Essay: the public should determine the existence of journalists and authors, not the elite

Last year, I observed what was happening in the public debate around all possible forms of unacceptable behavior. My attention was mainly focused on the world of media and publishing; a domain known to me. Although each individual is ten thousand percent responsible for his or her behavior – so far this has mainly been the focus in the public debate – I’d like to zoom in on the structures of the industry. After all, those have cultivated, facilitated, and maintained unacceptable behavior for decades.

Disclaimer in advance

We are in the middle of a moral epidemic, also referred to as a battleground, from which we are far from emerging. Expect many more dysfunctional matters to be revealed in 2023. However, I have the impression that we mainly want to investigate who is to blame instead of scrutinizing the systemic arrangement of all those branches.

Don’t get me wrong. Naturally, each individual has full responsibility for his or her intentions, attitude, and behavior. At the same time, entire industries have operated for decades in such a way that misconduct was possible. We need to talk about that.

To support a shift in consciousness, I will generalize in this story and maintain a satirical tone. That does not mean that everything is elite and rotten, or that I want to undermine what goes well in these industries. No one makes that claim, not even me. Otherwise, I would never have worked with so much passion and dedication. It does not mean that power differences cannot and should not exist, either.

All common sense, but still important to provide this sort of disclaimer to introduce this story well. And the psychological-practical for the collective can be found in the personal narrative. “Connaissance de la vérité et vérité de la connaissance,” as writer Edmond Marc puts it.

Climbing Monkey Rock

The world of journalism and media – which can be two different things – has always known an all-determining and powerful elite, and, in a pyramid shape, a mass of wannabe media people. The mass did everything they could to work their way up, so to get to the top.

The mass had to be grateful for getting paid. So, their contracts, working conditions, and work aspects such as sustainable stability, being able to bloom to their full potential, and the personal treatment, were less important. After all, it was all about climbing the Monkey Rock. About the grace of the ruling elite. Having value and existence through being seen by the elite, so that some of that mass would get new opportunities, and hopefully would one day become the new elite.

Interns had to be grateful for being present somewhere at an editorial office, or in a studio. Thus, it did not matter much how they were treated. And over the years, the budgets of the editorial offices and the studios became tighter. Thus, just think for a moment of how many interns with boys’ and girls’ dreams of ‘making it big in journalism and media’ were involved in the work.

In practice, it seemed that the more ‘ordinary’ the trainees were – as in average Dutch, and not too big of a personality, or not too exotic – and the less eager they were, the easier and faster they could climb the Monkey Rock. They were spared intrigue and sabotage. After all, such ordinary interns were prepared to self-efface, to act submissive and subservient, and to contradict little or not at all so that the elite could shine. Or they resembled the elite that much, that they therefore received their favor, and traveled the course in massive speed to the position they wanted to get hold of.

Seen as one of them

Almost twenty years ago, I was such a trainee, who was then personally removed from an official application procedure for a radio position – without further explanation. In my view, only because of who I was, and not what my capabilities were. Legislation and regulations or codes of conduct turn out to be virtually worthless in such a situation. I honestly don’t know if the codes of conduct existed at the time.

Once upon a time, I too was part of the mass of wannabe media people, looking for a suitable position, and especially for belonging. Naive and sincere as I was, with a personal background that did not prepare me for my working life – let alone this industry – I believed back then that talent was the most important aspect for success. Focus on work, I thought, coping with sexism and even anti-Semitism a few times. A pit of snakes or not, stay close to the fire. Work hard. That was my thinking as a young woman.

In my early twenties, I even had light blonde hair for two years, due to the impact of the industry’s structures. I find that ridiculous and endearing now. Because apart from my sincere opposition to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish environment, from which I had just broken free, I wanted to be seen as ‘one of them’. So as ‘ordinary’. Not a word about where I came from. Otherwise, the environment from which I had left – I could say that I fled from – would overshadow my image.

My working life started with the ultimate girl’s dream of becoming an anchor, preferably audio and in a classic newsroom. I already had the clear diction, the few warm-hearted presenters at the top of the Monkey Rock reassured me. There was a Sacha de Boer lurking in me, they said. I am going for Sophie van Leeuwen, I responded. The woman with the fullest, warmest and somewhat francophone radio voice at the time. That felt recognizable. Only there was no chess player in me who would reach her goal at all costs.

Sleeping with people at the top of the Monkey Rock, entering into strategic relationships, sucking up, becoming someone’s darling and then stabbing them in the back, elbow-work, fighting like cats and dogs, or any other dishonest and toxic tactics were not for me. Well, I have always been somewhat of a good girl, but mainly because I wasn’t strong enough for all of that. I’m still not. Regardless of what I think of all of this (yikes), it is way too complicated for me. However, it all happened around me.

The Investigation Committee on Behavior and Culture Broadcasters (OGCO) should put that period next to the current period. The time before justice in the sense of using the personal for social causes, before diversity, inclusivity, pluralism, and others isms. Investigating those differences to understand better what is needed in the near future to prevent and resolve cases. After all, anyone who does not look at the history continues to work in vicious circles.

Liberty, equality, and fraternity

The truth is that entire groups of talented people out of that mass have never been able to leave the bottom of the Monkey Rock, being misunderstood, humiliated or simply ignored. Long before the expression ‘cancel culture’ started to play a public role, people were constantly cancelling. We just had to put up with it all to become ‘someone’. It came with the job. Those who could not deal with it left the industry.

Unfortunately, in this game, I was often deliberately pretending to be less intelligent than I was. Because the top of the Monkey Rock should not feel threatened by my giftedness and high sensitivity. Though I was full of ideas, desire, and I sensed a lot of matters about others, even though they had not spoken a word about it to me.

In fact, for most of my career, I then lifted others up because that was safer. In other words, I made sure that they became ‘someone’. I gave all my intellect, creativity, instinct, energy, and time to others, without the public knowing. Let me satirically call them the filled bellies. Bellies filled even more at the top of several Monkey Rocks as I did the hard work behind the scenes.

Anyway, media and traditional journalism, and the principle of liberty, equality and fraternity, in other words rights and recognition? Oh well, not really…

Mindset of medieval printing and physical stores

What I have outlined above also applies to some extent to the working mass in the publishing world. However, in the case of publishing, I’d like to zoom in on the perspective of the author who has to be grateful for the so-called recognition of the – sometimes literary – publishing elite.

After all, the author is given a public voice by publishing his or her work. Supposedly, that voice matters more than that of others without a publisher. It is not the content that is leading, but the assessment of the publishers’ elite. Unfortunately, the assessment is all too often seen as a quality mark.

Perils such as low royalties (sometimes only half of what is market-average for an entry-level, namely 5%), cheating with payouts, opaque or flawed work processes, and favoritism, where the interests of one author are put above another: all of these matters occur.

The structures of this industry are maintained because journalism and the media mainly focus on the books of the ‘likable’ publishing elite. (That is why I discuss the world of journalism and media and of publishers in one story, so for convenience.) And because the bellies of the bookshop owners need to be filled as well. They determine which books to include in their offer. When their offers are driven by the public, it gets called ‘an exceptional success’.

Strange actually to still act with the mindset of medieval printing and physical stores in this day and age, while the environmental awareness and the conveniences of digitization and globalization are undeniable. To me, paper books are like Christmas trees. Everyone understands the melancholy and the feeling of joy it brings, but no one has an excuse to not go for a sustainable alternative.

In short, what receives attention and is visible grows in terms of positioning, credibility and (financial) existence. In other words: gets a voice and recognition.

Dissatisfied authors

I do not want to talk about my publishing experience. If only because I made an agreement not to do this, and I keep my part of the agreement. However, after this first experience, I doubt whether I want to do this again, while the offer of various renowned publishers is still standing.

I do want to talk about my conversations with several dissatisfied authors. These highlighted nothing but complaints beyond disagreements on the editorial visions, artistic expression, on marketing or the book design. Of course, also beyond the recurring complaint that ultimately, all those authors had to arrange their publicity and purchasing by themselves. Well, authors who were not on the same level as the Isabel Allende’s of this world, and who were not completely satisfied with the way matters went. I have not spoken with content authors for this story. Thus, I deliberately zoomed in on what is not going well.

Even some big Dutch names had a lot to say about the structures of the industry. For example, how the top of the Monkey Rock almost effortlessly filled his or her belly with their blood, sweat, and tears. Or that many promises were not kept by the elite. Think of promises about sales, international rights, or events/lectures. Or that the phenomenon of printing on demand completely obscured the entire system of how many printings a book had actually achieved.

Big names therefore decided to stop their normal lives, and to travel the world; to pitch their book on their own, and sell it internationally. They started their own publishing houses and platforms to get rid of the publishing elite’s perils. One time, that meant getting rid of the clashing egos. Another time, that meant that they created their own platform to interact with their supporters directly.

Because authors do not live for the assessment of the publishing elite, as my conversations underline. I can imagine, except for those few who recharge themselves with the Dutch Boekenbal-vitamins, so the annual literary book festival, but I have not spoken to them. After all, most authors work to reach people with their ideas. Some to leave imprints in history – I am one of them.

Anyone who was not a big name à la… fill it in… had to add money sometimes to be ‘printed’. Who does that, I wondered. Paying to join the Champions League – yes, yes, there we have it – from the publishing world, isn’t that the ultimate humiliation? Then rather participate in the jungle, I would almost say. Almost…

On the right side of history

Okay, let me throw in a marketing principle, namely that the public is always right. This means that how the work of media professionals or authors is received is rightly so influencing their existence. But as can be seen from the above, the existence is subject to all kinds of preconditions that have nothing to do with the actual work.

In other words, it is not so much the justified and, as far as I am concerned, ‘elegant’ factors of the craft, such as taste or style, that matter. But factors that I like to call ‘low level’, such as the political game to gain (commercial) success, prestige, and recognition.

Those are structures of industries that indeed fueled unacceptable behavior for I don’t know how long – justified by the battle, in other words, the by now famous ‘Champions League’. If the public does not know how the structures of the industries work, it becomes very difficult to look at someone’s work differently and to make other choices.

It then becomes difficult to see that some at the top of the Monkey Rock are not at all on the right side of history. Falling short in sincere intentions and attitudes towards inclusion, for example, but widely showing how much they embrace this enlightened idea of justice. If I have to hear one more time from the well-filled belly of Bas, Petra, Joost, Sijmen, Joris or whomever, that diversity and inclusivity are important, I will move to an isolated island. Oh, wait.

Of course, there are people at the top of Monkey Rock with sincere intentions. Sometimes with blind spots, which is not always a bad thing, as long as they want to continue to develop and improve together. But as all reports of unacceptable behavior underline, there are plenty of people who deliberately ignore or even cause abuses. Who are not at all concerned with a more conscious, as far as I am concerned humane, change of mindset.

Again, it is a major misconception to think that the majority of the filled bellies act to do the right thing. Many just do something because they have to. After all, the majority of the public is (finally) increasingly asking for it, so that is where the support and the money lie.

Selling my soul to the structures of the industry

Now what? In those nearly twenty years, everything I have done has turned out quite well, by doing it all in a quirky way, and by doing various matters at the same time as a small business owner. Not getting caught in one domain is pure gold. By continuing to focus on the content, indeed, where integrity is leading and the common thread in everything that I do.

But let’s be honest: like so many of the mass in traditional journalism and media, I naturally dropped out at some point. I could not put up with the culture and mindset that cultivated, facilitated and perpetuated unacceptable behavior. Likewise, I did not want to deal with the preconditions instead of the work. Besides, I did not want to accept financial limitations because it was determined for me. So, I am not in that newsroom from my dreams, where I get to discuss people and society in details daily.

Incidentally, I am still quite open to that, provided that it comes to me, and that I can do it as a free spirit, without selling my soul to the structures of the industry. But going after it? No, those days are long gone. In that case, I’ll do it myself, and create my own Sacha de Boer-projects.

Ultimately, as a storyteller, I serve the public, not the system, and certainly not the filled bellies of the elite. What are the chances that the top of the Monkey Rock will allow an outsider with an alternative path and a critical attitude to take on the work? Well, say it yourselves. I’d like to add warmly: I dare you.

Valuable, diverse and qualitative intermediate forms

Meanwhile, there are truly wonderful matters that fellow international storytellers devote their lives to, and from which I learn a lot. Because when people dare to color outside the lines of the Monkey Rock, so much more is possible. I am not referring to the productions of the belly of artificial intelligence (AI), which will swallow up all deep philosophical and personal forms of expression. A great tragedy indeed.

I am referring to, for example, the many independent, wise, innovative, American storytellers who serve, or feed, an international audience. People who do not have a sufficient command of English as an international language are missing out on these terrific works.

Admittedly, I do see many of those Americans, when they have been able to feed a large audience for a long time, approach such a traditional publisher at some point. They are just doing that to tick off the New York Times bestseller list. You know, for that quality label. Then they return to self-publishing.

In the Netherlands, such a matter can only become fruitful if the structures of the industry are being stretched. If you look closely, you will see that there is a valuable, diverse and qualitative intermediate between the world of the publishing elite and that of the content agencies or AI-rulers. I can guarantee that if that becomes the norm, the cases of unacceptable behavior will decrease significantly. Above all, that a changing perspective will then arise among the public. Again, it is not the top of the Monkey Rock that should determine which work has a right to exist, but the public.

I am thinking of a form of storytelling and publishing in which autonomy is at the core, without reducing positioning, credibility and (financial) existence. Without kicking down the competitors who are only too happy to frame such a form negatively, and to reduce it to the level of ‘writing pieces on a Facebook page’. That greater sovereignty over hierarchy and conformity will become the norm.

Let’s get rid of the nonsense labels of the filled bellies that wear others down and exploit them financially. Incidentally, this very idea is at the cradle of Web3, even Web5, with all the disadvantages that entails in the meantime. An honest form of existence, where what is good for the ‘I’ is also good for the ‘we’.

The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.