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Ever since he came on the scene, I've been a big fan of Seattle Times baseball writer Geoff Baker. He's a great beat reporter, and just as important in this day and age, he gets the new media landscape. He writes an excellent blog. He engages his readers and is down with the local baseball blogosphere. He's tireless and was born to do what he does.
Today Baker posted his thoughts about a recent controversy involving former Seattle Mariner Raul Ibanez and Jerod Morris, a blogger elsewhere who, offering statistical analysis but no other evidence, has implied that perhaps Ibanez's improved recent performance is due to something other than his own hard work. In his own blog post, Baker rips Morris a new one, without naming him, and suggests that it's time for non-professional journalists to get some training and learn to look their subjects in the eye when writing critically of them. This is where Baker loses me. There's a certain lack of nuance to this analysis, much as I respect his baseball coverage.
Anyone can be a journalist in this country. The First Amendment guarantees it. There is no training required. No license. And there shouldn't be.
True, as Baker points out, Major League Baseball, like any private entity, can choose to not credential people as they wish. And the practice of journalism as a profession, enabled by free enterprise and institutionalized by newspapers and other news outlets, is entrenched with all the good and bad implications of that. But in the wider realm, journalism is not defined by labels or background or training or employment. It's a right anyone can exercise, even from prison.
There is, of course, a cost to this open American standard. We must take the good with the bad. Some people will be irresponsible. There is recourse when someone practices bad journalism — sue them, speak out against them (as Ibanez has done, forcefully), whatever. But in the U.S., there are no limits in advance of that free expression. There shouldn't be.
As a 30-year pro journalist myself, I abhor sloppy and imprecise journalism like the next person. But bloggers aren't the first to practice bad journalism any more than they are the first to do good journalism, as some have. Training does not make you responsible. Peer approval does not make you responsible. Method of dissemination does not make you responsible. Those are all arbitrary definitions that are transcended by the First Amendment.
As he makes clear in his blog posting, Baker has chosen to live by certain standards, and that's great. But his notions that there should be training or that you must be willing to look someone in the eye are arbitrary and conflict with the purest value of all: Anyone can be a journalist, whether they have been trained or not, or are courageous or not. We Americans prefer that standard to those of other countries, where expression by citizens is subject to widely varying degrees of freedom.