Show Me Your License, Ma'am! Michigan Senator Only Wants Legit Journalists

Reporter's Notebook from  Jim Higgins Milwauke...
Image by gruntzooki via Flickr

Good luck with that! Michigan state senator Bruce Patterson thinks we should have a piece of paper to prove our bona fides.


The law would require license applicants to possess, among other things: 1) “Good moral character”; 2) a degree in journalism; and 3) three writing samples. In our experience, those first two “qualifications” are in no way preconditions to quality reporting. The third may be necessary, but is by no means sufficient.

In any case, Patterson has said that the existence of a license would not preclude unlicensed writers from reporting the news; sounds like he’s more interested in putting a state seal of approval on certain organizations/individuals instead. His bill is a response to certain instances of reporting in which the writer has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

For starters, many journos I’ve met wouldn’t pass the “good moral character” test. Define “good”, “moral” and “character.” Some of the very best are asocial, driven and weird.

A degree in journalism? See y’all later! I’ve never studied it, but have taught it at New York University and others.

As for dumb-ass reporters lacking understanding of the issues at hand, twas ever thus.

The good news and the bad news of becoming a journalist is that the barriers to entry — certainly freelance — are so low. If you’ve got a phone, a writing instrument, access to editors and a reliable way to transmit copy/images/video, you’re pretty much good to go. It’s up to the editors and producers to be the gatekeepers, deciding who’s good or good enough to make the cut.

I never attended J-school because I knew it would spook me to sit in a room facing all my would-be competitors. I didn’t attend because I was accepted at Canada’s best school, the University of Toronto, and studied English, French and Spanish so I could write well and work in other languages. I never went to grad J-school because, by the age of 19, I was writing for the largest national magazines and didn’t need to. I got paid to learn the craft.

The best journalists are, sadly for many politicians and corporate types, annoyingly unaware of — or uncaring about — social norms. We get paid (yay!) to break social rules: don’t bug people, don’t ask nosy questions, don’t call 35,087 times, don’t call at night or on weekends.

It’s the most fun being a female journo because women are still expected to make nice, be polite, defer to men. As if!

I’m finishing my book on the retail industry, the third largest employer in the U.S. I’ve sat in rooms with highly-paid experts and asked them the one word that journalists — whatever their background, education and training — must ask, always.


People in power hate having their authority challenged. They’ve got money and clout and allies and fund-raisers and flacks. You, oh annoying journo, must fly in the face of all of this. Such temporal power is merely a distraction, the Bentleys and polo ponies and minions merely the latest version of the court of the Sun King.

It’s our job to push, to be smart, to be ethical and accurate — not to carry a piece of paper “proving” it.

12 thoughts on “Show Me Your License, Ma'am! Michigan Senator Only Wants Legit Journalists

  1. Caitlin Kelly

    Yeah, that would definitely prove persuasive.

    Now we can argue over whether bloggers *are* real journos and what, if anything, defines a real journo. Cynicism, to start.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    No, no, it’s not that easy. We moved the bureau. You have to file a FOIA to find out its new location. 🙂

  3. john

    I clicked on the link and can’t really get past the mustache. My good moral character prevents me from saying anything else.

  4. Sounds like Sen. Patterson didn’t bother reading the appendices to the Constitution, especially the First Amendment. Imagine how ‘good moral character’ might be contorted to mean support for the state, or for certain political positions. Journalism has its own morals: accuracy, fairness, independence…

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    doug, such a smartass. You’ll do fine. We like our box, really. It’s a lovely little box. For what I paid, you could have really big house in Iowa.

    john, isn’t it really the weirdest!?

    Jeff, I love the whole idea of trying to quantify those three words. What I consider good is likely about 180 degrees distant from Mr. Patterson. And, once you get your license, how often would we need to renew it? Would there be an eye exam? A morals quiz? Ooooh, let’s write one.

  6. jc123

    Think about this:

    Peter Jennings, a high school dropout and former anchor of ABC Evening News, would not be been licensed if he were still alive.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    He was a fellow Canadian.

    The problem with creating some standard model of journalism is the loss of the outsider’s perspective. Some of the best work, (for me as well) has been produced by people unafraid to ask “stupid” questions. The enemy of intelligent reporting is groupthink, or pack journalism.

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