Journalism as a Vocation

Odd the things that linger in the brain. I recall one lecture from more than a quarter century ago in which a UC Berkeley professor introduced our class to one of the seminal works of the German sociologist Max Weber. It was a paper that Weber delivered in 1918. It was titled Politics as a Vocation and it made references to journalism that still seem relevant today.

Weber is one of those important thinkers whose name you may not know. But perhaps you’ve heard of the Protestant work ethic an idea that has influenced history and public policy. (As an aside, I wonder how Weber would account for the billions or non-Christian Indians and Chinese who nowadays seem poised to eat our lunch?).

His lecture on Politics is considered one of the foundations of modern political thinking. The aspect that interests me today is how he described journalists as essential, but not necessarily esteemed, participants in any political system. Here are some snippets from Weber’s lecture:

“The journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated by ‘society’ in terms of its ethically lowest representative … (many factors have) conditioned the public to regard the press with a mixture of disdain and pitiful cowardice … the journalist’s life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one’s inner security … The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the ‘scavengers from the press.’ … It is not astonishing that there are many journalists who have become human failures and worth less men. Rather, it is astonishing that, despite all this, this very stratum includes such a great number of valuable and quite genuine men.”

Other than including women in the description of journalists, Weber might get nods if he gave that talk today.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media