Yesterday, Time Magazine chose itself as Person of the Year. Not literally, of course; the journalists highlighted by the magazine do not work for Time. But as much as Time’s 2006 Person of the Year was “You,” its 2018 choice might as well be “Me.” In making this choice, the magazine’s editors are making a statement about their own profession, its importance, and the threats they see themselves facing.
This is understandable. Even putting aside questions of ego, journalists are generally passionate and dedicated to their profession and the social importance of the press. There are certainly easier, more profitable and (as the examples highlighted by Time demonstrate) safer ways to make a living. Doing this job because they value the endeavor, reporters tend to have a great deal of respect for their colleagues (above corporate rivalries and ideological differences), and fiercely defend and protect their own, especially when their livelihood or, more importantly, their lives are in danger. And given the stories that Time highlighted in their Person of the Year pick, they have a point.
If we are honest, Saudi Arabia has probably killed other targets (the government has at least been considering it for some time), and other countries such as Russia have conducted blatant and high-profile assassinations in recent years. But Jamal Khashoggi was not just a dissident. He was a colleague and friend to the people whose job it is to cover his death. That death is personal to them, and thus they have championed the story (such as by making him the first posthumous recipient of Time’s Person of the Year distinction) and refused to let it die through inattention, slander and misrepresentation against Khashoggi, Saudi dissembling or willful disbelief from the Trump administration.
I talk a lot on this site about the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Obviously, it is one of the most important factors in setting the boundaries of political religion in the US and in all the countries that have followed its model. It designates religion as the country’s first protected class. But beyond the religion clauses, which recognized a social reality in terms of religious plurality, the amendment arguably promoted the creation of a political identity for journalists (much as the Second Amendment did for gun owners).
This identity has developed over time. When the founders were writing these provisions, guns and the press were both tools (which were useful for fighting against tyrannical governments, obviously a major concern for the revolutionaries turned founders). It wasn’t for many years that journalism emerged as a specific thing – a profession – rather than just something that some people did, and it was largely in the 20th Century, as scholars such as Mark Deuze detail, that journalist emerged as a specific identity, with all the things that go along with that – norms, values, codes of professionalism, ideologies and a sense of identity.
The First Amendment protection of freedom of the press recognized the power of media against tyranny and bad government and the history of censorship and suppression enacted by governments around the world for centuries. As individuals who practice journalism became aware of their own identity and tied this identity to the social value reflected in the First Amendment protection of their craft, so governments also recognized journalists as potential “enemies of the state.” As Time’s choice of “The Guardians” illustrates, it’s not only journalism that has come under threat (that’s censorship), but journalists who are increasingly being targeted, and who have to stand together for self-defense.
In a previous article, I discussed the social construction of identity, and how laws that recognize a group of people based on a certain characteristic (as the Constitution does here) can help create a social identity. It’s equally if not more true that a common threat brings together people, whether it’s a race or a nation or a profession that’s being targeted. If Prince Mohammad bin Salman or President Rodrigo Duterte or President Donald Trump thought that violence, threats, bullying or intimidation would cow journalists into silence or obedience, they are not students of history or identity formation and political mobilization.