Who Are Your Favorite Faux-Journalists?
Mediabistro's blog on New York media, Fishbowl NYC, has an interesting post about fake journalists, comparing the qualities of Lou Grant (the show which made me enter the journalism profession, by the way) to Eight is Enough's Tom Bradford and the classic comic reporter Brenda Starr.
But I've been thinking more these days about faux-journalists. These are guys who cloak their shtick in the guise of journalism, assuming the gravitas and believability of journalists, while peddling a curious mix of activism, opinion and often, pandering.
On the right, the most obvious example is Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly. Despite the fact that he hosts a nightly opinion show in which he has invented a War on Christmas and suggested my employer was "in the tank" to see a child molester freed, O'Reilly consistently scores high in polls to find the mosty admired journalists. (to be fair, I should note that the St. Petersburg Times has made O'Reilly's own Nixonian Hall of Shame list of media outlets "which regularly help distribute defamatory, false and non-newsworthy information" and his list of "media outlets soft on child predators")
On the more progressive tip is someone like Tavis Smiley, who has written books, hosted political debates, a talk show and a radio show, but resist efforts to categorize him as a journalist. As my friend Richard Prince noted on his Web site Journal-isms: "Tavis Smiley is sometimes called a journalist, though he creates news events and accepted a Chrysler automobile from a sponsor. In 2004, asked to clarify his role, his publicist, Joel Brokaw, told Journal-isms, "Mr. Smiley is not a journalist by training or profession, nor does he refer to himself by that title. Mr. Smiley is a television and radio talk show host, commentator, author, public speaker and activist."
Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears featured a quote on his blog in which Smiley referred to hismelf as a journalist. Brokaw responded with this, according to Journal-isms: "Mr. Smiley said that Mr. Fears was referring to him as a journalist in their conversation. As a teacher of English as a second language in Europe many years ago and a good speaker of foreign languages, I learned that we naturally look to use as few words as possible in conversation, our own form of spoken shorthand. So, for Mr. Fears, it was easier to lump all the roles Mr. Smiley does in that one word."
Riiight. I think, for O'Reilly and Smiley there is a simpler explanation. When they want the authority of journalism, they assume its trappings. But when they want to do something at odds with journalism's professional values -- like indulge conflicts of interest or avoid correcting obvious mistakes - then all of a sudden, they're not journalists, anymore.
Depending on your definition of journalist, there are lots of folks out there who could qualify for faux-status: CNN's Lou Dobbs cloaking his xenophobic anti-immigration patter in the veneer of news programming; Nancy Grace's shameless pandering to fearful viewers by focusing on sensational crime stories; Rush Limbaugh's daily anti-liberal rants, etc.
It's a shtick old as the hills. But at a time where there's more information than ever before available from more sources than ever before, maybe we should all think a bit more about who exactly in giving us our information, and whether they deserve the kind of journalistic credibility these figuresa so often seem to crave.