Thursday, March 20, 2014

May I See Your Journalist License, Please?

Once upon a time I was a writer/editor/co-owner of a now-deceased arts and entertainment publication. Among many other things, we covered the visual arts. For that reason, the town's visual artists regarded us as a visual arts paper. Our competitors mentioned this to our advertisers and questioned the wisdom of throwing money away to reach the pitiful segment of readers who cared about that snooty art crap. (As opposed to the unbelievable results achieved by advertising in their papers, which appealed to rich people who bought shiny things and working class slobs who went to titty bars, as the case may be.) Thus, our doom was sealed. But before that day, along with editorials and news features about architecture, jazz, rock, electronic music, poetry, fiction, drama, dance, performance art, stand-up comedy, photography and cartooning, we printed pieces about paintings and sculpture. Strange as it may seem, our town's visual arts community actually cared about what we wrote. And that wasn't always fun.

So this thing happened. Some time in the early 1990s.

Here's the background ...

An artist who shall remain forever unnamed had landed a major public art commission. Whenever this happened, a large chunk of the artists who got passed over inevitably howled. Their objections broke down to: (A) Hair-splitting analysis of the decision-making process. (B) Accusations that the decision-making process was inherently flawed or corrupt. (C) Accusations that the decision-making process had not been followed to the letter of the law. (D) Assertions of the incompetence or corruption on the part of the decision makers. (E) Assertions that the art selected sucked. (F) Assertions that the artist chosen was a rotten artist, a rotten human being, or not from around here. (G) You didn't pick my art, goddamnit! That was of course the subtext. But never mentioned.

One artist gets the Golden Ticket. The rest of the arts community turns into a mob of peasants with torches. If the howls got loud enough, the public sector often said, "This ain't worth the hassle" and pulled the plug on the whole damn thing.

That's the context of that thing that happened. The unpleasant conversation you're about to read. The one I had with that unnamed artist I'd mentioned earlier.

I'd been doing a news piece on that artist's public art commission. We're talking 600 words, tops. Not a softball piece. More like a nerfball piece. The blahblah committee awarded the blahblah commission to blahblah. The piece is called whatever. This is what it's made of. Here's where it's going to go.

I'd made a couple of phone calls gathering, what do you call 'em, facts. Evidently one of my sources was the artist's friend but not mine. They'd informed their pal that a reporter had called. Asking reporter-type questions. And they gave the artist my name.

And so the artist called me.

(I found all this out later. A few days after this incident, the artist's friend, being a lousy spy, asked if the artist ever called me. At the time I didn't have a clue. Sorry if I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Anyway ...

It was 9:30 in the bloody evening or thereabouts. Lacking staff, money or resources, we worked a lot of late night hours, kids. Such was the case with me. Yep, there I was in the office, typing away, all alone in the world like Mr. Magoo in that Christmas special.  

Ring, ring.  

Why, it's the phone. Who the hell's calling me this late? It must be someone who likes me!

Like an idiot, I picked it up.

It was the artist. I recognized their voice. The artist introduced themselves anyway.

The artist proceeded to inform me that they'd discovered I was writing a hatchet job about their public art commission. I assured them I was not. (Actually, I was working on that very item when the phone interrupted me. Like the artist knew. Rrrrrrreal freaking creepy.) In a display of rare fake humility, the artist said OK, maybe I spoke out of turn, maybe it's not a hatchet job, but I know for a fact you're writing a column about my commission, so stop dancing around. I asked how they knew. But that was none of my business. And if it was a hatchet job, they wouldn't take it lying down. The artist pointed out that there were laws concerning slander and libel. Having seen several "Paper Chase" episodes, I gave them the benefit of my profound legal expertise. After mentioning this little thing called "freedom of the press," I drew the artist's attention to the "absence of malice standard" and assured them that my blurb was malice free -- adding that the question was irrelevant anyway, as it was a factual news item, not an opinion column. The artist told me that they would be the judge of that and demanded I show them the copy before it was printed so they could determine its factual accuracy and malice-freeness. I told the artist I couldn't do that.

"Why not?"

"It's prior restraint."

"Prior restraint?"

Offended. This hack on the other end of the line spouting these hifalutin words like he knows what it's talking about.

I started explaining what "prior restraint" mean. But the artist cut me off.

"I know what it means! I want to see your copy, OK?"



"No,  it isn't OK. I can't let you see it."

"I've been stabbed in the back before!"

"I'm not going to --"

"Oh, your intentions are good! Oh, I know! Yeah, you're a nice guy. Fine. But you'll put words in my mouth!"

"No I won't."

"No. But you'll screw something up or twist it around because you don't know what you're talking about."

"I know what I'm talking about."

"How? You went to art school?"



"I called and asked questions."

"You called and asked questions, now you're an expert?"

"I never said --"

"A few phone calls? That gives you the right to judge my art?"

"The Constitution --"

"Don't tell me about the goddamn Constitution."

"Look, I did my research, I checked my facts, that's all I'm going to say."

"Uh-huh. So I'm just supposed to trust you?"

"I'm just doing my job."

"What gives you the right?"

'"Hey, I'm sorry if it pisses you off but the United States --"

"Oh you've got the right. You and your girlfriend can print anything you want in that rag. You own it, right? But who says you know what the hell you're talking about?"

"Nobody. I'm a journalist. Maybe --"

Maybe lousy, maybe good. If I know what I'm talking about, the readers keep reading. If I'm full of shit, they stop.

Of course I didn't get that far. My mouth got to the "M" sound in maybe. Maybe.

The artist cut me off. With this noise blasting out at me from the receiver. Half laugh, half shriek. A loud squawk on the line like a wild blue heron with its bird balls caught in a threshing machine. Words fail me.


More crazy noises beyond phonemic description.

"You're a journalist? You? Seriously? Who says?"

I mentioned that freedom of speech thing again.

"That's bullshit," the artist said. "A doctor needs a license to practice medicine, an architect needs an architect's license, an engineer needs an engineering license, a goddamn hairdresser needs a hairdressing license, but any idiot with a computer and access to a printing press can call himself a 'journalist.' You guys should be licensed!"

My reply was, "Hominah hominah hominah." Or words to that effect.

The artist expanded on their thesis. In a perfect world, not just any idiot could start a paper or call themselves a reporter. Only trained and certified idiots would have that right. Like any modern professional, journalists should be licensed and held to certain standards. There should be a mandatory term of study, a test and a licensing review board. If, at the end of the process, you were deemed qualified, you'd get a license to practice journalism. If not, you could keep your opinions to yourself. Police raids would doubtlessly haul off unlicensed reporters to more productive labor on the chain gang.

This from a card-carrying, flaming liberal who marched in protest rallies.

"Journalist licenses? You seriously think that?"

"Yeah, I seriously do. Show me the copy."


"Fine. You fuck this up you'll be fucking sorry."


"I'm sorry now, OK? And while we're on the subject, how'd you like it if you had to get an artist's license before you made a fucking painting or sculpture you hypocritical --"

But I didn't actually say that.

The puffball piece ran. As-is.

The readers, God bless 'em, continued to love us. But they weren't paying for the paper. The advertisers were. And they eventually stopped. 

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