On The Necessity Of Independent Citizen Journalists

In a recent article, Warner Todd Huston (#justablogger) took Leonard Pitts (#arealjournalist) to task for criticizing Sarah Palin at the 2012 Right Online Conference:

Apparently someone mentioned to Mr. Pitts that Governor Palin, who he thinks is a “silly” person, mentioned his profession at this year’s Right Online event. During her remarks at the weekend, planned in part to celebrate the life and work of conservative Internet giant Andrew Breitbart, Palin said, “Every citizen can be a reporter.”

Pitts doesn’t think that any old citizen journalist, or any just-a-blogger, can do what he does. In fact, he thinks they won’t. Why won’t they? Because only journalists are brave and fearless enough to tackle the job. To prove that, Pitts regales us with derring-do tales from the reporters of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who were brave enough to get their feet wet during the city’s 2005 swamping during Hurricane Katrina.

They bravely stayed longer than others to report the news of the hurricane, Pitts sonorously informed us. He also said that one reporter he knows “rushed toward the destruction in New York City on 9/11.” Others went to Haiti to report from the rubble of the earthquake-ravaged countryside. Then there are those that go to “council meetings, pore over the budgets, decipher the court rulings” to get the news out.

But, he says:

Will “citizen reporters” replace that function?

Will they have the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire to do so?


This article got me to thinking about the very concept of the independent citizen journalist.

Never mind that Governor Palin was merely quoting and celebrating the life of Andrew Breitbart, and was only chosen as a target because she’s Sarah Palin, the Left’s favorite target. And never mind the dog whistle he just blew when he mentioned Hurricane Katrina (because after all, SOMETHING must be Bush’s fault in this narrative). Let’s examine the patently ridiculous idea that any reporter these days is poring over a city’s budget. In fact, these days there are far more PR workers than reporters in the United states. In an article titled, “PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms“, ProPublica and the Columbia Journalism Review share some startling statistics about the state of journalism across the country:

In their recent book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols tracked the number of people working in journalism since 1980 and compared it to the numbers for public relations. Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they found that the number of journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed.

The researcher who worked with McChesney and Nichols, R. Jamil Jonna, used census data to track revenues at public relations agencies between 1997 and 2007. He found that revenues went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion. Over the same period, paid employees at the agencies went from 38,735 to 50,499, a healthy 30 percent growth in jobs. And those figures include only independent public relations agencies — they don’t include PR people who work for big companies, lobbying outfits, advertising agencies, non-profits, or government.

Traditional journalism, of course, has been headed in the opposite direction. The Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper advertising revenue dropped from an all-time high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009. That’s right — more than half. A lot of that loss is due to the recession. But even the most upbeat news executive has to admit that many of those dollars are not coming back soon. Six major newspaper companies have sought bankruptcy protection in recent years.

Less money means fewer reporters and editors. The American Society of News Editors found the number of newspaper reporters and editors hit a high of 56,900 in 1990. By 2011, the numbers had dropped to 41,600. Much of that loss has occurred since 2007. Network news did not fare any better — the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that employment there is less than half of what it was in the peak period of the 1980s.

It’s no wonder, then, that criticism is mounting that newspapers exist solely to reproduce press releases. As the Communications Coordinator of the Oregon Tea Party PAC, I well remember the press release that I personally sent in advance of the 2011 Tax Day Tea Party Rally that was reproduced word for word by a local newspaper.

No phone call for further comment. No request for additional detail.

No words in the article that weren’t written by me.

What I find even more interesting than the raw statistics and the demonstrably declining craft of journalism is the philosophical need for truly independent reporters. Mind you, I deliberatly make the distinction between independent and unbiased. Most bloggers, like reporters, have a bias, but bloggers typically make no efforts to disguise it. This makes even the leftie blogges more honest than legacy journalists. All too often these days, “real journalists” still cling to their claims that they lack any bias whatsoever. After all, they have a Journalism degree that says so.


This is clearly and demonstrably false. There’s a reason that conservatives refer to the Mainstream Media as “state run media”.

According to the Media Research Center, journalists are far more likely to be registered Democrat, to vote Democrat, to admit and paradoxically to hide their liberal bias. Public polls routinely show that viewers consider news coverage to be far to liberal (politically speaking). Liberal bias in the news manifests itself in two ways – by a leftist bent in the writing and reporting, and in selection bias – which stories are covered, and which stories are ignored.

But it’s even more than mere bias. There is proven coordination of the talking points and stories that are approved for coverage with government officials and Democrat operatives. Remember the Journolist scandal? This type of coordination with political campaigns is rampant, and is the direct result of the perceived laziness of the reporting world. It is a well known maxim among organizations that wish to garner press coverage that you pretty much have to write the article for the reporter, because of the aforementioned reduction in staff and the decline of revenue that media outlets suffer.

I have often opined that newspapers and legacy media outlets would not be in such dire financial straits today if they would reverse this trend and cover stories from both sides. Admit that a bias is endemic in each individual reporter. Cover stories that appeal to the right, with conservative reporters, not just from the left with leftist talking points. Allow for the free exchange of ALL ideas. This would, in my view, instantly revive the newspaper industry. After all, look at what it’s done for Fox News.

This state of affairs – a weak industry dominated by one philosophical viewpoint – gives the Left an automatic advantage in controlling the media, which in turn lends legitimacy to the label of state-run media.

And this is what really sticks in my craw. No matter what side you’re on, most people this side of Bill Ayers agree that a free press and the democratization of information is necessary, and a cornerstone of our republic. In fact, freedom of the press is one of the struggles that led to our Revolution:

The defense of John Peter Zenger against libel charges in 1735 is often seen as the cornerstone of American press freedom. After the American Revolution, several states provided for freedom of the press, and the First Amendment (1791) to the U.S. Constitution declared that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”

The rise of bloggers has been fueled by the charges of a state-run media. This type of approved messaging to partially inform the public of what is convenient to the state is anathema to a free people. Free press, along with free speech and freedom of religion, are so important that they are protected in the very first amendment to our Constitution. Indeed, outside of the 2nd Amendment, this might very well be the only part of the Constitution that many people remember. Thomas Paine famously used alternate media to spread a rather effective message. The idea of democratizing information and empowering freedom in the people was enshrined in Ben Franklin’s invention of the public library. Our Founders were all about a truly free press without governmental approval. When in the history of humanity have so many pains been taken by any society to empower a people with free and open access to all information?

Or, as Sarah Palin said in quoting Andrew Breitbart, “You are all reporters now.”