Our Town: The Fourth Estate and why it matters

The First Amendment acknowledges the importance of the Fourth Estate

I can say that the majority of readers of this newspaper have heard of the Fourth Estate.

Since the term has been bandied about in recent years let’s take a more careful look at its history and function. I promise this won’t take long. I can’t be as fast as a tweet but I’ll try.
The original use of the term comes from Europe where the three estates of the realm were the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Out of this power, triumvirate emerged the so-called fourth estate which refers to journalism. In the United States, the fourth estate is usually contrasted with the three branches of government including the executive, legislative and judicial and is there to ensure a balance of power. The reason the press is by the First Amendment (Freedom of the Press) it is understood that journalism plays a critical role in American democracy by maintaining transparency. Recently there has emerged the ‘Networked Fourth Estate” represented by non-traditional journalistic media on the internet including tweets, youtube videos, Instagrams and Snapchat. More about the networked fourth estate later.

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, the monopoly on knowledge has been broken and has increasingly fallen into the hands of the public thanks to writers. The dissemination of the printed word led to the French Revolution, the American Revolution and most recently the Arab Spring uprisings.

The power of the Fourth gained ground when the investigative journalism of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward helped topple Richard M. Nixon and his administration. This story has been documented in the films “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “The Post” (2018).
America has always relied upon journalists to communicate balanced and fair-minded views about politics and to tacitly uphold a belief in reality and honesty. The fourth estate has been assigned the task of holding government officials accountable for their actions.
That is why the recent attacks on journalism are so alarming. The current President has repeatedly referred to journalists as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and refers to us as ‘pathetic”, “very dishonest” and ‘enemies of the people.” He also likes to refer to most print media as “fake news.”

Both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” contained a dystopian view of a future with governmental use of “newspeak.” ‘Newspeak’ was the use of a controlled language of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary designed to reduce freedom of thought and to reduce thinking in general. In both novels “newspeak” and the legalization and dispersal of mind-numbing drugs helped to put the population in a quiescent and stupor. Presidential tweeting and the legalization of marijuana is an eerie expression of this process with reality fast becoming stranger than fiction.

We have entered a time of malignant simplicity where all things are reduced to either black or white, red or blue.

Perhaps our attention spans have grown so short that all we can manage is entertainment and junk food for the mind. Granted we all enjoy junk food from time to time but a steady diet of it produces diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Tweeting, which has become the new junk food for the mind inevitably produces mental diseases such as rage and a childish stupidity.

Reasoned discourse is what every American adult needs, deserves and desires. Thoughtful writing with the use of facts, balanced views and sense of sobriety are what the role of the fourth estate has always been.

Both Orwell and Huxley predicted the use of simplified propagandistic language that the government would use to restrict and then to control the minds of the masses. We have arrived there and it proves just how prescient they were.

Every literate adult understands that journalists are highly trained, strive to find out the facts, uncover wrongdoing and describe it as accurately as they can. They take their time in doing so and to make any point takes anywhere from 700 to 1,000 words. It will take the average reader about ten minutes to read a column of this length.

In contrast, a tweet has a maximum of 280 characters or 50 words and takes about 20 seconds to read. When was the last time you actually learned something of value from a tweet?

The classic novel “Les Miserable” by Victor Hugo is about 1,500 pages long took me about 2 months or about 50 hours to finish. This novel was written in 1862 and contains a preface by Hugo where he wrote that so long as man is degraded by poverty and stress and where women and children are ruined by starvation and anxiety, a book like his cannot be useless.

Writers like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Honore Balzac, Marcel Proust, and D.H. Lawrence were all a part of the fourth estate. Modern journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein are a part of the fourth estate. Television journalists like Tom Brokaw, Rachel Maddow, and Anderson Cooper are also a part of the fourth estate. These are steadfast, educated, intrepid and honest workers who uphold America’s right to know the truth. And no amount of tweets, vulgarity or ‘newspeak’ will ever change that. Rational and mature adults want to hear the truth and the Fourth Estate’s job is to strive to deliver it to them, no matter how inconvenient that truth is.

About the author

Dr Tom Ferraro

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