Demise of the Fourth Estate

The Fourth Estate, that is, the Press (nowadays the Media) is sinking in the quagmire of identity crisis. Our founding fathers thought it so important to have an independent press that wasn’t controlled by the government, that they protected it in the Constitution. Yet here we are with “Fake News”, opinions presented as facts and personal attacks on anyone who dares publish against the party line.

man reading newspaper that's on fire
Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

One friend recently bemoaned, “I used to be able to trust just a handful of news sources. Now it’s an entire city of hands that you need to wade through.”

Another asked in response, whether the internet makes it harder to brainwash the masses or if spreading misinformation is new and thus makes it easier to brainwash the masses? Or both, dependent on the recipient.

Both. With newspapers, there were always those who specialized in sensationalism over fact. And opinion pieces were much harder on political leaders than they are now. Don’t believe me? Google some of the 19th Century editorial cartoons. (Sorry, Mr. President, but you would  never have survived the onslaught in the 1800s.) In reaction to the sensationalists, there were those who specialized in “hard” reporting — research, digging for truth, etc. Not that they didn’t have slants; Hurst Media papers, for example, were often considered liberal in their editorialism. But “All the News Fit to Print” on the NY Times masthead became a defacto motto for the media:

“It [the slogan] has often been associated with fairness, restraint, and impartiality — objectives that nominally define mainstream American journalism,” said W. Joseph Camp in a  2012 BBC article.

Indeed, much of the cultural struggle the U.S. experienced over the Vietnam War was because news organizations — particularly TV broadcasters — insisted on bringing the realities of war to our living rooms. The Pentagon Papers were published, Watergate was investigated despite a President’s objections, and exposés of corporations poisoning the environment were researched and written to great acclaim, bringing real change.

But as media shifted from the importance of information to the business side, the emphasis shifted to dollars via Ads, then Clicks, Shares and Likes over real content. The corporate bean counters and shareholders began to hold more sway than the newsroom editors.  Late to understand the move to the digital world, many simply folded. Even the Venerable Ones like the NY Times and Washington Post have gotten caught up in the race and subsequently have had to wipe egg off of their faces a few times.

And while the British press has understood this for a long time, the U.S. is still figuring out that people care less about the facts than they do for a good, dirty story.

Anyone these days can publish a story on the internet. The crazier, more sensational it is — especially if it’s about a public figure — the faster it will travel. Facts? Truth? Who cares? Such stories proliferate without regard for the subjects or the consequences to their lives. It IS possible to fact-find such stories, but that takes effort by the reader. And studies have shown it’s much harder to change peoples’ minds about a negative than a positive. I’ve even had people tell me was wrong when I countered a claim with their citations.

Crowd filming with smartphones
Photo by Yolanda Sun on Unsplash

So yes, the internet that allows knowledge to be disseminated more quickly and widely than ever before in human history is the same internet that deceives and “brainwashes the masses” with innuendo, fear and outright lies. Because we let it.

People are lazy, which is why an independent, hopefully impartial segment of media is essential to a democracy. Those who care to think need sources they can trust.

Media shareholders need to look beyond the bottom line, but won’t. They’re in it for the money, just like everyone else. Without a deep-pockets benefactor to help pay for excellent, balanced reporting and research, most news organizations are hanging by their teeth just to stay in business. And the people are poorer for it, whether they realize it or not.

Instead of shining a light on the issues of government and community today, the Fourth Estate is crumbling along with the three official branches of government, for much the same reasons:  money and power.

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