Jack White and the 4th Estate

When a rock star lashes out at journalists, you know that there’s got to be a reaction. On a mailing list for writers, there was a lot of discussion about Jack White’s put-down of writers as being lazy and inaccurate (see NME story), specifically because too many scribes were getting the facts wrong about the White Stripes. As a writer, my reflex action is to get defensive but truth be told, White isn’t entirely off the mark.

Start with this quote from White: “Journalists are inherently the laziest people on earth. Even in the age of Google, they don’t do any work to check what they’re writing about.” I’d counter that civil servants definitely take the slacker prize but he’s not totally off base here. With powerful search engines like Google, it’s easier than ever for anyone to read up on any subject and get background information. Even with those kind of tools at their fingertips, it’s inevitable that writers are still going to make mistakes. Admittedly, sometimes they (and their editor or fact-checker at their publication) don’t acts dig into details as they should but nobody’s perfect when it comes to their work, not even White himself.

That leads to his next quote: “I’d say 90 per cent of what they get is from the press release. We have fun putting things in there — like in the press release for ‘Elephant’, somebody inserted a joke about how none of our studio equipment was made after 1963.” First of all, it’s kind of disingenuous for him to say that he’s mad that writers didn’t catch on when he purposely played a game on them and misled them. That’s kind of mean and I doubt that he’d be so forgiving if scribes started purposely screwing around with him. He’s in a privileged position as a rock star so he can play these kind of games with the press- he’s done it for a while now with leaving everyone guessing how he’s related to Meg White (ex-wife).

It’s true that writers do indeed sometimes just regurgitate press releases. A promoter told me that she didn’t mind the positive reviews based on writers who re-worded her words that she used for promos but she always thought she should get part of the writer’s pay as such. In another instance, I noticed that numerous John Fahey obits just repeated the same stories from an old press release, some of which info was not the truth. So do writers get lazy sometimes and are some writers just hacks? Of course (see this pretty funny send-up on the Borowitz Report for more info).

But look at White’s second quote again closely. He trusts 10 percent of what he reads. How does he (or anyone) know which writers or publications are reliable? It’s instinct sometimes and reputation too and just getting a feel for a writer’s style where you get to the point that you rely on them and want to follow their work. That’s true for print or the online world. Just because it’s a national, well-known publication doesn’t mean you’re always getting the straight dope or even useful information but beware of any blanket condemnations of the fourth estate too.