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.