Edmund Burke, an 18th-century British political philosopher, came up with the concept of the Fourth Estate. The “three estates” present in the Parliament were the king, the lords, and the commons. There was a “fourth estate” that trumped them all – the press said, Burke.
“If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without a free press or a free press without a government, I would prefer the latter,” said Thomas Jefferson. I wonder if Jefferson would feel the same after an hour of watching shouting heads screaming at each other on today’s infotainment that purports to be news.
Journalism has been an integral part of our society for centuries. It is often referred to as the fourth estate, a pillar of democracy that holds those in power accountable. However, in recent times, the media industry has been struggling to keep up with the fast-paced digital age. The rise of social media and the decline of print media have brought about an existential crisis for journalism. In this article, I will explain why we must save journalism and what can be done to revive it.
The Fourth Estate is on Life Support
The fourth estate has been on life support for a while. I recently finished End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate by Alexander Cockburn who has been one of the best media critics for three decades. This book will entertain and enlighten you. Smart, urgent, and at times wickedly funny, this is a book you need to read!
News media are desperate to keep the lights on and have resorted to cheap tactics to attract viewers and get clicks for ads on their websites. TV news channels like CNN, MSNNC, and Fox no longer report the news. It’s just a long slog of talking heads sharing their opinions. If there happens to be a major news event like the building collapse in Miami then that is the only story you will hear about for a week or more to the exclusion of all other important news. Put simply the news channels suck at delivering the news.
America is not the greatest nation in the world, but it could be…
Here is a short video excerpt that caught my attention and I encourage you to watch it to the end. This short clip explains why the fourth estate is dying better than I ever could in an article. The two talking heads and the beginning of the clip are followed by some powerful truths at the end which shows what is missing.
The Importance of Journalism
Journalism is not just a job, but a responsibility to society. It is the role of journalists to report facts and inform the public, even when it may be inconvenient or uncomfortable for those in power. Without journalism, corruption would go unnoticed, injustices would go unreported, and democracy would be weakened. We must recognize that the role of journalism is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy.
The digital age has brought about a significant decline in traditional media. Newspapers and magazines are shutting down, and online publications are struggling to generate revenue. Social media has become the primary source of news for many people, but the rise of fake news and clickbait articles has made it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. The decline of journalism is a cause for concern, as it threatens the very foundations of democracy.
However, it’s difficult to imagine any current news anchor having the same impact on public opinion as Murrow or Cronkite. One major reason for this is the rise of the internet and social media, including platforms like Tik Tok.
Before the internet, people had only two main sources for current news: television and newspapers. Even before the internet, however, CNN began the transition to what some may call “pablum news” – news that requires no thought or analysis.
As television networks began to fill airtime 24/7, there was more banality and repetition in the news, and less thoughtful commentary. While magazines provided in-depth coverage, they were often less timely. Today, with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, people can receive alerts about events like earthquakes and oil rig explosions on their smartphones within minutes of them occurring.
While the timeliness of these alerts is useful, early reports are often inaccurate and misinformation can spread quickly. This underscores the importance of real journalists who can verify facts, sources, and accuracy and provide us with in-depth, thoughtful analysis of complex stories. This is particularly true during events like elections or breaking national or international news.
From Mainstream to Lamestream
The media landscape is a highly polarized and deeply divided one, with Fox News and right-wing radio talk shows often bemoaning the so-called “lamestream media” or “Fake News.” While it is true that much of the media has had a left-leaning bias for decades, this is hardly new or surprising. What is hypocritical, however, is that these same outlets are guilty of the very same thing, often favoring spin over facts.
The answer is not to simply create a right-leaning newspaper to counterbalance the left-leaning ones, but rather to have a middle-of-the-road media that prioritizes unbiased reporting and “just the facts Ma’am” type of stories. Unfortunately, the media has become increasingly polarized, contributing to a polarized populace.
It is important for the people of the nation to have access to the facts and to be able to trust that journalists will pursue them regardless of who is in power. Both right-wing and left-leaning media need to be held accountable for their biases and must not give a free pass to corrupt or incompetent politicians.
Sadly, the trust in the media is at an all-time low, with people turning to social media and conspiracy theories for news. While watchdog groups and bloggers have stepped up to fill the void, paid journalists often ignore stories that aren’t deemed sexy enough to sell papers. This has led to a lot of fluff pieces and salacious stories, rather than coverage of important issues that matter.
The media landscape is undergoing a massive transformation, with local newspapers struggling to stay afloat and many closing permanently. It is unclear if we will ever see truly unbiased news reporting again, but part of the problem is our own bias, as we often seek out news stories that cater to our preconceived ideas. It is important to seek out diverse perspectives and to engage in meaningful debate, rather than simply seeking out those who confirm our existing beliefs.
Local newspapers are becoming extinct
The decline of local newspapers is a growing concern that is often overlooked in discussions about the future of journalism. While many articles focus on the struggles of national media and publications in big cities, the decline of standards at the local level is even more troubling. In Macon, GA, for example, the once-proud Macon Telegraph has become little more than a stenography service. The paper no longer has the staff to conduct investigative journalism, and as subscription rates decline, it has become increasingly difficult for them to cover local stories of actual importance.
This trend is not unique to Macon, but is happening in many other countries as well. Rupert Murdoch, for example, has done his best to dismantle the free press in the UK, the very country that coined the term “Fourth Estate”. In many towns and cities across the world, the fourth estate has died a slow and painful death, leaving citizens without a reliable source of local news and information.
Reporters at local newspapers often don’t have the resources or time to conduct thorough investigations. Instead, they report the news as it is spoon-fed to them by local agencies. They rarely interview witnesses or get the other side of the story from people who have been arrested. They also tend to avoid asking tough questions of local politicians, who are often given softball questions in interviews.
While some local newspapers have editorial sections that ask important questions and probe into areas that need further scrutiny, this is becoming increasingly rare. In Macon, there used to be a few writers who would get the ball rolling and encourage people to start asking questions, but these days they seem to have disappeared.
It is clear that the decline of local newspapers is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Without a reliable source of local news and information, citizens are left in the dark about the issues that affect their communities. It is up to all of us to support local newspapers and to demand that they live up to the standards of the Fourth Estate.
What can be done to resuscitate the Fourth Estate?
I would love to tell you an easy answer but I am afraid none exists at present. Bloggers and social media offer a glimmer of hope as news becomes decentralized and no longer the exclusive domain of certain elites. News companies are only interested in ad revenue and little else. An old expression in the news business is “Sex sells and if it bleeds it leads.” This is nothing new and even good old Ben Franklin was guilty of some salacious news stories in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
The most we can do is try and watch the few left that actually covers the news and turn off the shouting heads. I personally have to turn to BBC World news because there are no American news channels besides the 6:30 network news. But there is at least hope on the local level. Voice your opinions to your local media asking for more coverage of important local issues of concern. Start your own blog or even better write articles and have them published on this site. As more and more media mergers happen there is simply not a lot the average citizen can do to stop these mega-mergers.
If you become so disgusted with the local newspaper you decide to cancel your subscription then take a few minutes to write the publisher to let them know the reason you canceled. If you live in a town with an inept editor then try and find the name of the publisher and let them know you are dissatisfied. Twitter can be a powerful tool to quickly mobilize opinion. The point is we all need to at least try and demand better from our news organizations and even if we fail we must try and make our voices heard.
Instead of complaining endlessly about Trump, Biden, guns, God, gays, and abortion… start writing letters to the editor about all the problems affecting your community. I can guarantee you that no one with the power to do anything about any of those national issues will read your letter to the editor in your local newspaper so you are basically whistling Dixie to an empty room. You can’t change policy in WashingtonD.C but you can change opinions in your hometown.
Perhaps the biggest problems facing your town are crime, taxes, homeless, blight, the schools, or so many other problems all communities have to tackle. I guarantee you if more people started focusing on local issues with their letters to the local papers you would have a much bigger effect than endlessly wasting your breath about national and international news that is a waste of ink. Better yet get out and help clean things up. Volunteer for a cause your support and make a real difference.
You can also support and help spread the word about alternative sources of information. I would like to think this website has written some pieces you will not read elsewhere because I have no agenda but to uncover the truth about any and all malfeasance, corruption, incompetence, and waste that catches my eye. I hate corruption and ineptitude no matter the race, gender, or party affiliation of the person. Since the local media refuses to cover these issues I decided to step up to the plate and so can all of you in your own way.
My main goal in this article was to ask all of you to be aware that most media has an agenda. Unless you are deaf, blind, and dumb you probably already knew that. Some are left-leaning, others right-leaning, and all ad revenue-centric have morphed into infotainment. They are doing their best to divide us as a country and they are succeeding. We are more polarized as a nation today than we have ever been since the Civil War.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote what I consider to be an excellent opinion piece for Time magazine two about Ferguson. Jabbar said “How can viewers make reasonable choices in a democracy if their sources of information are corrupted? They can’t, which is exactly how the One Percent controls the fate of the Ninety-Nine Percent.”
The problems in the local news business are so widespread and severe, communities across America are in danger of losing their last surviving daily newspapers. And if that happens, they’ll lose not just a crucial source of the information needed to navigate the travails of daily life, but also in many cases the only local organization working to hold government, businesses, and powerful individuals accountable. Federal and state governments need to step in with support that helps local news outlets sustain themselves without compromising their independence or the public’s confidence.
With fewer journalists, papers inevitably offer less of everything that readers care about, whether it be coverage of local budgets, high-school sports, arts, and entertainment, or land-use decisions. And when there are no reporters watching, there may be no exposure of corrupt local officials, lax construction safety regulation, or controversial developments that unexpectedly win approval.
If local news goes out of business, the damage to our democracy will be severe and irreversible. I wish I knew how to save it but I am at a loss. If you have any ideas, please let me know in the comment section below.