by Jennie S. Bev
Originated from Burke, the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, and made popular by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes and Hero Worship, the conventional mass media (or the press) is known as the fourth estate, which is a particular capacity in the society to advocate and frame political issues.
With the rise of Web 2.0, which is the second coming of the power of the Internet in changing people’s lives, there are approximately 53 million blogs today that double every six months. There are also millions of user-uploaded videos, images, and sounds on Web-based broadcasting services like YouTube, Bebo, and Odeo.
The latter is known for its so-called “unframed” and honest reportage by the public, hence its “citizen journalism” nickname. Does it mean the press as the “official” reporting institution is being threatened by those Web 2.0’s offsprings, which I dare calling as “the new estate”? What can we expect to see in Indonesian journalism landscape given new estate’s meteorite rise? Is it staying or dying? Is its rise threatening the existing press? How are new estate media changing the landscape of Indonesian journalism?
As an official institution, the press comes with both privileges and responsibilities. Conventional mass media serve obvious purposes in the society: to announce, to inform, to educate, to report, and to communicate. All are done with some bias, which is called “the media bias.” It oftentimes appears as subtle nuances, which can only be recognized by critical minds. Naturally, it serves its purpose as a useful political tool to steer public opinion.
For instance, a publication may have a slant towards a particular political affiliation, specific issues, or specific causes. There are also publications known to publish reportages based on specific perspectives. Such biases generally appear with no logical fallacies on the surface, instead they are infused into the narrative with or without the appearances of subjective verbiage.
The press’ responsibilities include providing the most accurate and current information at any given time, being transparent, striving to use concise and correct words, and giving credit when credit is due. At the same time, defamation of character, by ways of libel and slander, is the ultimate taboo.
In the United States, to uphold professionalism and truthfulness, a professional member of the press may be punished severely by the court, be fired by the institution, and have his or her byline permanently removed from every piece previously published. A complete wipe out of existence, it is. The ultimate shame.
As for Web 2.0’s offsprings known as “citizen journalists,” such responsibilities do not apply. It means regardless of how biased and subjective a blogger’s or an amateur broadcaster’s opinions are, only civil law suits would apply to them, not professional removal.
As Andrew Keen said in his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, amateurs will continue to color the Internet and the society with their compilations of subjective accounts, which oftentimes border on the ridiculous, with some exception of excellence. Yet, these are collective minds, not professional institutions. These are minds at work without professional ethics, simply a bunch of noisy intelligences. These are minds that belong to common people.
Such lack of professional ethics is what makes the new estate a forceful commodity. It can be infiltrated by advertisements and messages so biased yet appear as if coming from an honest and unframed source. It can serve as a leader followed by foot soldiers. It can serve as an opinionated trend setter. It can serve as a pundit admired and referred to by millions. Whatever you want it to be, the new estate is the chameleon of choice.
So, is the fourth estate dead or dying? All those leaders, trend setters, pundits, and opinionated members of the new estate can never replace reputable members of the fourth estate. The latter creates equilibrium in the society with its professionalism, legal, and ethical fundamentals, which provides layered protection of credible information, no matter how biased the subtleties are.
In the United States, paper-based circulation is going downhill due to today’s readers’ preference in reading instant news on their computer monitor. However, such old habit is not going to go away any time soon, as long as the baby boomers are still around and the game-addicted generation has not made any household decisions.
Indonesia will not be experiencing a downturn in paper-based circulation any time soon, fortunately. According to Asia Internet User statistics, there are merely 20 million Internet users in Indonesia as of May 2007, which is a tiny 8.9 percent of the total population. Indonesians are likely to stick with their print publications, except for those who are fortunate to enjoy the rosy section of the digital divide with DSL, cable, and satellite Internet connections providing fast downloading.
Now, is the new estate’s meteorite rise a threat to the fourth estate? Yes at some level, yet creating a healthy competition at the same time. In Indonesia, such threat is not as colossal as in the United States, for sure. It is mostly due to the majority of readers are not that familiar with the latest Web 2.0 phenomenon.
According to Budi Putra, a technology journalist who is known as the first Indonesian professional blogger, there are 30,000 blogs created by Indonesians as of May 2007. It is an impressive figure, but not yet proportionate to the total population. Also, a collective effort to unify Indonesian and other Asian blogs has been executed through the establishment of AsiaBlogging.com, which might eventually form a group of influential pundits and opinionated bloggers and broadcasters. Such unifying effort is an admirable accomplishment, as the selection process would elevate the credibility of Indonesian and Asian bloggers as equal counterparts to the conventional press.
In a nutshell, the fourth estate and the new estate are going to complement each other. One as the voice of somewhat objective framed reason and the other as the voice of the people’s hearts and minds. One is ruled by professionalism, ethics, and regulations, while the other is ruled by Web-based street smarts. As long as the rules of the game and boundaries are mutually respected, there are many things to be learned from each other. 
The Jakarta Post, September 17, 2007