Journalism is a funny line of work. It wobbles between aspirations to be taken seriously as a “profession,” with all the status and respect that entails, and a desire to be the voice of the people, a critic of the pretensions of the professional class. We’re used to being condescended to, or attacked by, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, and the like. But with the Web comes a different angle of attack, this time from the populace, as the so-called “wisdom of crowds” rivals our claims to expertise. This is a conflict in which journalism has a lot at stake.
“User-generated content” has already altered the landscape of modern life profoundly. The amateur encyclopedists of Wikipedia have largely displaced the professionals of the Britannica on the Web; at Digg, news stories are ranked by their popularity with readers, not by an editor’s sense of their importance; broadcasting must come to terms with YouTube and its competitors. A clunky buzzword of the past few years has been “disintermediation,” a classy Latinate term for the obsolescence of the middleman. And in the middle of that word, as in the middle of things in society for the past century and more, stand the media.
Perhaps there is no place in journalism where this contemporary tension between the expert and the crowd is seen as clearly as in the world of consumer reporting, the kind of work that at its best gives readers and viewers a shot at better quality, safety, and leverage in the marketplace. Shopping is a central part of our culture, the true national pastime. Perhaps the moment when it became clear that Americans were happier thinking of themselves as consumers than as workers was the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906. As the author hoped, the unflinching depiction of conditions in Chicago’s stockyards provoked a national outrage. But rather than directing its anger at the terrible working conditions of the workers there, as he had intended, the public focused its outrage on the questionable quality of the meat sold in the nation. The book worked as great consumer reporting, and when it helped lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the author commented, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”
So ingrained has this consumer identity become that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush told the nation to return to the shopping malls—it was the patriotic thing to do. Consumerism is central to America’s current identity, but it’s part of the national conversation in which the press plays an unusually peripheral role. Great consumer reporting could again become a powerful journalistic weapon, as David Cay Johnston posits in the piece that follows this one, but is currently in a weakened state, as Trudy Lieberman reports in the article preceding this one.
It has been estimated that the average American child watches more than forty thousand TV ads a year. Add to that the newspaper, magazine, radio, and billboard ads, logos worn by sports stars and emblazoned on race cars, stadium walls, etc., and it begins to seem that there is little room in American life for anything else. The great moveable feasts of our national culture, the Super Bowl and the Oscars, have become showcases as much for advertising spots as for the performances of athletes or actors. In this country, the vast majority of the discourse about products is produced by advertisers and marketers.
But now comes the Internet, which puts a significant amount of new power in the hands of consumers. All sorts of basic factual information is easier to obtain, and many Web sites now routinely post consumer reviews of products.