Sentinel under Siege: The Triumphs and Troubles of America's Free Press

By Stanley E. Flink | Go to book overview

17
THE IS AND THE OUGHT

I think the popular impression would be that the bottom line guy, the guy in the green eye shade, comes down from some business floor and says to the editor, "You'd better not run this story, or you'd better run that story to please advertisers."

-- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek editor, columnist, and media critic

The attributes of a calling are difficult to define; even more so are its requirements. The word itself has evangelical, mystical undertones. Some journalism teachers describe journalism as a craft with professional responsibilities. Because the publishers, editors, and reporters who earned their living on newspapers in the preelectronic era of the media had no defined qualifications, no entrance exams or organized scholarly training, the designation as a profession was never formalized. It was and is impossible to define by consensus a body of knowledge aspiring journalists should study as an entrance qualification. Medicine, law, engineering, and theology have such qualifications, rightfully claim professional status, and, more often than not, require a license to practice.

For the first century and a half of U.S. history, anyone could be a newspaper publisher, editor, or reporter. It was a condition achieved by self-appointment. Compensation admittedly was more likely to depend on others, including the readers, but the regulatory aspect commonly experienced by the traditional professions was not an issue. The restraints imposed by libel actions, public opinion (violent or not), or even the ill-conceived sedition laws were not directed to the press exclusively, as were specific regulations affecting the behavior of lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Because no prior restraints were allowed by the Constitution, the opportunity and need for self-regulation became a concern of the press and more certainly of its critics. In one sense the achievement of a state of grace seemed more alluring for journalists who might choose to pursue it than for the licensed profes

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