada and Mexico

b)  China and the Soviet Union

c)  Germany and Japan

d)   France and England


18) Who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation?

a)  Thomas Jefferson

b)  Harriet Beecher Stowe

c)  Abraham Lincoln

d)  Ulysses S. Emancipation


19) Plato and Aristotle were:

a)  Roman emperors

b)  Greek philosophers

c)  Egyptian kings

d)  the guys who ran a coffee shop on University Avenue


20) The primary author of the Declaration of Independence was:

a)  John Hancock

b)  John Adams

c)  Thomas Jefferson

d)  Benjamin Franklin


21) The United States entered into the Second World War immediately after:

a)  The sinking of the Lusitania

b)  The invasion of Poland

c)  The bombing of Pearl Harbor

d)  The attack on the World Trade Center


Questions 22-30: Write the number of the country in the proper map position.

22 Libya

23 Iran

24 Iraq

25 Egypt

26 Pakistan

27 Syria

28 Yemen

29 Saudi Arabia

30 Afghanistan


How did you do?

Click here for the answers.

The Novel

It Was (and Is, and Will Continue to Be) a Dark and Stormy Month

This is a blog. This is also National Novel Writing Month. And this is a warning that your blogger will be blogging less often this month as a result of his commitment to write 50,000 words of his novel in 30 years days.

Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wilkie Collins, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other literary luminaries would have been able to blog and compose novels simultaneously; they were masters of the serial novel. Tom Wolfe (“Bonfire of the Vanities” in Rolling Stone) and Stephen King (“The Green Mile”) are contemporaries who also embraced the form. Heck, more than a few wackos have even tweeted their novels. There’s even some guy who blogs about writing a novel in Twitter (podcast at 10!).

Stay tuned for Chapter One of [INSERT TITLE OF THRILLER HERE].