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PINAC Rising: The Rise of the Fifth Estate

Chandler and Coral Gables police

Joel Chandler getting trespassed by Coral Gables police from a private building after making a public records request from a private company that has a contract with the state, making those records legally accessible to citizens. Photo by Carlos Miller

 

From the beginning, PINAC has celebrated the importance of citizen journalism.  That hasn’t changed.  And that’s not going to change.

Throughout our conversations about working together, Carlos Miller, Jeff Gray and I have not lost sight of what PINAC’s mission must be:  to empower citizens to take up their cameras and notepads and become the “Fifth Estate.”

Historically, the Fourth Estate has consisted of traditional media: newspapers, television, magazines and radio.  To their credit, in the past these media outlets have helped to inform the public so as to keep in check the abuses of power that are, by their very nature, attendant with the other three Estates.

Within a democracy like the United States, those three Estates have consisted of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government.  From the outset these three Estates were intended to create a system of checks and balances.  And, from the outset, the Fourth Estate (the media) was intended to keep the other three honest, or at least provide the means for the public to call them out when they weren’t.

That’s changed.  Today traditional media outlets are struggling just to survive.

Historical Context

Last year I had the opportunity to sit in on a round-table discussion that included Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. “Could Watergate Happen Again?” was the topic of their conversation.

Joel Chandler

Joel Chandler

The question had two sides.  First, in the age of the Internet and citizen journalism (think the Drudge Report) could something as massive as Watergate happen again?  Second, given the feeble state of traditional journalism could or would any news outlet invest the kinds of resources necessary to expose something as explosive as Watergate?

Sitting in the same room with two men who have been the inspiration for some many journalistic careers was exhilarating.  It was also sobering.

When considering the two sides of this question it’s important to remember just how big Watergate was.  While the name “Watergate” generally refers to a single event (namely the now infamous break-in) the conspirators were involved with many break-ins as well as all manner of illegal activities including bribes, false arrests, harassment, etc.

The general consensus of the panelists was “yes”, in spite of the Internet and globalized information sharing something like Watergate could happen again.  As to the second side of the question (would any news organization invest the resources necessary to expose a new Watergate?) there appeared to be serious doubt.

In the case of Watergate, the Washington Post invested enormous economic resources by allowing Bernstein and Woodward to do little else other than investigate the President of the United States for almost two years.  Given the economic realities of newsrooms today such an investment seems unlikely.

Modern Realities

Today there is an oxymoronic juxtaposition of realties.

On the one hand we have greater access to information than at anytime in human history.  Our ability to communicate and disseminate news and information is the stuff of science fiction.

On the other hand, there is growing government paranoia that motivates a heavy-handed (and often ham-handed) response to folks who dare to utilize information technology to inform the masses.

Examples of the establishment overreacting to the dissemination of news and information are legion.  In fact, such overreaction is often the content used to fill the pages of PINAC and other new media outlets.

Cameras v. Guns

One of the most common examples of establishment overreach (and overreaction) is the response of the authorities when citizens dare to un-holster a camera.  Oscar Grant and Anthony Graber come to mind. Of course there are many others.

It is remarkable that the establishment reacts so viscerally to the non-violence of citizens using cameras to do nothing more than document the misconduct of the agents of the three Estates.  What’s more troubling is the apparent unwillingness or inability of traditional media to fulfill its historical role as the guardian of the public’s “right to know.”

PINAC is not a platform for rebellion.  Our mission is not to foment a revolution.  Instead our ambition is to encourage and empower our readers to unsheathe their cameras and document the realities around them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. made the prescient observation that folks who are engaged in non-violent direct action are not the causes of tension.  Rather, those folks are simply the agents that reveal the tensions that already exist.

In that spirit PINAC wants to encourage and equip readers to develop their journalistic skills and to use those skills to report the truth, no matter how unvarnished it may be.

What we need are more citizens who are willing and able to stand in the shoes of tradition media to become the Fifth Estate.

Irony

It is ironic that many of the underlying causes for the demise of the Fourth Estate (the Internet, the proliferation of social media, cell phone cameras, etc.) are precisely what make the rise of the Fifth Estate possible.

It is imperative, however, that those of us engaged in a movement that will ultimately replace traditional media embrace at least some of the ideals that once made traditional journalism so profoundly important and effective.  We must, for example, strive to employ journalistic ethics.  We need to report facts and not embellish fiction.  We need to be transparent.  We need to be objective.

PINAC is not a political animal.  If anything we are apolitical.  Personally, Carlos, Jeff and I have very different political strips.  We are disinterested in promoting any one political persuasion.  We are, however, passionate about publishing facts without regard to the sensibilities of corporate leadership or sponsors.

We live in perilous times.  Our civil rights are under assault and there exists no robust Fourth Estate to inform the masses.  We also live in exciting times.  The masses that so desperately need to be informed have the means to find the truth and communicate it to the world in a way that has never before been possible.

What’s Next

Like Carlos and Jeff, over the past six years I’ve moved from the sidelines to the frontlines of activism.  That transition has been difficult at times, but it was made easier by developing relationships with likeminded folks.  And over time it became obvious that by working together we are more than the sum of our parts.

My role with PINAC will include producing educational materials for our readers (how-to articles, training videos, etc.) and breaking investigative news stories.

Every week reporters throughout Florida call asking me for stories.  There are two reasons for that.  First, I spend much of my time digging through public records and that means that I find lots of things that reporters want to know.  Second, I’m a “100% source.”  When I give something to a reporter they can take it to the bank.  I don’t embellish and I don’t exaggerate.

Whether it’s a story about the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice losing 200 children in their care or giving a windfall of more than $16,000,000 to contractors for empty beds; the misappropriation of specialty tag revenue; exposing a Florida Sheriff’s operation of sending undercover deputies into African-American churches, or; one State Attorney’s suggestion that LEOs use attack dogs on peaceful civil rights protestors, public records access has been the key to getting these and many other stories.

Moving forward instead of sourcing for other media outlets I will be breaking stories on PINAC.  More importantly, I want to empower our readers to do what I do:  dig, verify and report.

Joel Chandler making a public records request.

Joel Chandler making a public records request.

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