Media

Journalists Are Not Heroes

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway speaks to members of the news media at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 16, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
They do their job because they enjoy it, not to benefit society at large.

There’s been a lot of social-media anguish lately about journalists’ losing their jobs. It has not gone entirely unnoticed that journalists seem to be more alarmed by job losses in certain industries than in others, hence “Iowahawk” David Burge’s Twitter jibe, in response to a dolorous mention of layoffs in the media, that “355 job losses is a tragedy, 21 million job losses is a statistic.” (Bonus points for the allusion to a journalist-beloved dictator.)

It could happen to any of us, of course, myself very much included. I readily concede that many if not most if not all of the people laid off by Buzzfeed, Vice, Condé Nast, and (certainly!) The Economist are more talented, harder-working, and better at television/podcasting/pontificating at conferences than I am. The profession of journalism hangs by a thread, and capricious Fates are awfully snippy with the scissors.

Yet journalists are fundamentally misstating what’s going on. Let’s be honest: We’re not heroes. We’re not firefighters. We’re not selfless public servants. Don’t mistake us for a cross-breed of self-flagellating monks and fired-up paramedics. We’re in this game because it’s fun, because of what it does for us, not because we’re saints who defend the defenseless and give a voice to the voiceless. Those of us who are taking down bad guys, digging through court records, and exposing the nefarious doings of men in suits are not doing so primarily to benefit others but because it pleases us. It’s delightful to expose wrongdoing. It gives you the greatest feeling in the world — the glow of self-righteousness. — It wins you awards, it wins you fame, it wins you money. If the public winds up slightly better off, well, that’s a nice added benefit. But picture a world in which crusading journalists are required to work in total anonymity — no bylines, no prizes, no television appearances, no campus speaking tours — and you’re picturing a world in which interest in doing investigative journalism plummets very nearly to zero.

And the group of journalists I’ve described are the tiny minority who come closest to being public servants. The rest of us? City reporters are in it because they love to tear around town. Entertainment reporters are in it because they are beguiled by celebrities and everything they do. Science reporters are fascinated by science, sports reporters are fascinated by sports, gender reporters are fascinated by pronouns. Washington reporters know they can generate national news for 12 hours just by saying something bitchy in a presidential briefing, and if all else fails, they know that millions will mistake them for important people if they gravely intone clichés while standing in front of the White House.

Opinion journalists are in this game because it’s fun to throw down in public with the most rigorous and influential thinkers working today, or even Jonathan Chait. Many among us also think it’s fun to write about a movie we saw. Or we consider it amusing to rip apart public officials in prose. Some of us get to do all three! It’s a glorious trade, I couldn’t be more delighted with my lot than if I were hired to be a wine taster/bouncy-castle correspondent. I haven’t had a real job since I was a paralegal in the early 1990s. I worked at a Park Avenue law firm and I wore a suit every day. All the lawyers talked about was how much they hated their jobs and how big a mistake it would be for me to go to law school.

What I’m getting at is that we journalists are among the tiny minority of Americans who essentially get paid to do our hobbies. Who else enjoys such a splendid privilege? Athletes and artists, of course. Auto mechanics, maybe. Some of the software coders. The guys in the stereo shop seem to be having a good time. But the majority of Americans are bored by their jobs. Dermatologists don’t spend their free time looking at zits. Accountants don’t love double-entry bookkeeping. Lawyers who are off-duty don’t hit the legal books, they call up suicide-prevention hotlines.

I see a lot of grousing on Twitter in which journalists point to the latest round of layoffs and insist that their employers should provide more job security and/or be more respectful of their staffers’ work because “the pay is s***.” It’s odd that people known to be very highly paid sometimes say this, but it’s also not particularly true in general. If you know yourself to be worth more than your salary, why are you doing what you’re doing? Obviously journalism can’t both be a grueling public-service job (like working at the DMV) and be poorly paid, or nobody would want to do it. (Which would drive wages up.) Instead, young people in possession of the fanciest college degrees are banging on the doors of Buzzfeed’s HR department begging to be allowed in.

Are there many professions in which experienced, highly paid people are given the chop and replaced by 24-year-olds? Such has been the state of the journalism industry for at least 25 years. If people with no experience are able to do it, the takeaway for me is that journalism is . . . not that hard to do. People who have no particularly useful knowledge or world-improving skills often manage to do remarkably well (say I, as I look in the mirror).

So: Journalism isn’t that hard. We are lavished with compensation in the forms of fun, public recognition, television appearances, proximity to famous people, and other perks unknown to most of our neighbors, and given that many of the outlets we work for lose money, if anything, our pay packets are generous. “Woe is me” is an understandable sentiment in the profession, but it should be leavened with a touch of “What a lucky tribe we are!”

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