Who’s A Journalist? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Every few months, media critics get themselves all in a twist over the single most overblown issue in contemporary journalism.

Apparently, we haven’t heard the last of the tired debate, “Are bloggers journalists?” It seems that every few months, in casting about for something to write, media critics get themselves all in a twist over this question when in fact it just might be the single most overblown issue in contemporary journalism.

The latest firestorm began last week when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Debra J. Saunders wrote a column in which she said that blogger Josh Wolf, who has been in prison for over five months refusing to turn over video he shot of a protest in San Francisco, is “not a journalist.”

Instead, she says, Wolf “is a blogger with an agenda and a camera, who…does not work for a news organization. He does not answer to editors who fact check.”

She’s right on all counts, but still fundamentally wrong. Wolf undoubtedly has an agenda, however lame: covering the painfully idiotic anarchist movement. But Charles Krauthammer and Nick Kristof and Bill Kristol all have agendas, too, yet they’re considered journalists. As far as we know, he doesn’t have an editor, although he did sell video footage of the protest to a local TV news station, for which we assume he was both edited and received a paycheck, which sounds suspiciously like something a freelance journalist would do.

But Saunders’ argument, which makes sense while never managing to rise to the level of being truly persuasive, has done what all columns like hers do — it brought out the long knives of other media critics, to sometimes-silly effect.

Mark A. Phillips, a blogger and media consultant,shot back at Saunders with the now-familiar argument that anyone who comments on the news is a journalist, but loses the thread toward the end of his argument when he says that “someone with a camera phone in the right place at the right time who is witness to an incredible event can do the work of a journalist.”

On the most simplistic level this is true, but the emphasis should be on the phrase, “can do the work of a journalist.” In theory they can (or at least can try to), but that doesn’t mean that they will (or that they will do it well if they try). In Wolf’s case, since he planned to cover the protest, and sold some footage to a news organization, we would say that his case rises to the level of journalism.

But this can be taken too far, as witnessed by the comments of the Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch. In defending Wolf yesterday, Bunch wrote that Wolf “is more of a journalist than the Pulitzer Prize-winning Judy Miller,” since Miller “got caught up in a conspiracy not to protect the public’s right to know…but to thwart that right, by seeking to destroy whistleblower Joe Wilson and his family.”

While many things have been said about the Libby trial and Judy Miller’s fall from grace, this ranks right up there with one of the most ridiculous. Wolf is in no way “more of a journalist” than the Pulitzer prize-winning Miller, who made the career-ending error of shilling for dubious sources without corroboration concerning Iraqi WMD before the war. It was bad, dangerous, and harmful journalism, but to argue that Wolf is somehow more qualified to report the news than Miller is the kind of stuff that makes us spit coffee on the computer screen. What’s more, Miller in no way was “seeking to destroy whistleblower Joe Wilson and his family.” That’s just nuts. Miller never wrote a story about Wilson, though “Scooter” Libby did tell her about Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA.

Bunch may want to go back and read up on the case, since he seems a little hazy about the details, specifically regarding Miller’s involvement.

To tie all of this together, it’s helpful to look at some quotes about Wolf that Howard Kurtz collected yesterday in his column. Kurtz quotes Martin Garbus, Wolf’s attorney, thus: “I would define a journalist as someone who brings news to the public.” On the other hand, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said in a court filing that Wolf needs “to come to grips with the fact that he was simply a person with a video camera who happened to record some public events.”

And that’s the crux of it. Was Wolf bringing news to the public, or was he “simply” someone who happened to capture some images on film? We would argue the former, since, as we said, he went to the protest with the intention of filming it, and afterward sold the tape to a news organization.

But in the end, all this back and forth about who is — or isn’t — a journalist is tiresome. When all is said and done, just like in any other field, the talented will rise to the top, and the pretenders will fall by the wayside. And that’s all that really needs to be said.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.