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Don't you dare call me a journalist


We who blog have generally been seen by the mainstream press as having a chip on our collective shoulders. We think the work we do qualifies us as bona fide journalists, and we are not happy when we are not acknowledged as such. Much effort has been expended, by bloggers across the political spectrum, to equate our work with what the big boys and girls do. If the Fourth Estate is a club, bloggers want in.


Well, screw that. I am proud of what I do, and want my work to be read and taken seriously. But include me out of the journalism club.

There is a great line in Zach Braff’s 2004 film “Garden State.” He says that a family is “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When bloggers say they want to be journalists, they are doing the same thing.

The Platonic form of journalism – Edward R. Murrow taking on Joseph McCarthy, Walter Cronkite taking on Lyndon Johnson after the Tet Offensive, Woodward and Bernstein taking on Nixon – is today a fantasy unrecognizable in the flickering phosphors on the walls of our contemporary caves. Perhaps journalists once took risks in order to share dangerous truths with readers and viewers, but that time seems to have passed into history. What passes for journalism in Washington and New York today is in large measure as corrupt and despicable as the subjects it glosses.

The most egregious, and at long last acknowledged, example of journalism as epithet is of course Judith Miller, (formerly?) of the New York Times. Her steadfast refusal to come clean about her involvement in the Traitorgate affair marks her with at least one of two fatal flaws: she could be a dupe; she could be a conspirator. Or she could be both. But the way her colleagues continue to circle the wagons around her proves that she is not “outside the mainstream,” but an exemplar of contemporary journalism.

The Society of Professional Journalists gave Judith Miller its “First Amendment Award,” and a standing ovation – both of which occurred after the belated denouement in the Times. For these cheerleaders of her self-promotion, journalism is clearly no longer about following the truth where it leads or afflicting the comfortable. When journalists cheer a woman who refused to cooperate with or turn over her notes to reporters from her own newspaper, it is clear that the residents of the Fourth Estate are concerned primarily with preserving their co-dependency with the other three.

Judith Miller has likely worked herself out of the club: as more of her profound ethical breaches become public, I assume she will eventually become radioactive even to the credulous First Amendment hawks who bought her pig-in-a-poke First Amendment fantasy. But the Washington beat remains a miasma of hypocrisy and putrefaction. And perhaps the most toxic of the ethical Superfund sites is General Electric-owned NBC.

General Electric is a huge conglomerate. I’m sure the folks in the news room will insist that they are free to follow their stories wherever they lead. But do you really believe that anyone who works for a company that expects more than $3 billion in revenue from rebuilding Iraq is going to be fearless about biting the hand that feeds it? Flash Occam’s Razor in a confrontation with Tim Russert and Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell and Pete Williams and tell me what explanation best fits the data. There is room to speculate about the motives behind their dereliction: simple cowardice could also explain some of their actions. Maybe laziness explains most of the rest. But consider this: Russert defends the exchange with Libby detailed in Libby’s indictment as a call in which Libby complained about how the network had covered Libby – a complaint Russert says he passed directly to the president of NBC News. What Russert did may be an appropriate response at People Magazine, but here betrays dangerous levels of dysfunctional symbiosis.

And Russert’s weekly kabuki theater, in which he failed for two years to so much as acknowledge his own role in the underlying scandal he discussed? Russert defends by saying that Fitzgerald asked him to remain silent. But Fitzgerald’s white hat does not change the fact that Russert yet again considered himself more beholden to his subjects than to his audience. So pick your poison: pretend to report a story without disclosing your own role in it, or pretend to report on government while doing billions of dollars in business with it. You will find both sins almost everywhere you look at NBC.

(I consider outlier Keith Olbermann to be a blogger who happens to have a TV show. And please note that his show seems to be barely tolerated by his corporate masters who, lest we forget, already pulled the plug on Donahue.)

NBC is not alone, of course, in its malfeasance. The folks at Time magazine who sat on the explosive story it had about White House lies concerning Rove’s leaking to Matt Cooper – precisely because the story could have turned the election – surely they call themselves journalists. The shot-callers at CBS who repeatedly yanked the still-unseen 60 Minutes story about the forged Niger yellow cake documents during the same time frame – I’m sure they are journalists, too. And Bob Woodward – elevated into the pantheon by his Watergate work, now utterly addicted to the quo(tes) that his sycophantic books transform into quid, shamelessly shilling for his source – a journalist through and through.

What we do is different. When it comes down to it, the raison d’etre of blogging is the dissemination of information. Most of us make little or nothing from our efforts; we just want our truths to be heard. That used to be first principle of journalism, but today it is not. The pathetic, conflicted coverage of the Plame case proves it. Journalism is now more about gilt than guilt; it is an object lesson in the ease with which the powerful can co-opt the ambitious.

Perhaps the most repugnant thing to come out of Fitzgerald’s investigation, and the most damning indictment of today’s journalism is this: we now know that smart and experienced senior White House officials banked their entire criminal enterprise on their certainty that journalists would protect them by strenuously resisting the efforts of the special prosecutor to pull their toothless gums from the teat of easy access. That is what journalism has become.

If what Judith Miller and the New York Times and CBS and Time and NBC did is journalism, if what Tim Russert and Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell and Robert Novak continue to do is journalism, then I want no part of it. I find far more honor in the term “blogger” than in the charred, empty husk of the word “journalist.”

So call me a blogger, please. Journalists turn my stomach.

John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @


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