I Was a Reporter. Now I Drive for Lyft. Journalism Has Become a Bastion of Privilege | Opinion

I get my political news lobbed at me from the back seat of my car these days. I'm a Lyft driver with a journalist's ear, and my passengers' stories capture my attention. It's not just my ear, though; I was once a congressional reporter.

I left journalism for economic reasons, first to do other editorial work that paid more, then to drive for Lyft. When I started driving for Lyft, I thought, this is more like journalism than journalism is now.

The author in his car driving for
The author in his car driving for Lyft

These days, it sure seems like to be a reporter, you have to be independently wealthy or famous. But journalism used to be a solid career for people from a wide range of backgrounds. And this was reflected in the news, which was more balanced when it was the collective product of a group of reporters spanning the socioeconomic spectrum. Full of people from blue-collar blue backgrounds, it addressed the concerns of working people. That's no longer true.

I began working as a reporter in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. I was neither famous nor independently wealthy. I was a middle-class kid from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I applied for a copy desk job. In a year, I was promoted to reporter. I got my press passes, which were keys to the kingdom on Capitol Hill. I worked for several publications, and my beats were taxes and health care.

I talked to politicians, staffers, and lobbyists at work and at play. I took pride in crafting ledes. And I worried about the insularity of it all, how much is squeezed into such a small space. It can be a good thing: Working as a reporter in the Capitol allows you to see a lot of things that most people never get to see. You have access to the inner working of the entire legislative branch.

But reporting often requires you to be tough and thick-skinned. When I started out, some of the get-me-rewrite reporters were still around. They were often heavy drinkers and clueless about everything digital, but they were thoroughly blue-collar and came equipped with a healthy disdain for entitled politicians, and, frankly, entitled reporters.

I'm thinking of one reporter I knew from a farm in a small town in Texas. He used to ask me at 11 a.m. if I'd care to join him for a "lunch engagement with my friend Count Smirnoff." Like a lot of the old-school reporters, he wasn't amenable to being confined to an office. But he was quick to call out politicians for their bogus claims of speaking for the working class.

The old-school reporters often had the backgrounds and the pugnacity to evaluate these claims and were not overly impressed by politicians. They knew what crap smelled like. But they were effectively blackballed and replaced by reporters who knew about the internet and were better typists.

Today, I hardly see even a tinge of blue-collar in the reporting I read. I read many stories about federal proposals to help workers that sound as if they were dictated by corporate or union flacks or committee staffers. I rarely see even a hint that anyone involved has any idea what it's like to be a worker in 2021, or has taken the trouble to hear what workers have to say.

I've thought a lot about this over the last 18 months while driving workers to and from their essential jobs, while "Rolling Stone" reportedly planned to charge writers to get published.

Journalism, once a vocation, a trade—and a check on abuses of power—has developed into pap stoking outrage over social inequity on the Left and moral decay on the Right.

Liberal or conservative bias in media coverage is a red herring. The narratives coming out of Congress are abstractions, useful only in keeping working people at each other's throats.

Some reporters seem to spend their days tweeting heavy-handed, snarky comments in response to things other reporters said on Fox News or MSNBC, depending on their side. I doubt they or their followers ever have to personally deal with the rage this all creates in people who've never seen how cable news is put together.

I used to be a reporter.
Rideshare drivers demonstrate against rideshare companies Uber and Lyft during a car caravan protest on August 6, 2020 in Los Angeles. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The Capitol's proximity did once lend itself to reporters keeping politicians accountable for what they say and do. By the 1990s, however, the dance show among reporters, politicians, and lobbyists involved in producing the news was well on its way to the Busby Berkeley extravaganza it is today. It's entertainment, far removed from the lives of most of the people who live and work in the United States.

Late-night comedians are better entertainers, and I'm never surprised to see stories published about what they said the night before. Journalists can't compete with professional entertainers, nor with the admen who come up with the corporate slogans they parrot in their stories.

I used to tell people that everyone should have the chance to walk around Congress and the White House with a press pass. They would see and hear things that could completely change how they view much of the news that they read and hear about their country. I had that chance.

I'm dismayed when I hear a passenger reciting headlines from online news sources. It's pretty easy to tell. But I also hear new takes on issues from the voices in my car, voices that I would never have heard otherwise. It's the sort of thing that might inspire someone to become a journalist.

Sometimes when I'm driving, I think, Get me rewrite. Maybe I'm still that starry-eyed kid with his first press presses. I do still feel as if reporting is more a vocation than a job. And I have a lot of stories up my sleeve.

Peter Jakubowicz is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He currently drives for Lyft.

The views in this article are the writer's own.

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