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Only readers can revoke a writer’s license

Qualifications? No reader has ever questioned whether I am qualified to write a newspaper column. That’s a good thing, too, because I would have been momentarily stumped and speechless for an answer. Then I believe I would have recovered and stammered some attempt at a positive response.

Qualifications? I’ve been writing material like this for some time and, until recently, I had never once ever reflected on my training and qualifications for the assignment. It’s a production job; I just keep on thinking of the ideas and then I just start hitting the keys and soon enough, it is history.

My wonder about aptitude began after a recent conversation with a lawyer friend of mine. He was a bright student in law school, has been practicing for about 40 years and he seems experienced and well-qualified. Yet, despite that history, he and other lawyers need to be periodically recertified. It is a process called Continuing Legal Education, and attorneys need to attend seminars and be awarded enough points to meet state standards.

“You’ve got things easy,” my friend observed. ”You just keep on writing and you don’t need to update your knowledge, attend classes and get the necessary points.”

That is true, of course, but my test comes each time the results of my work are published for all to see, where the work product can be analyzed, critiqued and disputed by any reader. 

Lawyers aren’t the only professionals who must participate in continuing educational programs. Physicians, dentists, engineers, accountants and architects are among those who must update their credentials in order to maintain their licenses.

Some may wonder about licensure and whether there are any statutory regulations governing the type of work I do. They may have heard about literary or poetic license and were curious to know if columnists and other journalists qualified for that type of documentation. Such licenses are actually quite broad in their application; artistic license, dramatic license, historical license, narrative license or similar terms are all variations on the same theme.

Although it may sound good, that kind of license isn’t the type to be sought after and bragged about. If it were ever suggested that I employed literary or narrative license in my work, it would be a negative commentary, a moderate or euphemistic way of accusing me of wrongdoing. In that category, as far as writing is concerned, literary or journalistic license would include inventing the facts of a situation, also called fabrication; manipulating or stretching the truth, sometimes referred to as embroidering; or the outright theft of the work of others and presenting the stolen material as your own, or plagiarism.

Fabricating and plagiarizing are probably more common than we realize, but each is a loathsome and high-risk procedure that often leads to ruin when discovered. As for embroidering, many have engaged in some occasional fact manipulation during their careers and emerged unscathed. But that can be disastrous, too.

The best recent example would be Brian Williams, the former anchorman for the NBC Nightly News. Williams boasted of his close encounters with risky situations while reporting from Iraq. Years later, the news leaked out that his claims were not true but were merely attempts at self-promotion. It was a shameful time for NBC, which first penalized him with a lengthy suspension and then replaced him as anchorman and reassigned him to the MSNBC cable channel. Williams will now be cautious about using his journalistic license.

As for my status, I have operated without a license for years. Would I ever consider inquiring about a learner’s permit? It’s much too late for that.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

2/19/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. Thanks for a whimsical end to my week. Your license is hereby renewed.

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