Who is a journalist? Could it be someone who works for the agrochemical and biotech giant Monsanto? The Missouri-based company currently has a job opening for what it’s calling a “Corporate Web Journalist,” whose duties would include “helping multiple stakeholders understand and advocate for modern agriculture.”
The title notwithstanding, everything else in the job description seems to call for a marketing or communications specialist whose core responsibilities amount to writing and producing informational material about the company and its business interests — presumably in a manner that reflects well on Monsanto. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it surely offers better pay than the average newspaper. But would the successful candidate really be taking a job as journalist? Again, who is a journalist?
It’s a question that has long dogged the profession (such that it can be defined) and animated the courts — and it’s one that has become only more complex in the digital age. The advent of blogging, for example, eventually gave rise to intense legal haggling over whether or not independent bloggers are journalists. That might seem like a naïve and somewhat trite question in 2017, but it was only a few years ago that a defamation case wrestled with this very question.
“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story,” Ninth District Court Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote in 2014 in deciding that case.
In other words, the courts have traditionally demurred when it comes to defining who is a journalist and who is not, and for the most part, this has worked well. Complications and confusion may be inevitable when anyone is technically a journalist, simply by virtue of saying so, but the alternative is a slippery slope. “Once a ‘journalist’ is defined, then before long the government might start raising the idea of licensing journalists,” the Society of Professional Journalists notes, “which can lead to a form of censorship that is found in other countries.”
And so the definition has remained loose — and grows ever looser. Today, organizations like The Gateway Pundit enjoy White House press access alongside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Last month, The Washington Post reported that the pool reporter assigned to cover Vice President Pence — “that is, the reporter who supplied details about Pence’s daily activities as proxy for the rest of the press corps — was an employee of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.”
Are all of these folks journalists? That’s a question that will divide many Americans as surely as the presidency of Donald J. Trump itself.
But how about a journalist for Monsanto? What sorts of questions would he or she ask the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, or representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture? If scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about the impact of one of Monsanto’s agricultural chemical products on public health, would the company’s journalist report it? What if the concern was over the product of a competitor?