Britain asks: Who’s a journalist? What’s on second? I don’t know, third base, Fourth Estate

Lou Carlozo September 15, 2021

Journalist (noun): The columnist, posing all smug with his newspaper in a San Francisco cafe. At least it’s further than the UK has gotten in its attempts to define “journalist.”  (Photo: Chris Stacey)

So who is a journalist anyway? I had this question thrust in my face a decade ago while I taught journalism at Loyola University Chicago. We were interviewing a dean candidate for the brand new School of Communications at a swank Italian joint. And as we waited for Dean Wannabe to arrive, I remarked how great it was to get a free meal because no journalist ever turned down a free meal.

Then a reporter-adjunct whose name I can’t recall—maybe it was Mr. Stick Up His Ass—grunted that “Real journalists don’t take free meals.” I looked at his belly. His ample belly. I should say. He’d obviously packed away plenty of free meals, whether on the job or elsewhere. He was also the first seated at the table, right at the head where the mob boss would be. Dig in, pal. Sources have been known to lie. 

So who’s a journalist, then? I can think of two possible replies: laughing until mocha comes out my nose or wondering whether I’ve hit some Existential TED Talk from Hell. Still Britain is trying to work out the answer to that very question. In this case, maybe I should stuff the mocha back up my nose and rethink things. Because this right and timely question calls to mind the lowlifes who use a faked-out LinkedIn shingle and a social media following to claim the title. Here’s an excerpt from an Aug. 26 Politico article that frames the debate:

Amid a growing chorus of concern over the impact a social media platform crackdown could have on freedom of expression, U.K. Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden vowed to place “a protective bubble around journalistic and ‘democratically important’ content” in his upcoming Online Safety Bill.

 

Yet here’s the rub, which calls to mind a li’l ol’ Yankee thang known as the First Amendment. The bill, if poorly constructed and executed, “could have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression,” as tech leaders see it. 

The Online Safety Dance

Forget that any journalist trying to define a journalist might find themselves embarking on a four-part, rabbit-hole series where no actual journalists get interviewed—conflict of interest, ya know—but plenty of eggheads do.

What’s at issue over in the U.K. is whether any regulatory body can indeed shield internet users from harmful content. Lately, I’ve seen tons of that here and I haven’t a clue how we’d police it. Just look at all the conservative radio bozos, who after months of spreading mistruths and lies about COVID vaccines and mask wearing, have gotten sick and died. Who knows how many rube listeners and readers they’ve taken with them in the process? If hell has a country club for such people, memberships are running out fast.

I can’t think of a better case—real world and in your face—for placing “a protective bubble around journalistic content,” as Dowden calls it. First-grade monkey fables about QAnon merely make people look dumb. Vaccine lies on social media disseminated by fake Fourth Estaters costs lives.

An opinion on op-ed Svengalis

And so we have another issue I don’t think Britain’s draft law can address in its present form. Thanks to the likes of Fox News, a pioneer in the concept, the lines between opinion and information have been erased. Commentators who spout fabrications about the invalidity of elections, the use of fetal tissue in vaccines or any such nonsense can get away with it by and large. 

You and I know, they know, they’re not journalists. But the masses-are-asses types don’t. Remember when Walter Cronkite of CBS News was the most trusted man in America? These days, unfortunately and for too many, it’s the prevaricating likes of Tucker Carlson, the highest rated “news show” host in the nation.

Just because the debate will be messy doesn’t mean British officials and tech executives, along with the rest of us, shouldn’t have it. Tech entities have asked for more definition as to who these journalists are they must protect. Crackdowns on Big Tech are long overdue, as anyone knows who watched Mark Zuckerberg hand the 2016 election to Cambridge Analytica. In fact, it’s the rare issue where conservatives and liberals in America actually seem to agree. 

What’s more, Big Tech has had a non-existent record of policing itself unless the crimes against humanity are beyond obvious. But if the British government is asking “Who’s a journalist?” then the techies have the right to fire the question right back at them. I mean, what? Do you show your J school degree at the door? I sure as hell don’t have one. Apply for a license at the local Division of Motor Vehicles? … Or maybe I can submit the photo of myself that dis-graces this piece. To whom, I don’t know. But I’m assuming they’d be a journalist. If we can figure out who a journalist is. 

A place to start: Who isn’t a journalist

While it could rival the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota as complexities go, we can at least start by exclusion: figuring out the folks who impersonate journalists as a guise to spread lies. Twitter, in evidence presented to the British House of Lords, noted how it has suspended accounts for “Hateful Content.” I would add dangerous content to this, as per my COVID vaccine examples above. Again, I contend we must ask: How many people have died because they listened to a dubious source of information who posed as a reliable “journalist”? Can we protect people from their own gullibility? Definitely not. But standing here and doing absolutely nothing seems like a cop out.  

Meanwhile, I’m going to stick to my own self-styled definition of journalist. If you know where the free meal is, count me in. I believe the expression I learned at Philadelphia’s Pen and Pencil Club as a young buck was, “You’re treatin’? I’m eatin’!” 

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are by a journalist. Really. Email lou@qwoted.com or connect on LinkedIn.