Perhaps I’ve said this too many times now, but I just graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Public Communication. When I went into college, journalism was a thing I aspired to. I had heroes like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. who stood up to lies and told hard truths to the American people. I had people like Keith Olbermann, who, despite his bias, still gave these great Special Comments, where he took a bag of snakes and laid them out straight. I had places like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, who talked about current events and made sport of what was happening, and how ridiculous it could be. I came into college with that in mind. I have left college disillusioned, disappointed, and not wanting anything to do with traditional journalism. Why? Because here’s a hard truth – journalism in this country, both the 4th and 5th Estate, is broken! It is broken beyond repair. How? Well, let’s dive into madness and explain.
For those who never bothered to do any real learning of the growth of society, let me give you a quick lecture of the Estates. The 1st Estate is the church. The 2nd Estate is the government. The 3rd Estate is the people. The 4th Estate is the press. A free and open press are the vanguards of democracy. Or, at least, they used to be. Now, every single one of them, from NPR to Buzzfeed, are whores, selling what they think an audience wants to hear from sun-up to sun-down, for the noble goal of ad revenue. No news outlet is immune from this. So many will say – but what about NPR and PBS? Those outlets are better, but even they cannot escape it. After all, NPR did an unboxing video of a PS4 (linked here). This fact should depress us, but Kotaku decided to find this quite hilarious. No surprise, given the standards of “journalism” that they have. We’ll get to them in a moment. But all news outlets are guilty of this.
It’s easy to look at MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News and laugh at how terrible the quality of their reporting is. The Daily Show has been making a proper mockery of them for years. But the fact is that every single piece of journalism that is supposed to have standards is guilty of this. To really glean why, look no further than Rolling Stone magazine.
By now, this story is infamous. The story of a girl at the University of Virginia who was given the name “Jackie” in a report by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has become the tolling bell of what was left of the 4th Estate’s credibility. It is fitting that Phi Kappa Psi is suing Rolling Stone for defamation. They are becoming the butt of a joke, but the truth is that it shouldn’t be funny. Not to anyone. To anyone with even the smallest bit of self-awareness, this should be horrifying. Why?
Let’s look at some of the things that went wrong with the writing of that story. All of what happened are mistakes so rookie that a first-year journalism student learns not to do it. For example – Sabrina only used one source. One. Not once did she fact-check or verify any of the information that she got from Jackie. That is a mistake so basic that it boggles the mind. How can someone who claims to stand for honest and fair reporting only take one source’s word at face value? Okay, so maybe Erdely is a terrible reporter. In fact, not maybe. She IS a terrible reporter. Her career, such as it is, should have committed suicide to any publication with any repute. What about the editor? After all, all publications have editors. Usually several. Erdely’s article was reviewed by four editors. Four! Four people looked at that piece of journalistic sloth and believed that it was quality worth printing. According to them, they spoke with Jackie quite a bit, and took what she said at face value as well. Four people, editors for a major publication, who didn’t seem to believe that seeking the perspective of a single other person was a wise idea. That incompetence on display is the stuff of legend. Then, when the truth was revealed and Jackie was exposed as a complete fraud, who got fired in connection to this? Who was held accountable for their actions? No one. Not one person has had to feel any legitimate consequences. Rolling Stone promises that they are going to work hard to correct the system that led to what happened, but that just makes it feel more disingenuous. After all, as the article linked above shows, they are so deep into incompetence that there may not be a definable line between what is and isn’t an offense that merits termination of employment. They seem to be huddling together, hoping to ride out the storm. Phi Kappa Psi, give them your worst. It’s clear that this publication needs to learn.
Rolling Stone is not the disease. It is a symptom. It is a symptom of an illness that has infected the entirety of journalism, from the most base of its ground up to the top of its hierarchy. From the beat reporter to the nightly news anchor. They are all a part of it. What is that? That’s easy – the culture of shameless pandering. I think that I’m going to let a YouTuber by the name of Mykeru media handle this one, with probably the greatest analogy that I have ever seen.
It works like this – say you have a dirt road. The road goes nowhere and nothing of significance has happened on that road since the time it took to lay down a half-foot of windblown dust. Now, stick a box on the side of the road. There’s nothing special about it, it’s just a box. A casual observer, were there one, might wonder – what’s in the box? Maybe there’s money or dope, puppies or kittens. If it was owned by Gretta Christina, there could be some old prescription fluvox. More likely, the box, like most discarded things, is simply empty. A reasonable guess as to what’s in the box would range from nothing bad to nothing at all.
Now, bring in a cable news team and their army of professional douchebags and that otherwise-innocuous box will take on a decidedly-ominous cast. A photogenic blonde hand-puppet can talk about what, if any, potential threat the shoebox represents to you and yours and what can be done about it, because dammit, something should be done about it! Hours of non-important space between all-important advertisements can be filled with clucking and braying Hollywood squares of ‘reliable’ talking heads who, with the utter conviction of people who have no idea what they’re talking about, whose expertise is based entirely on having seen a shoebox once without knowing that they, occasionally contain shoes, can take a hardline against those godless, life-hating bastards who let people threaten us by leaving shoeboxes on the side of the road. This can go on for hours of cheap, content-free television. The point is to create an inclusive, safe-space where people who count, by virtue of being on television, can feel free to completely lose their shit over nothing without fear of contradiction. And where they can all join together in worst-case scenario solidarity like a clenched asshole expecting the worst.
By the time someone figures out that there was nothing in the box and before anyone can actually learn something from it, they’ve all moved on to the next big important thing, such as the anal bleaching among silicon-based lifeforms.
That is news, in a nutshell. That is the entirety of the profession. It’s all just finding things and then turning them into the most bombastic stories they can, for the express purpose of selling ad space, copies and getting clicks on online stories. Aren’t we proud.
Ah, but what about the 5th Estate? you say. Good question. First, let’s define the 5th Estate. Part of me wonders how many of you only know that term from that terrible movie with Benedict Cumberbatch. The 5th Estate is the Internet. A nation with a culture, rules and communities all its own. It has redefined life on Earth. Part of that is amazing. After all, we now have all the knowledge of the human race at our fingertips. We have all the greatest pieces of music, culture and history right here. Unfortunately, we also have a lot of garbage. So much garbage. Vast oceans of garbage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in 5th Estate “journalism.” Though calling it that is an insult to even the term in scare quotes. I kid you not.
Let’s talk about gaming journalism. Say what you will about GamerGate, there has been some rather amazing stuff that has come up because of it. A YouTuber called Internet Aristocrat made a rather fascinating series of videos (linked here) about things as they came out. There was an article from a man named Dave Cook, where he outlined the history of his time in gaming journalism, blaming people like myself for why he left. Now, I went after Cook on this site, and I admit that I went after him a little hard. He pointed out some blatant corruption in the industry, but he at least regretted his actions and tried to do the right thing, after being outed for doing the wrong thing. That’s more than pretty much anyone at Kotaku can say.
To sum up 5th Estate journalism, let us look no further than a site called The Mary Sue. This poor excuse for “journalism” doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it is biased in the extreme. This site has a blatant pandering to third-wave feminism. A movement that has brought back the McCarthy witch-hunts and is so pro-censorship and anti-free expression that it boggles the mind.
Every single online news publication, regardless of its subject matter, panders to an ideology. From The Huffington Post to The Drudge Report, every single online-exclusive publication panders, for the express purpose of getting clicks. All online journalism is the same. Vetting sources? Never. Any amount of objectivity? According to Leigh Alexander, it’s a “silly thing to strive for.” Sites like IGN and others have adopted ethics policies, but the fact is that they still pander. Whether it be to the Authoritarian left, like Kotaku, or AAA gaming companies and shilling their games, like pretty much every site that has real credibility.
How did the 5th Estate go so wrong? What happened? Well, as Internet Aristocrat showed in a video the whole problem – the 5th Estate has no one to answer to. Publications like Rolling Stone have to answer to us. They have to answer to the public. The Nightly News has to make retractions. When is the last time you remember Kotaku, Polygon or any of their ilk admitting wrongdoing? Buzzfeed exists for erroneous news. Like their report on false rape statistics. A thousand and one sites exist that don’t even bother trying to do honest and factual reporting. They all just pander, making titles that are deliberate click-bait. Although, the 4th Estate isn’t above that. After all, ABC admitted that their hit-piece on GamerGate was click-bait.
That’s what it boils down to – click-bait. It’s all about clicks. It’s all about views. Facts? That’s easy to get around. Good reporting? Not even seen as important. I love this bit that Jon Stewart said on Fox News, talking about what 24 hour news networks are and their role in the world. He made a great point – journalism in this country doesn’t care anymore about good reporting. It doesn’t care anymore about whether or not it is spinning a narrative. Because you got clicks! The truth doesn’t matter if you get clicks! After all, it’s just journalism! Can’t you just have a good time? It’s just Buzzfeed, after all. Who cares if their stats are total bullshit, and that they use total hyperbole to sell a narrative? Who cares that NPR does unboxing videos? They got to make money too, right? Who cares that journalistic integrity is up for sale by the highest bidder? We have money to make!
The big question becomes – can it be fixed? Is there a way to fix modern journalism? I honestly don’t know. I mean, I see people like John Oliver, who did something that I believed was impossible – made in-depth journalism funny. He made the IRS sympathetic! Do you know how impossible that is?! Then we have Frontline, who does great stories like “The Suicide Tourist.” Reporting that is in documentary style. It gives them a chance to actually talk to people. But what is the cure for this culture we live in? I honestly don’t know. I have a degree in journalism, and I don’t know what to do with it. What is the future? How can we get this fixed?
If you figure it out, let me know.
Until next time, a quote,
“So what’s your proof again, about the partisan agenda and what I do? That’s the embarrassment. The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does.” -Jon Stewart