The worst phrase journalists use

November 3, 2019

(Originally published November 11, 2018)

When I saw the clip of Jim Acosta trying to keep a White House aide from physically taking a microphone away from him while he questioned President Cubic Zirconia, I cringed. Not because Acosta was behaving poorly (he wasn’t) or because this was a new low for the administration (it isn’t), but because I knew what was coming next. So did Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Do you see it? That tweet is a particularly stinging troll job because it uses the go-to phrase of the indignant journalist appealing to his or her audience’s sense that journalism is special rather than affirming what is special about journalism.

“He’s just doing his job” and all its variants immediately began popping up on Twitter, even before the Trump press conference ended. A non-exhaustive selection of tweets, some from people I respect a lot and whose work I enjoy:

Every one of these tweets failed. I’ll pick on Brian Karem’s, because it’s a perfect example of the failure. He shares his judgment that President Trump was rude and reporter Acosta was not, then says of Acosta, “He was doing his job,” intending for that to be a standalone flourish at the end.

Except it’s an empty phrase that does more harm than good. That Jim Acosta is employed does not make him special. Moreover, when reporters use “just doing my job” as an explanation for why they do things they find personally uncomfortable or that their subjects find uncomfortable, it plays into the hands of those who would diminish the free press and journalists as a group because the phrase conveys shame.

What all these people are saying in their tweets, whether they mean to or not, is, “Jim Acosta wouldn’t ask Trump to be accountable to the public, except that he’s getting paid to do it.” It transforms journalism from something noble undertaken on behalf of others into just another thing people do for money, but more insidiously, suggests that Acosta’s journalistic mission is dependent on his professionalism and not other compelling principles.

“Just doing my job” cares not for what one’s actual job is, which makes it a pliable tool. See Sanders’s tweet. The aide was just doing her job, which involves assisting a despotic president in his efforts to demonize the free press. By tweeting out a trolling message using the phrase “just doing her job,” Sanders was just doing her job, which is to misinform the public about the current president’s priorities so that his family can continue doing their jobs of enriching themselves and the Republican Congress can continue doing their jobs of pursuing legislation that remakes society in their Rapture Theology image.

The ICE agent who follows orders to raid an elementary school dropoff line for undocumented migrants is just doing his job. So is the kid behind the counter at Chipotle who ran your credit card for your barbacoa bowl. So is the pilot who’s flying back to LAX from SFO for the second time today.

Do you know which professionals rarely use this phrase, even though on the face of it they should have a lot in common with journalists? Teachers. Teachers tend not to argue to the public that they deserve respect for what they do because they’re “just doing their jobs.” Instead, teachers affirmatively explain why their jobs are important and why what they do is valuable.

You’re unlikely to hear a teacher say, “When Ms. Jones assigned that challenging writing project, she was just doing her job.”

That sounds bad! It is bad! It’s bullshit, and Ms. Jones would do well to give specific reasoning behind the assignment, or else parents and her school administrators are going to come down hard on her.

Instead, a teacher would say something along the lines of, “Ms. Jones assigned the students to write essays from the points of view of various characters in Beowulf because she believes it’s an effective way to get young readers to engage and ask questions of the text. Moreover, it meets Standard 3.4.4 in the state standards for 7th grade reading comprehension.”

There’s one way teachers use the phrase: self-deprecation. “When Ms. Jones stayed with Bobby for an extra hour of multiplication practice after school every day, she was just doing her job.”

Thankfully, a few journalists got it right. Ravi Baichwal, a local TV journalist currently in Chicago, tweeted on the theme of Acosta’s “job”, but didn’t reduce Acosta’s actions to a mere requirement of his employment.

It turns out that, in the same press conference, Trump tried to diminish another journalist, and she gave an excellent response. Yamiche Alcindor tried to ask President Margarine if he was playing footsie with white nationalists, but he interrupted her and accused her of asking a “racist” question.

Set aside that he probably thinks he’s some kind of bon vivant and that this was another of his classic witticisms, set aside that he told a pointless lie about African-American support for him, and set aside that, in the moment, it probably would have been ideal to keep asking him the question until he gave an actual answer. Alcindor’s tweeted response is fantastic for the broad principles it highlights.

She talks about work, but it’s presented as pursuing a higher goal. President Fuckface could insult her all he wanted, but no matter what, she was going to keep on asking questions and expecting answers.

As for Acosta, himself, when the administration barred him from returning to the White House and a Secret Service officer later demanded his hard pass credential, he started filming. Being the pro journalist he is, Acosta put the video online, and noted that he felt no hard feelings toward the officer because, of course…