An Emergent Fourth Estate
The term The Fourth Estate in political theory means a group outside of the government that wields a significant amount of power. In the world of billionaires it refers to a mansion on a tropical island with loose tax laws. In modern thought it refers to the press.
The press are able to exert power over government by rooting out corruption, creating an informed and engaged public, and accurately portraying the system so people know what is and isn’t working.
It sits atop the system of checks and balances described by the French political theorist Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. Government can do whatever it wants without a free press making its actions transparent. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches hold power. Power corrupts. And an aggressive press would discourage overt corrupt behavior. The deeper the reach of the media, the less political corruption can be hidden.
It Isn’t Working
The largest news platforms hold nobody who is pushing the narrative of Oligarchs accountable. Noam Chomsky is paraphrased as saying that, “Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the US media.” On CNN, Jake Tapper told his audience that looking at the Podesta Leaks was illegal. It isn’t. Those emails proved that the Democrats rigged the 2016 Primary. The New York Times hired a climate change sceptic and a Zionist to write opinion pieces as part of their efforts to be more inclusive. For context, denial of climate change and an unshakable support of Zionism are pet-issues of the American upper-classes. Zaid Jilani pointed out on The Intercept in May that the op-ed pages of The New York Times have zero, “Bernie Sanders Supporters… Donald Trump Supporters… Young People… Arab and Muslim Americans… Opponents of Militarism… [or] Scientists and Environmentalists.” The major media platforms ignore issues that will impact regular Americans to push Oligarchy-friendly narratives.
The name The Fourth Estate cannot apply to a media that doesn’t uncover corruption. Nor a media that attacks those who oppose our society’s death wish with environmental destruction, brutalization of any non-white cultures and non-conforming individuals, and fetishization of material wealth and consumerism.
Where Will The New Fourth Estate Come From?
To create an effective Fourth Estate independent media need the resources, the talent, and enough access to information to properly monitor the institutions, organizations, and corporations that form society.
The talent will become available as billionaires save money by stripping their newsrooms according to corporate sensibilities. Experienced journalists will lose their jobs and start their own operations. Talented journalism students will also need to work out an independent path as they graduate into a hyper-competitive market for scarce, low-paid positions.
Those who are able to find work will need to make a decision between being paid little to push the propaganda of powerful people, or being paid whatever their Patreon account can attract to perform actual journalism. The Fourth Estate would be emboldened by the latter but only if independent journalists are able to retain the access that people affiliated with major news networks have today. Obviously, oppositional news sources are not going to retain that access by asking.
The transparency of the system depends on data leaks and hacks. If those in power don’t want information released, and they are in control of when and how it’s released, then the public won’t see it. Public interest journalism becomes interesting when a whistleblower or hacker compromises the hidden details of criminal enterprises.
The Democratic Party’s collusion with Hillary Clinton’s “Forward Together (whether or not you want me leading)” campaign in their Primaries was uncovered by the hacking of John Podesta’s email account, and an apparent leak of data from the DNC database.
Chelsea Manning gave us evidence of war crimes committed by the American military in Afghanistan. Edward Snowden showed the world that the National Security Agency was violating the privacy of whoever it wanted. And still-anonymous whistleblowers dropped terabytes of data outing oligarchs and businesses across the world for tax evasion through the Panama and Paradise Papers. These revelations would’ve been impossible without citizen intervention.
Journalism is service to society. It requires persistence, consistency, and a fearless mindset. The public will need to find a way to make sure that it is getting done, and being done well, as billionaires and corporations continue to cut the budgets of their newsrooms. On the positive side of shrinking newsrooms is that as more journalists are being paid by the public, there will be more journalists working in the interests of their ‘employers’.
Examples of people and organizations doing public interest journalism now are donation-based independent groups like Truth Against The Machine (who hold my by-line), Occupy, Unicorn Riot, DC Media Group, Rebelutionary Z, and Revolution News. Some of these organizations also seek funding from rich donors.
The Intercept is funded by Pierre Omidyar, an eBay billionaire. They are a news website focused on investigative journalism. They, like Wikileaks, capitalize on whistleblowers and hackers. These surreptitious forms of access to knowledge have the downside of attracting attention from our Oligarchic security states. Julian Assange has been stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than five years to avoid being extradited to America. David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, was detained in London for nine hours in 2013 in an attempt to get hold of the data from Snowden’s leaks.
The media landscape is changing. Growing distrust of media giants implies that there is an appetite for new, trustworthy media sources. This could lead online discourse further down the path of click-bait, it could be dominated by websites like ‘The Daily Caller’ who produce the same pro-corporate news stories as their mainstream predecessors, or it could lead to a renaissance of adversarial and solutions-based journalism that invigorates the national debate. There are examples of each of these styles, and they will all be able to leverage influence over society. If you want the latter to hold the most influence then now is the time to take part by covering important stories and donating to the people who are producing the journalism you want to read.