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Andrew Cohen: Journalism's amateur hour

Posted by Oped 2848 days ago National Post| andrew cohen journalisms amateur hour All
http://network.nationalpost.com — Margaret Laurence, the novelist, once met a brain surgeon at a cocktail party. “You know, when I retire I’m going to become a novelist,” he said. Laurence, an author of international acclaim, replied quickly and curtly: “When I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.”
The confident doctor thinks that he can become a novelist. After all, it’s only words. Anyone can write. Laurence bristles. She knows that he is as likely to become a novelist of her stature as she is to become a neurosurgeon of his. Her message: Writing deserves respect. Writing is a craft, a gift, a profession. It’s also hard work, blackening pages, and the best have a genius of their own.
The brain surgeon isn’t alone in presuming he can do something that looks easy. In this Age of the Amateur, when experience no longer matters, anyone can seek to become president of the United States, for example.

No need to waste time in the laborious work of running, winning and serving at a lower level. If you are the jumped-up Sarah Palin, you can believe yourself ready for the White House after a short spell as governor of Alaska, even if you’ve resigned before your first term is over.
And so it is with journalism today. Like politics and novels, it is open to anyone, which is why the unfiltered, unregulated, unedited Internet is full of trivia, scandal, prejudice and falsehood, and why a generation thinks The Daily Show (however clever) is the news and advertising flyers are newspapers.
Which brings us to Amanda Lindhout, who was recently described by one observer as “a journalist with significant experience abroad.” The Toronto Star gushes that “Amanda Lindhout lived the daring life of an international correspondent ... a modern-day Hemingway in head scarves and mascara.”
To be the heir to Ernest Hemingway’s pen would be a burden for anyone, but not our intrepid Amanda Lindhout. After all, as the Star breathlessly explains, she “ran with street children in Calcutta and shot the breeze with Pakistani police officers ... Her passport was filled with stamps from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan ...”
It sure was. Although dangerous travel alone doesn’t make a journalist, it has done wonders for Lindhout, who was kidnapped and detained for 15 months in Somalia.
What’s in question here, let it be said, is not whether a young woman was brutalized by Somali thugs and released for ransom last week. Nor is her steely fortitude in horrible captivity, or the love of her family, which bravely raised the money and arranged for her release.
But who is Amanda Lindhout, what was she doing in Somalia, and why do we call her a journalist?
She is from Sylvan Lake, Alta. She was said to be a model who considered becoming a beautician. Instead, she became a journalist, which may be close to the same thing at some levels of today’s celebrity culture.
News reports indicate that Lindhout didn’t work in journalism in Alberta, nor did she study it in school (not that J-School is a prerequisite). But she does take pictures. She has curiosity, collegiality and wanderlust. It also didn’t hurt that she is “a long-legged beauty,” according to the Star.
So she decided to go to desperate places. From there she wrote for The Red Deer Advocate, a respected, independent newspaper that presumably offered to publish articles from a native daughter roaming the world.
This arrangement isn’t uncommon with small newspapers. Still, writing a travelogue doesn’t make you a journalist.
She is also described as a correspondent in Iraq for Press TV, which is run by the government of Iran. The Star noted that Press TV is considered by some to be a mouthpiece for the Iranians.
Here, then, is a clearer picture of Amanda Lindhout. She is an adventurer, a dilettante, a gutsy, friendly, chirpy, naïf. She takes risks in the world’s hot spots without institutional support — all to publish pictures in Afghan magazines, appear on Iranian television and reach a small number of readers through The Red Deer Advocate, which seemed the limit of her influence.
Going to Somalia, she had to know the risks. (They were great in 1992, when my wife and I were there during the famine to interview the late warlord General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, but they weren’t kidnapping journalists then.) Whatever her protection or preparation, it couldn’t protect her in a poor, lawless dominion.
What happened to her in captivity, Lord knows. It had to have been awful. Afterward, perhaps in shock, she talked to the media from a hotel in Mogadishu, which wasn’t smart. She was still in danger.
But now, bless her, she has landed the biggest story of all: herself. The irony is exquisite, an emblem of the vanity of our time.
Perhaps now she’ll write a book. Or make a movie. Or become foreign editor of The New York Times.
You see, she’s a journalist. Anyone can do it.
Ottawa Citizen
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