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Published:June 14th, 2007 08:55 EST
The Making of a New Fourth Estate - Hot Copy # 26

The Making of a New Fourth Estate - Hot Copy # 26

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Transcript of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy #26, a weekly podcast)

The received idea is the enemy of journalism. The great French novelist Gustave Flaubert was working on a dictionary of received ideas when he died. Every journalist should have his own list of received ideas, because in the world of flak and spin big shots with their own agendas would like to run the show on the basis of received ideas.

That’s how we’re pretty close to living in a kleptocracy: that is, a state where a privileged class is free to rob the rest of us blind with impunity. The prerequisite for such a state is know-nothingism, and the royal road to know-nothingism is paved with received ideas--ideas that are generally taken to be true without investigating their premises.

The road to Iraq was paved with received ideas. Let me list a few reminders. First, there was the idea that Saddam Hussein was stocking weapons of mass destruction. Then there was the idea, taken as a given, a received idea at that time, that there was a link between the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Then there was the idea that the Iraqis wanted Western-style democracy. I could go on, because that particular list is long, but I think you get the idea.

Let me give you another kind of received idea. What’s good for big corporations is good for all of us. How often do you see the press performing a post-mortem on that received idea? Here’s another one: we have the best medical care in the world. Do we? For how many of us? Who says we do? Can the people who say we do be trusted? What if it turns out we have the medical care the big insurance companies want us to have because our politicians are in the pockets of the those insurance companies? Now there’s an idea that bears some exploring. But how much exploring does it get?

The trouble is that consensuses are built around received ideas. Journalists start writing stories based on received ideas. Take the building of a case for the Iraq war. The former New York Times reporter Judith Miller had very good sources in the military-industrial complex, and they assured her that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. So she said so. In The New York Times, which serves as our unofficial paper of record, and the next thing you know their bogus claim becomes a received idea. After all, Miller is at the top of her profession and she works for the best newspaper in the country, not only the best written but the best edited paper. So will a humble reporter at, say, The Des Moines Register, one of our best regional newspapers, dispute Judith Miller? Not likely.

And this is the danger of the received idea. You start with a snowball and you end up with a snow man. But in the end it’s a snow job. You can bring down a country, an empire with a body of received ideas. They originate with two kinds of people: simpleminded fanatics and liars. They’re both bad for the health of a democracy, because the fanatics and liars share the conviction that you shouldn’t be encouraged to participate in democracy, you should believe the lies and let the big shots pick your pockets--of both cash and intellectual capital.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re stealing your money or your rights or your dreams; they’re stealing. They’ve suckered you into this dream-boat notion of a democracy--whereas in fact it’s a kleptocracy.

There isn’t very much standing between the kleptocrats and the rest of us except you, you journalists, and unfortunately these days, you are increasingly going to work for kleptocrats who own media conglomerates.

No matter what you hear at your graduation exercises, this is not good news, and the chances are that the guest speaker at those exercises will be a kleptocrat.

But I have seen some evidence that it may not be as easy as it now seems for the kleptocrats to steal participatory government from us, and I’ve seen it in my tiny hometown in upstate New York. The Democratic Party Committee has started to publish reports of town council and various committee meetings. The town is dominated by Republicans, but that’s not the point. There are no good guys or bad guys here. These reports could just as easily be written and put on the Internet by Republicans. They’re not balanced reports by professional journalists. They’re partisan accounts by political activists. But they’re filling a void, because fewer and fewer local or regional newspapers are covering our small towns and cities thoroughly these days, and that is bad for democracy, because all government is ultimately local--and corruption always starts in small obscure places.

What is happening is that citizen journalists are doing what our free and constitutionally privileged press is no longer willing to do. Sooner or later in every county in the nation one or two of these reports will acquire a reputation for balance and knowledgeability, and then we will have a new kind of press. Some educated and informed retiree will start covering something, perhaps the environment or housing or agriculture or corruption in favor of developers, and soon others will come to rely on this reportage. We may never again have hundreds of little newspapers around the country vaguely resembling The New York Times and trying mightily to cover everything. Instead we may have specialty reports tied together by web search engines. For example, I live in Columbia County, New York. By using a Boolean search such as Columbia County plus New York plus agriculture, I can instantly round up farming news in my area. Eventually I will notice that some sources are more complete or more reliable than others, and so I will bookmark their URLs and revisit them regularly. This is the way an entirely new Fourth Estate may just evolve across the land.

Let’s return for a moment to my hometown Democratic Committee and its watchdog reportage. I can’t trust it to be fair to the Republicans, the way, say, I might have trusted a good local newspaper with trained reporters and editors, but I can trust it to stir up interest and debate, and that’s good, because apathy is bad for government. But here’s something I can pretty much count on: some local resident, perhaps a blogger, is going to challenge an issue and look into it, maybe even nosing into records at town hall. And he or she is going to start sending out e-mails or posting information and commentary on a blog. And it’s going to snowball.

Then somebody else is going to get the bright idea that all this Internet traffic, this back and forth, should be summarized and posted on a web site, and at that point you have a paperless newspaper.

This is actually how our Fourth Estate started in the first place.

Now there is a lot of fretting about so-called unvetted news. And there is a lot of BS running around half-dressed on the Internet. But I’m not as pessimistic about this as some veteran journalists my age, because there have always been too many received ideas posing as truth and there has always been a degree of commercial censorship from media owners, and the barrier between the editorial pages of newspapers and their newsrooms has never been as impenetrable as myth would have it. News executives have always had a good idea of what their corporate bosses think and how much their own careers depend on not antagonizing these bosses.

So let’s be careful about our own myths in this business and not swallow everything we hear at those graduation exercises.

This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.

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