A license to be a journalist? No way

By Ron Leir

James Bond, it is said, had a license to kill as a fictional British secret agent.

Since Bond existed only in the mind of his creator, Ian Fleming, he did his killing in a fantasy world in which we – as spectators – willingly suspended our disbelief.

Me? I’m a journalist and I don’t have a license, though some might say I can commit murder on prose.

Maybe I should suspend my disbelief.

But I deal in the real world where I do my best to grasp how local government functions and why its minions operate the way they do.

The way I see it, that’s a pretty big responsibility and I try to take it seriously.

But I didn’t get any special training to measure the performance of bureaucrats or the experts in a variety of fields, whether that be running a town, assessing a property, fighting a fire or replacing a water main.

I have to rely on the “professionals” to lay that out for me and then it’s up to me to take it from there, do my own research, find a neutral source to help evaluate the situation and try to tell the reader what’s happening without injecting my opinion, just by laying out the facts.

Not so easy.

Back in the 1970s, the National Labor Relations Board concluded that journalists could not be classified as “professional” employees, as defined by federal law.

Of course, the NLRB was deploying a very narrow microscope in making its ruling: The issue at hand was whether journalists should be excluded from unions that included non-professionals like clerks and custodians.

Naturally, The Newspaper Guild opposed keeping journalists out of the union because it didn’t want to see its bargaining power eroded as a result.

The NLRB majority rejected the notion that a journalist fit the federal definition of “professional employee” – someone “engaged in work … requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning ….”

Physicians, lawyers, engineers, etc. – yes, they’re the professionals and they have the licenses and certificates to prove it.

Now, an Indiana lawmaker, Rep. Jim Lucas, is sponsoring a bill that would compel the licensing of people who write or broadcast news for a newspaper, magazine, website or TV or radio station.

Like handgun owners, those folks would be subject to background checks and vetted for “character and reputation.”

Lucas told the Indianapolis Star he drafted the proposal in response to what he viewed as biased news coverage and editorials opposing his efforts to move forward legislation to do away with a requirement to apply for permits to carry handguns.

If the media wants to attack citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms, “then the same standards should be applied to them, especially when they misrepresent the truth,” Lucas asserted.

I don’t care to debate the legislator on Constitutional law or gun rights but I certainly want nothing to do with licensing – especially if the government is the one doing the licensing.

What that boils down to is this: If the governor doesn’t like what I’m writing, he/she isn’t likely to grant me a license to report. There are already enough suppressive tactics being used now by governments abroad to close down newspapers and magazines unwilling to toe the official party line.

Mr. Lucas is a Marine veteran – for which he merits respect for his service to his country – but his journalism licensing pitch strikes me as ill-advised at best.

I confess I never went to journalism school to study my trade. Instead, I learned on the job where I was apprenticed to a bunch of savvy editors who knew the way of the world, based on practical experience.

And most of them had seen combat in World War II and/or Korea so they knew what it was to stare death in the face.

Several labored on behalf of the then-formative Newspaper Guild, bravely fighting for workers’ rights while being unfairly branded as “Reds.”

They didn’t need to be vetted or licensed and they knew what questions to ask the people entrusted with the country’s welfare.

These folks lived and breathed the First Amendment and they are the reason I’m still pushing a pen across a notebook, 45 years or so after my rookie assignment and after powerful conglomerates have swallowed up and discarded distinctive local news formats.

But don’t take my word for it. Sam Smith, a veteran newsman who pioneered alternative media out of Washington, D.C., put it this way:

“Journalism has always been a craft – in rare moments – an art – but never a profession. It depends too much on the perception, skill, empathy and honesty of the practitioner rather than on the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills …

“The thing that has saved [journalism] has been the integrity and craft of individual journalists. Preserving that integrity and that craft is not only important to reporters but to everyone, for when reporters become merely agents of an overly powerful profession, democracy loses one of its most important allies, free journalists practicing their craft.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.