By Elizabeth Prata
The Fourth Estate. A phrase coined back in the mid 1700s by British politician Edmund Burke, or by Lord Brougham in 1823, depending on the source. The Three Estates in feudal times were the socio-economic divisions between classes, loosely divided by three Estates of the Clergy (First Estate), Nobility (Second Estate), and Shire Commissioners, knights or burghers (Third Estate).
The press as a Fourth Estate was never considered part of the societal structure but is deliberately outside of them all. This is because the role of the media was to be the watchdog of the other three ‘estates’ when one or more of them went awry, and to give voice to the people. It was supposed to be an advocate for the people, particularly the “voiceless.”
This fact I’m about to mention might seem strange to younger readers. Younger readers have always had the ability to publish their opinions in a variety of media, including videos, blogs, websites, book self-publishing, and more. But before the internet, a lay person’s voice was only heard when they called in to a radio show (IF their phone call was selected for airing) or if they wrote a letter to the editor of a print newspaper (IF their letter was selected for publishing.) Otherwise a lay person’s opinion, concerns, insights, or input was never “heard” because there were strong gatekeepers designed to prevent it. Most lay people in a civic society were ‘voiceless.’
The Press was supposed to fairly and consistently report on political ideologies, government decisions, election candidates, civic responsibilities, and more. The fair and free press is highly important for a vibrant democracy. The citizens need information if we are going to participate in our own governance. The key to good decision making is information widely disseminated, and that is the function of the press, along with giving voice to the citizens.
Freedom of Access might seem a minor thing individually, but cumulatively, each citizen is actually a soldier in the army of national civic participation. An informed citizenry means you have a vibrant democracy. Every citizen who is denied information about our government officials, their decisions, and public processes becomes a wounded soldier of the living Constitution.
The Founders fought a bitter and terrible war to ensure that citizens in the brand-new United States would have proper representation. They held the Constitutional ideals dear and knew that citizens were part of, indeed the bosses of, their newly elected government officials. To that end, they gave “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” as stated in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
It is an incredible gift. To a large extent we citizens rely on the press to watch, report, and inform us of the government’s doings. There is a bond of trust between the journalist and the citizen reader. The citizen trusts that the information given to us is fair, factual, and unbiased. The journalist trusts that the citizen will actually read the information, form reasonable opinions, and engage in public civic actions based on that information, such as participation at local and regional meetings, voting, and even activism if necessary.
Sadly, in my opinion the American free press collapsed utterly starting in 2007 with the Obama campaign for President. The moth-eaten standards and practices that had been chipped away at for years resulted in a sudden public capitulation of all Fourth Estate duties and practices by 2007. Journalists’ skewed political reality presented to Americans, combined with the failure of diligence in what was supposed to be a watchdog for the voiceless American, caused great turmoil.
“Before 2004, it was common for a majority of Americans to profess at least some trust in the mass media, but since then, less than half of Americans feel that way. Now, only about a third of the U.S. has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public,” Gallup wrote in 2016. Source
There is such a thing as fake news, that is, news that’s simply made up, or has pertinent facts or sources in its articles that are made up. But the real issue is credibility. It’s not that the news is fake, it’s that what is being presented is not credible. Trust is broken.
Governments will come and go. The Lord is in control of that. But as long as we are in the world while striving to not be of the world, we still need information to do our diligence as secondary citizens of this world. We still need to be able to think and reason. We need good information to do that. In my opinion this country is descending fast into a fractured morass of ravening dimwits. The Fourth Estate is hurrying that along, and should be ashamed of itself.
Elizabeth Prata was Founder and Editor of The Monument Newspaper, award-winning Newspaper of record for Gray and New Gloucester. She served two terms on the Maine Legislative Committee to Study Compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Laws, and was a member of the New England Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.