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Voices / Column

What has become of the Fourth Estate?

Saxtons River

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office just over 50 years ago, he sounded an alarm about the unhealthy relationship between defense contractors and the U.S. Military, which he said threatened American democracy.

“In the councils of government,” he warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Today, the threat of a media-industrial complex might be even more worrisome.

In the deeply divided political landscape that we find ourselves occupying as the next election grows closer, it is important to remember the role played by what Edmund Burke called “the fourth estate.”

Burke, a member of the British Parliament, was addressing his colleagues in 1787 as the House of Commons allowed the press to observe its debates for the first time. Burke noted that there were three estates in Parliament: the Lords, the Bishops, and the Commons.

But, he said, there was a fourth estate “in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, more important by far than them all.”

Burke was acknowledging the importance of the media in a democracy, something that great thinkers as far back as Socrates understood. He was championing freedom of speech and, by extension, freedom of the press, which has long been recognized as crucial to the process of representative government.

* * *

Today, there is growing disillusionment about the role of media in the U.S. and elsewhere, just as there is disenchantment with political leaders and politics generally.

One reason is media consolidation. Given that the media helps shape our beliefs, often alters our perspectives, and has a huge part to play in providing critical information, it is alarming to note that only six corporations now control virtually all of the media in this country. Those six big businesses play a huge role in determining which voices are heard and what issues get covered.

The “big five” are General Electric, Walt Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom. Each of them has annual revenues in the billions of dollars. (In 2009, for example, GE’s revenues totaled $157 billion.) Time Warner is the largest media conglomerate in the world, with holdings that include CNN, Turner Broadcasting, TNT, the Cartoon Network, America Online, MapQuest, Moviefone, Warner Bros. Pictures, Castle Rock and New Line Cinema, and 150 magazines.

Edward R. Murrow must be turning in his grave. So must Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who claimed that the media had been monopolized by “economic royalists” who were controlling the country.

* * *

The reason this issue is so important is that the Fourth Estate is meant to act as a mediator between the public and the elite. The role of a free press is to be a watchdog, safeguarding the public from lies, political machinations, and power grabs. Its job is to tell the truth.

But, increasingly, the media seems to be abrogating its duty, largely because it is owned and controlled by a few people in high (corporate) places who push their own agendas to the detriment of democratic ideals.

We’ve moved a long way away from the days when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, which was brave enough to print them. Think about it: Hardly any mainstream media reported on the Occupy Wall Street movement until police brutality made it sensational. It does, however, report the tea party’s activities ad nauseam. One can only wonder what other events and critical issues go unreported.

If all of this seems alarmist, consider this: When President Lyndon B. Johnson told the American people in 1964 that the North Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, a lazy and likely controlled press reported the story without vetting it. The Vietnam War was launched.

Only years later did we learn that there was no North Vietnamese attack. Johnson simply wanted a reason to increase U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps if the Fourth Estate had been doing its job, 57,000 young Americans might not have been killed, and we might still be able to believe in a free press safeguarding and sharing the truth of our times.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #150 (Wednesday, May 2, 2012).

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