The Fourth and Fifth Estates

The United Estates of America
The United Estates of America

A couple weeks back, a Sonoma Index-Tribune reader opined about the press in a letter to the editor in which he errantly referred to us as the “third estate.” We in the press are actually the fourth estate, so named because the first three were already the clergy, the nobility and the commoners – in that order.

I don’t believe the reader meant to call us commoners, though commoners we be – last I checked I wasn’t Lord Howell, to my eternal chagrin. The error did get me thinking about the various estates of the realm, the first three of which Wikipedia informs me were first formalized in France during the Middle Ages. Years after the French Revolution, the Fourth Estate was apparently first acknowledged by Brit statesman Edmund Burke, who, upon gendering at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, averred, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.” So there.

Of course, I had mistakenly assumed that the Fourth Estate was an American contrivance, an officially unofficial counterpart to the checks and balances of our executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. But alas, that would make journalists the “Fourth Branch,” which sounds more like a quartet of arborists than ink-stained seekers of truth.

In his review of media critic Stephen Cooper’s “Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers and the Fifth Estate,” academic Mark Prendergast recounts Cooper’s observation “that blogs and bloggers constitute ‘a legitimate social institution,’ a spontaneously arising, self-organizing, self-regulating Fifth Estate – in effect a watchdog for our traditional watchdog, the press, or Fourth Estate.”

Cooper forgot to mention “self-aggrandizing,” a characteristic endemic among many bloggers (guilty), which is generally the result of an overactive survival instinct.
Like most writers trying to keep a crumbling foothold atop an ever-changing media landscape, I’ve had to hybridize my career to include an online element, then endeavor to be interesting to the trickle of traffic that clicks my way.

When I can neural map the contents of my mind and upload it to my Web site I will (though I fear that the system would constantly crash due to deficiencies in my personality).

Now, if journalists are the Fourth Estate and bloggers are the Fifth Estate, to what estate do we media cyborgs belong? Do we average the latter two estates and belong to the Fourth-and-Half Estate?

Is there a burgeoning Sixth Estate that serves as a catch-all? Who’s watching the watchdogs that are watching the watchdogs? For that matter who’s watching the Watchmen?

And who trusts a dude who has an inkblot for a face when he says “An attack on one is an attack on all of us…”? Okay, I do, but then superheroes and journalists tend to pal around (think: Clark Kent and Superman, Peter Parker and Spiderman, David Bolling and The Editor).

Confusing matters (more than the above “Watchman” qua superhero digression), or at least me, is the notion of the Fifth Column or “a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group, such as a nation, to which it is regarded as being loyal” (thus spake Wikipedia).

The column that you are presently reading is, in fact, my fifth column for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Clearly, there is no agenda here beyond making my deadline and a few points about the state of my trade whilst safely contained in the opinion pages (they don’t trust me with facts). Compound all of this with the fact that I penned this little missive over pizza and pinot at Sonoma’s restaurant, Estate, and one can see how the trade can hasten one’s demise. Perhaps I should look into some estate planning.

Open Source to Open Bottle

William Tell was here.
William Tell was here.

The open source movement, which has evolved handsomely within the world of software programming (the architecture behind this very blog is a result of such efforts), has produced numerous spawn in the creative and tech sectors. Now, the mind(s) behind the E Text Editor blog are advocating an admixture of open source protocols and commerce in the form of an ?open company.?

To quote from the movement?s ur-manifesto, the intent to is to create a company that is ?Totally open. No concept of bosses or employees. Anyone could join in at any time, doing whatever task they found interesting, for whatever time they found appropriate.? Thought the author?s concept is clearly more nuanced than a mere pull-quote can convey, I cannot help but flash to the Beatles? initial Apple Corps. concept and its rather disastrous attempt to foster a Utopian creative community circa ?68.

?It?s a company we?re setting up, involving records, films, and electronics, and ? as a sideline ? manufacturing or whatever,? explained John Lennon in a press conference, then added with characteristic cheek, ?We want to set up a system where people who just want to make a film about anything, don?t have to go on their knees in somebody?s office. Probably yours.?

The result, predictably, was a wave of wannabes clamoring for a handout at the Apple Corps. Saville Row offices, which, remarkably, many received. This inauspicious moment in angel funding was astutely parodied in The Rutles, wherein scenesters are depicted brazenly looting the Pre-Fab Four?s company, absconding with everything including the furniture. The parody was apparently not far from the truth as Ringo Starr later recounted: ?We had, like, a thousand people that weren?t needed, but they all enjoyed it. They were all getting paid for sitting around. We had a guy there just to read the tarot cards, the I Ching. It was craziness.?

Albeit, the E Text Editor?s model will exist online under its proprietor?s watchful eye, so there?s little fear of a staff-Tarot reader creeping aboard (moreover, I seem to recall an ancient I Ching program for the Mac which would obviate the position).

Having launched my own media and entertainment company in beautiful Sonoma wine country this month, I?m more inclined to advocate an Open Bottle model of creative commerce. You bring the bottle and I?ll open it. Then we can collaborate on draining it together (and, if in the process, I pitch you a project which ignites a greenlight from within you, we can commence with the commerce). Have your people call my, um, person. Oh, and I?m partial to reds.

Twitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy

It?s been observed that an iPhone, connected to Wikipedia, is essentially the promise of Douglas Adam?s Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy, but pocket-sized and less condescending. An iPhone connected to a lanky Brit with a Twitter account and a yen to circumnavigate the globe in 30 days, however, is the Twitchhiker. And no, this isn?t some horrid cross-pitch a la The Hitcher meets Web 2.0. Be assured, writer, raconteur and Twitterati Paul Smith is not a psychotic Rutger Hauer. Rather he is a disarming world traveler with innate media savvy whose film right?s I tried to purchase for the price of a pint (if I recall, Smith granted me domestic, but kept foreign in search of a better deal ? the lush).

As Smith explains at Twitchhiker.com, he is attempting to ?travel as far around the world as possible in 30 days, relying only on the goodwill of people using Twitter.? At present writing he?s in New Zealand, by way of Los Angeles, by way of Sonoma from which ?Sommelier to the Stars? Christopher Sawyer and I attempted to launch him with a wine country hangover.

All the while, Smith has used his burgeoning celebrity (his international media cred is staggering), to raise awareness and funds for Charity: Water. A contributor to the Guardian UK among other affiliations, Smith is armed with a Wildean wit (fortunately, not limited to a mere 140 characters), which he evinced on his blog with this backhanded compliment clad in a velvet glove:

You can?t meet a man called Daedalus and let it pass without comment. Dressed in black, with that curious stub of beard under the bottom lip (it?s called a soul patch, dontcha know), Daedalus was a full-on, good-looking hipster who?d lived a media life in LA. All things considered, a man with such a ridiculous name, dress in black on a beltingly hot day, with idiotic facial hair should have been nothing short of a prize tit. He wasn?t. He was a stupidly handsome guy who liked wine and made short films and was utterly charming to me all day long. Bastard.

It?s true, I was utterly charming to Smith all day long, though I eventually devolved into a ?prize tit? by nightfall courtesy of Chris Benziger, Jeff Bundschu and a raft of other former Wine Brats imbibing at the Swiss. As for ?stupidly handsome,? I suppose it?s better than being handsomely stupid, which I am more often than not. I blame the soul patch (send the Twitchhiker his own soul patch by clicking here).

From Class to Glass ? Online

I’m old enough to recall cutting school in the ’80s and catching a television ad endorsed by on-the-wane celebrity Sally Struthers, as she hawked correspondence courses in such fields of study as “computer programming,” “gun repair” and “high school” (which, upon reflection, reads like a prescription for “Columbine,” but let’s move on and spare Ms. Struthers an on-camera assault by Michael Moore).

Of course, as a perennial n’er-do-well and eventual dropout, the notion of taking “high school” via “distance learning” held particular irony for me since I lived mere blocks from the school (there’s a metaphysical phenomenon here – the closer one lives near a school, the more unlikely it is that one will go there). Moreover, why bother with Petaluma High School when I could simply ring Sally toll-free and “train at home for a better career?” Seeing as anything seems better than living the subplot to a John Hughes movie as a high school sophomore, I very nearly called Sally. I didn’t. Apparently, no one did, which is why she eventually had to take the gig fronting for starving kids. Now that I’m a relatively educated accredited member of the media, I receive dozens of press releases daily touting means by which you, darling readers, may improve yourselves (impossible – you’re perfect, I know). A release came today, in fact, touting a new online course available from the University of California Irvine Extension:

“A Sommelier’s Secret Guide to the Wine List: Wine and Food Galore,” taught by the extremely credentialed Marlene Rossman, who certainly did not receive her various masters degrees and sommelier accreditation from the Internet. “This course takes the anxiety out of ordering wine from a restaurant list or buying wine in a store, which can be very challenging given the huge number of wine choices, both domestic and imported,” explains course instructor and seasoned wine specialist Marlene Rossman.

Indeed, but this is Sonoma – where, if you don’t make wine, you’ve probably written about it (it’s like open-mic night at some rags, not to mention the local blogosphere – and power to us). If a Sonoman has any anxiety ordering wine it’s because he/she is experiencing withdrawal and preoccupied with the spiders crawling on his/her arms.

Now, I’m not criticizing the targeting of efforts of the PR firm (spam-shotgun aimed at lifestyle media – clearly it works), but I will suggest some additions to Rossman’s curricula that will appeal to at least a few of my fellow Sonomans.
Imagine Sally Struthers reading the following from a teleprompter:

Upon completion of the course, participants will be able to:

  1. Uncork a bottle with your teeth.
  2. Pair wine with more wine.
  3. Pose as a critic to score samples.
  4. Remove red wine stains from friends’ clothes and carpets.
  5. Do the ABCs backwards.

Of course, some Sonomans I know would slur, “Tell me something I don’t know, Sally.” But, theoretically, due to short-term memory impairment from a lifetime of imbibing, it’s possible that such a Sonoman will end up taking the same course repeatedly with only a vague sense of d?j? vino – the feeling that one drank some wine then forgot about it. I know I did.

From Class to Glass – Online

I’m old enough to recall cutting school in the ’80s and catching a television ad endorsed by on-the-wane celebrity Sally Struthers, as she hawked correspondence courses in such fields of study as “computer programming,” “gun repair” and “high school” (which, upon reflection, reads like a prescription for “Columbine,” but let’s move on and spare Ms. Struthers an on-camera assault by Michael Moore).

Of course, as a perennial n’er-do-well and eventual dropout, the notion of taking “high school” via “distance learning” held particular irony for me since I lived mere blocks from the school (there’s a metaphysical phenomenon here – the closer one lives near a school, the more unlikely it is that one will go there). Moreover, why bother with Petaluma High School when I could simply ring Sally toll-free and “train at home for a better career?” Seeing as anything seems better than living the subplot to a John Hughes movie as a high school sophomore, I very nearly called Sally. I didn’t. Apparently, no one did, which is why she eventually had to take the gig fronting for starving kids. Now that I’m a relatively educated accredited member of the media, I receive dozens of press releases daily touting means by which you, darling readers, may improve yourselves (impossible – you’re perfect, I know). A release came today, in fact, touting a new online course available from the University of California Irvine Extension:

“A Sommelier’s Secret Guide to the Wine List: Wine and Food Galore,” taught by the extremely credentialed Marlene Rossman, who certainly did not receive her various masters degrees and sommelier accreditation from the Internet. “This course takes the anxiety out of ordering wine from a restaurant list or buying wine in a store, which can be very challenging given the huge number of wine choices, both domestic and imported,” explains course instructor and seasoned wine specialist Marlene Rossman.

Indeed, but this is Sonoma – where, if you don’t make wine, you’ve probably written about it (it’s like open-mic night at some rags, not to mention the local blogosphere – and power to us). If a Sonoman has any anxiety ordering wine it’s because he/she is experiencing withdrawal and preoccupied with the spiders crawling on his/her arms.

Now, I’m not criticizing the targeting of efforts of the PR firm (spam-shotgun aimed at lifestyle media – clearly it works), but I will suggest some additions to Rossman’s curricula that will appeal to at least a few of my fellow Sonomans.
Imagine Sally Struthers reading the following from a teleprompter:

Upon completion of the course, participants will be able to:

  1. Uncork a bottle with your teeth.
  2. Pair wine with more wine.
  3. Pose as a critic to score samples.
  4. Remove red wine stains from friends’ clothes and carpets.
  5. Do the ABCs backwards.

Of course, some Sonomans I know would slur, “Tell me something I don’t know, Sally.” But, theoretically, due to short-term memory impairment from a lifetime of imbibing, it’s possible that such a Sonoman will end up taking the same course repeatedly with only a vague sense of déjà vino – the feeling that one drank some wine then forgot about it. I know I did.