Thursday, July 19, 2012


I've been thinking about the value of journalists vs. columnists, sparked by a number of outrages and incidents over the past few months. I've been studying journalism for close to 20 years now (e.g. I wrote my senior thesis on the subject after studying with Roger Mudd) and I believe strongly in the 1st Amendment, a free press (sorry: A Free Press), and the need to keep tabs on government & unregulated business, and generally to be the voice of the populace.

Sadly, as I've pointed out often the commercialization of the press has brought down this mighty tool. And while I agree that we're actually living through a great age of information, there is something fundamentally flawed with a press who needs to be interested in sales as opposed to their Constitutionally protected and necessary role. Especially since all the journalists I read and know all believe that what they do is 'speak truth to power' or something like it.

That's why it's key to distinguish between a reporter and a columnist. Both could be under the category of 'journalist', but a reporter appears to still be the role for the fact-gatherer. The columnist is the opinion spewer. And what is clear is that they operate under different grundnorms.

The reporter is an academic-lite - both fields are ostensibly about amassing expertise, knowledge, facts and then publishing (reporting) them. Reporters are held to a lower level of book knowledge but they are to make up for it with street knowledge and with speed. The grundnorm is both cases is the desire for fact. This ability to acquire and publish fact is the real freedom of the American system and the keystone of our liberty: the 1st Amendment (which, even more than the text of the Constitution, is the most important contribution to world history).

A columnist, however, is in the politics or entertainment field and their grundnorm, besides the lust for power/money could be the "ethic" of free expression. This is a more recent "ethic" - it's like the 1960s hippie BS mixed with the 1970s+ self-esteem movement. Whatever its source, it is ugly. And that is what I see in the work of most online columnists (and probably those in print, but I almost never read a print newspaper unless its Shabbos and I'm at someone else's house).

Columnists are definitely a scourge of our democracy but, as my vaunted 1st Amendment asserts, I need to protect their rights. But I can still condemn them.

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