Not All Bloggers Are Journalists, & Not All Journalists Are Jerks

In Defense of the Fourth Estate [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

In the mind of many a startup hacker, the journalist is a vulture, a jackal: a predator that would feed on anything — the young, the sick, even carrion — to sustain itself.

The journalist does not create; his “work” is the reorganizing and reframing of another’s creativity and labor. The best-known journalistic episodes of the past several eons, from Nelly Bly to Watergate, have been exposés, muck-raking pieces, and “gotcha” stories. In our current era of pageview-centric merit systems, the biggest hits revolve around stolen documents, pilfered gadgets, hacked accounts.

When a supposed professional’s best chance at fame in his own industry is the direct result of uncovering the secrets of others with the intention of harming their subjects and their subjects’ reputations, how can that profession be honorable?


The Average Interview

I’ve pondered this question often over the past couple years. Face-to-face with many young programmers from many young startups, I’ve looked into eyes filled with caution and nervous apprehension in the best scenarios; in the worst scenarios, I have been confronted with out-and-out hostility.

And why should I not be? I am there to get information about something that programmer has worked hard to create — information I by no means deserve or “need” to know. I’m there to get it before anyone else does, to the benefit or detriment of whom, I care not. I might seem friendly; that friendliness might well be a ruse, especially if I’m what passes for a “good” journalist these days. I might be objective; I might be critical. I might rake him over the coals, and I might send him 10,000 new users within a matter of hours. But I will most certainly take an amount of credit, attention, and revenue based on my opinion of something I did not create.

Much has been made of the teenage CEO and the dorm-room hacker over the past 10 years, give or take. We’re all familiar with the cultural myths and markings, the behavioral aesthetic, if you will. The inspiration and the resultant phenomenal work product are obvious at this point. Why would anyone who gave a damn about technology want to be a journalist rather than a hacker, someone who actually makes and builds technology?

To answer that question and justify my own existence, I have to struggle to recall why I decided to become a journalist in the first place.


Millenial Millenium Journo

In the early 2000s, I lived in the middle of a world rife with cultural and technological change. The dotcoms crumpled as I entered the workforce; my first real job was software testing and research at a dotcom startup that folded before I had even picked a major. And the failure of the tech economy wasn’t the only thing that rocked America in the first years of the new millenium; there was that whole 9/11 thing and the pursuant political disillusionment during the first of two wars abroad.

I cared desperately about the world around me, and I wanted to help as it changed. I wanted to grab the biggest megaphone I could find and scream out the truth: That there were better, smarter ways to do everything we were trying to do; that whole groups of people and ways of thinking were being left out of this change; that The Man was still claiming a much larger piece of our collective pie than he ought; that we as humans are all responsible to think for ourselves and affect the change we want to see.

What intrigued me most about journalism was the idea of objectivity: That, given enough information in an unbiased presentation, the Truth would emerge, pure and absolute, and give every person the ability to form intelligent opinions and take justifiable actions. That we could fight the Man together with information, with facts. Clearly, the variation and nuance involved in information and sociopolitical bias would mean that not everyone would come to the same utopian conclusions about current events; but I honestly believed that better conveying of these facts was necessary. And I thought I was just the scrappy little jackass to do it.


WTH Is the Fourth Estate?

You see, once upon a time, there were three main strata of public and social life.

The First Estate was the clergy. In a theocratic regime, this estate carried a godlike weight, superceding even the authority of kings, who comprised the Second Estate of nobility and rulers. The Third Estate was simply everybody else — people of little or no authority or influence.

Then, there was the Fourth Estate, a self-ordained bunch of nobodies who stood between the decisions of the First and Second Estates and the implications for the Third Estate and did something revolutionary: They questioned.

In a now-famous essay by Thomas Carlyle, penned during the French Revolution, we read:

Alas, yes: Speculation, Philosophism, once the ornament and wealth of the saloon, will now coin itself into mere Practical Propositions and circulate on street and highway universally, with results! A Fourth Estate of Able Editors springs up, increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable. New Printers, new Journals…

Acrid, corrosive as the spirit of sloes and copperas is Marat, Friend of the People… Poor is this man, squalid, and dwells in garrets; a man unlovely to the sense, outward and inward; a man forbid — and is becoming fanatical, possessed with fixed-idea. Cruel lusus of Nature! Did Nature, O poor Marat, as in cruel sport, knead thee out of her leavings and miscellaneous waste clay and fling thee forth stepdame-like, a Distraction into this distracted Eighteenth Century? Work is appointed thee there; which thou shalt do.

You see, it is our heritage to be abhored by true intellectuals, to be abandoned by material wealth, to neglect our appearances, to be “a distraction” to the real movers and shakers of our age. Yet Carlyle ended this nasty diatribe with, “Work is appointed… which thou shalt do.” What work could he have possibly meant?


What a Journalist Does

Before the Fourth Estate, there was one thing neither clergy nor governments nor captains of industry ever really had to worry about: accountability. They made their private deals of politics and finance, and the world turned. But this efficient little machine also operated on the human fuel of the underprivileged.

You see, the Fourth Estate doesn’t exist to help companies or politicians or anyone in power; it never has. The Fourth Estate serves the Third Estate exclusively. Any benefit derived by men and women in positions of power is ancilliary.

The Fourth Estate also gives special consideration to those who are unable to help themselves and to those who might have been taken advantage of by larger entities. We are the watchdogs, the gatekeepers, the shepherds. We do control a mighty big megaphone, and — for those of us with any kind of ethics — we try to use it to steer people out of harm’s way. We try to help voters, consumers, the sick, the impoverished, anyone who needs our attention; and we do this as much as possible by objectively presenting information.

Sadly, this purity of intention has been deformed by a consumerist culture. Just as medical schools, insurance companies and Big Pharma have disfigured the beauty of the medical profession and television evangelists and phony charities have diluted the transformative power of religion, the press have been plagued by a wave of modern changes.

Broadcast news formats have led to scare-centric coverage and saccharine “human interest” pieces. The prevailing approach to media company M&As have led to a homogenity of news that renders the average local newspaper impotent to affect local life or help its local community. The fact that the news industry has been unprepared for the digitization of information has caused more problems than I can go into at this time. And the commodotization of politics has eroded the very idea of objectivity for many “journalists” at right- or left-leaning news outlets.

But perhaps worst of all is the incessant competition for the attention of a national audience that has made modern media the talent show that it currently is. We’re taking a sacred duty (holding the powers that be accountable for their actions, speaking as the voice of the underserved and unrepresented) and turning it into a quantifiable commodity: Ratings. Pageviews. Circulation. Ad dollars.

Journalists do need to make a living, but we’re forced by our global society to report in a way that has less integrity with each passing decade.

Still, we’re a far cry from the vulture the average hacker sees sitting in a chair across from him with a camera and a notepad full of questions.


Why You Should Talk to Journalists

Most of the people I meet who have made a living in journalism and who intend to keep making a living in journalism care very deeply about the topics, the companies, and the people they cover. We’re genuinely passionate people who want to use our megaphones for good; not all of us are scrounging around for another ten thousand pageviews or a “breaking” story from an aggressively squeezed leak.

In fact, I have to apologize on behalf of my entire profession for how you have been treated by a few bloggers, whom I’ll have the tact to not name here. There are bloggers who know and care nothing about real journalism, who see this profession as an opportunity for short-term gain at anyone’s expense, who find no joy in it and who dream only of fame in the now and a lucrative exit thereafter. These people are not journalists; they are self-serving scum. And they’ve royally fucked up how a lot of people see my profession.

But still, even if we’re not the huge assholes who are going to exploit your weaknesses and hack into your life by any means necessary, we’re also not going to take it easy on you. We can’t; if we did, we wouldn’t have any integrity.

You see, we can’t be entirely sure who’s the Man and who’s on Third these days. All we can do is be objective and get the facts. What does your company do? Are you ethical or exploitative? Where do you fit into the industry? Where do you fit into society and culture? What are you passionate about, and what are you doing to affect change?

You should carefully screen and select the journalists with whom you’re comfortable. But you should, when you’re ready, let us help you tell your story. If you’re doing something that is good for the Third Estate, we want to know, and we’d like to help you.

We’ll always have gatekeeping to do in terms of which stories can get the biggest share of our megaphone, and we’ll sometimes make mistakes — but we’re also happy to correct ourselves and make amends.

What do you get out of it? If you’re at a startup, you get to reach a large number of people and tell them about what you do in explicit detail — whatever aspects you need or want them to know. The traffic/adoption “bump” from such coverage has been documented by a few Hacker News faithful; it can be substantial, and it can also generate valuable feedback.

But you also get something much more important, at least from a journalist’s point of view. You get to be part of our culture’s unbroken, rich narrative. Long after my name and yours has faded from anyone’s memory, you’ll still have added to our little human time capsule, and even that small contribution — added to the contributions of millions of others — is the greatest record we can leave behind us: Our facts. Our story.

23 thoughts on “Not All Bloggers Are Journalists, & Not All Journalists Are Jerks

  1. Being a Millenial is hard… we are the tech babies, the children of 9/11. We live in a world where we are connected in ways that were unbelievable to a generation before us, exposed to ideas about the power of that connection to manifest change.

    One of my first jobs was as a hostess in a restaurant in San Francisco in 2000 when the bubble burst. I was 16, the waiters were 30 year old ex millionaires with Phds struggling to make ends meet. I was a Freshmen in college watching form my dorm room when the towers exploded. And I used a computer for the first time when I was in Kindergarten. These are factors sociologists use to define me as a millenial.

    Millenials are lambasted for our hubris. We are accused of a sense of entitlement, of needing open plan offices and video games. But we are also powerfully connected to a sense of community. Our pride is also that we believe we are powerful enough to impact the world around us. Whats more we are more connected and can derive power from these connections and also from the technology we have that never existed before.

    A voice is a powerful way to make change. The transparency of existence we have can be a tool for change, a way to shine a light on good and bad.

    Thank you for telling good stories, and also for building connections. These things are powerful!

  2. Who is a journalist? Is a blogger a journalist? I think that is an interesting question, and one that will no doubt be answered by the Supreme Court at some point. “Sooner or later, it would be necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualified for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer… just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher,” Supreme Court Justice White wrote with a prophetic voice in 1972. I would suggest reading my brief overview of two recent court decisions about the blogger/journalist question: Are Bloggers Journalists? Judge Says, Don’t Confuse “New Media” with “News Media” http://bit.ly/cOo4sr

    • I think that journalists are journalists, regardless of changing media. You can spot a journalist and distinguish her from a blogger by looking closely at her work product. It’ll bear several tell-tale signs of professionalism and journalistic training, including format, attribution, objectivity, and an emphasis on original reporting and contextual analysis.

      Whether or not you publish in print — as I did back in the 90s and 2000s — or online — as I do now — makes almost no difference. The medium is not the message, in this case.

  3. Jolie, I whole wholeheartedly agree with you. I have become sick and disgusted at the circus show the mainstream is and now even the local news has become. It’s all about what train wreck can we find next to get the people to gawk at. I have totally sworn off of this “genre” of negative and depressing news and now only read or watch tech news. Some of my favorite tech news sites/shows are Tekzilla on Rev3, Mashable, Techcrunch, Gizmodo, , TWiT, and Rocketboom.

  4. Once, when I was very sick, a doctor told me something that has stayed with me to this day. It applies both to my role as a patient and as a human being in general. “You are your own last line of defense, and you always have the right to say NO”, he said. “Doctors are people, and people make mistakes”. As an autonomous, intelligent person, it was incumbent upon me to double check everything that my doctors were about to do to/for me.

    If you are an intelligent person, and are considering talking to a journalist, the same philosophy applies. You should find out about not only what publication he or she works for, but something about who that journalist is. Integrity colors all of our actions, and with just a little bit of investigative journalism of your own, you can probably weed out a bunch of the jackals right off the bat. If your internal alarms go off, consider keeping your mouth shut until you learn a little more about the person you are talking to. You are your own last line of defense.

  5. Interesting piece Jolie. This is how I see it:

    Before the Internet, pretty much everything that made its way to the public was screened by editors (print, radio, television), who not only controlled the stories and content, but also ensured that facts were verified and that a story met the criteria for newsworthiness. These gatekeepers served a very important purpose of course, but the closest the masses could get to voicing their opinions were letters to the editor, which someone would be lucky to see published.

    Fast forward to today and the editor’s gatekeeper function doesn’t exist on the “wild west” Internet frontier. Most people who blog know better than to write something that will initiative a lawsuit, but other than that, it’s a free for all for those that can come up with an attention getting headline and an interesting first paragraph. Facts aren’t necessarily verified and newsworthiness has been replaced with interest or entertainment value.

    What has happened, is that journalists and editors no longer control all the content, so they have lost control of the ad revenue. The news business model is broken and cannot be repaired. If it weren’t for the fact that owners of traditional journalism venues could make money, those venues would have never existed. I think it still remains to be seen if traditional journalism venues can continue to exist once everything goes digital.

    Blogging is eroding the journalism profession, because people are willing to accept what bloggers have to say with a grain of salt – well, at least those that don’t believe everything they read on the Internet. As a result, journalists have lost their value as news story tellers.

    Look at it this way:

    What did we use before plastic existed? Ceramic, glass, wood, paper and metal, right? How do you think those people in those industries felt when plastic started displacing their products and messing up their business models? How do you think the employees felt? I bet they weren’t too happy about it either.

    Times change and so does the world. My world is changing in was that I don’t like either, but instead of expecting the world to change for me, I’m taking a step back and going in directions that will best allow me to fit into the world. Just like journalists, I gotta make a living as well.

    Mister Reiner
    IT guy and non-journalist blogger

  6. jolie:

    speaking as a journalist, a blogger, and a jerk, I take offense at what you’ve written here. no reason, I just feel like picking a fight (on deadline, am procrastinating).

    seriously, I too often wonder why anybody talks to me at all. then I remember: they want to see their names in points and pixels. preferably spelled correctly. which doesn’t always happen, because it’s usually the third thing I’ve posted that day and the sites I write for cut all the fact checkers and most of the copy editors for budget reasons.

    you write about this stuff because it’s what you do best. if you were a better coder, you’d probably do that. if you’re good at both, you’d probably do both (which would make you rare indeed). it’s simple.

    thanks for the thoughtful essay.

    cheers,

    dt

  7. A couple of things. 1) I know of no journalist (and I’ve met and spoken to a quite a few) who would ever aim to be objective in their reporting. Fact is, if that’s your benchmark for success, you won’t reach it. At least not in my book. Your well-written piece is a good case for being subjective. And I would recommend you stick with it. 2) …Aim for being balanced and fair. You will have my respect as a journalist if you make those two objectives “your objective.” That’s something any good journalist can do and distinguishes themselves from any blogger. 3) “rather than a hacker, someone who actually makes and builds technology?” Excuse me, but what do you mean here? A hacker who makes and builds technology? I thought a hacker cracks into a program and makes it freely available for others (including him/herself) who don’t want to pay for it?? Not sure if I agree with your assessment. But maybe my view of hacking is limited.

    That’s it for now. Keep us posted on your journey!

    • Journalistic objectivity is one of the core tenets of the profession. That’s completely undisputed, except in cases of civic journalism. Op/ed writing is different; but when we report the news, we are required to be completely factually accurate and leave bias and nuance out of the picture.

      As far as hacking goes, you seem to have adopted the definition of the term used by mainstream media; in the field of technology, the work “hacker” has a very different meaning.

      Thanks for stopping by and contributing your thoughts!

    • “Objectivity” is very real and attainable. It’s been derided and twisted into something that it’s not, but it’s not difficult to be an objective journalist.

      Most journalists I’ve known (20 years in the biz) didn’t have a stake in a story one way or the other. And the same people who complained of the “liberal” media under George Bush seemed to have no problem when those same journalists were covering Whitewater and Travelgate and Vince Foster’s supposed-not-a-suicide.

      Whenever anyone doesn’t like a story a journalist is covering, they claim it’s biased and not objective. They’re oddly quiet (or claim that the reporters “finally got it right”) when the story the reporter’s covering suits their agenda.

      I always used to tell my reporters that if everyone hated the story or if everyone liked it, chances are they did OK.

      • dear amy and jolie:

        as a journalist with 3,247 years in the business, I must respectfully disagree about “objectivity.” though it may just be a difference in semantics, I do not think it’s humanly possible to be objective.

        disinterested, yes. fair, yes. as balanced as you can, yes. but somebody’s got to choose which facts to include and which ones to leave out, which quotes to use, how much those quotes get ‘cleaned up’ for publication, which opposing arguments to include if any, what angle to take on the story, what section of the paper or web site the story goes in, what kind of headline treatment, etc etc. etc.

        those are imperfect human decisions made by imperfect human beings who do so based on their knowledge of the topic, their experience, what they think their readers (and editors) want, what Google likes, and so on. it’s not objective. and if we didn’t do that, every story would read like Ulysses.

        so objectivity is a myth. that doesn’t give you license to make shit up or ignore the bits of a story you don’t like. it’s just supposed to make you more careful.

        hugs and kisses,

        dt

  8. “Sadly, this purity of intention has been deformed by a consumerist culture. Just as medical schools, insurance companies and Big Pharma have disfigured the beauty of the medical profession and television evangelists and phony charities have diluted the transformative power of religion, the press have been plagued by a wave of modern changes.”

    … Wow. You sound a lot like Marvin Olasky!

    Three cheers for the third AND fourth estate! Death to The Man!

  9. I was never aware that hacker/startups don’t like, or better put, are reluctant to talk to journalists. I guess it kind of makes sense. I had always thought startups welcomed any attention/press they could get.

    I have thought much about the state of media today and much of it is a bit disheartening. While the core principles behind journalism (to report the unbiased facts) are noble, the unbiased facts don’t always drive viewers and attention, which is needed for journalists to make a living. So the various “scum” practices emerge. And as viewers we have a full spectrum from true journalism to tabloid style reporting to choose from. They are all competing for our attention (not to mention other diversions/entertainment as well). At times it seems the less noble forms of journalism (if I can call them that) are winning in the competition.

  10. I think the thing (two things, actually) that people are missing about the difference between journalism as a career field, and blogging professionally (to subsist as a writer), is that although personalities may shine through and cause success (Ashton Kutcher’s micro-blog efforts via Twitter), technique may be more important as the bloggers who are at present pulling in $15K month are the ones who are putting the newspaper industry out of business. All they are doing is: blogging often; writing separate articles to submit to web sites that accept articles, specifically for the back-hyperlinks created by this writing technique; commenting at sites and blogs such as this one (also for the back-links); and ensuring maximum, correct AdSense placements. Incredible, but true. Wonder what the sum of $15K a month, per reporter, columnist and staff writer, would do for a re-configured newspaper industry?

  11. The first and second estates were initially established for the benefit of the third estate – the first estate to govern and provide military protection, and the second estate to provide spiritual salvation and to teach virtue. If the fourth estate came along also for the third estate’s good, as the accountability keeper, and now they themselves are becoming unaccountable, won’t they need a fifth estate to watch them watch the others?

    Makes me think of a particular Dr. Seuss tale about a bee-watcher…

    So the serious questions that arise for me are, how can the field of journalism again become accountable? And what sorts of harm can be done by bad accountability-keepers?

    BTW, for a blog you have an excellent caliber of respect and intelligent input in the comments you have on here.

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