The Fourth Estate…now tending to Estate 3.5?

Conservatism is in these days, so perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on one of the many contributions of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who was not only one of the great conservative politicians of all time (in England’s Parliament), but also highly regarded as a political theorist and philosopher. A rare combination! Looking for a contemporary counterpart? Perhaps Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes closest.

Burke’s contribution of interest to today’s post? Really, just a small one – almost a throwaway (and in fact his role here has occasionally been called into question). But some suggest that back in 1787, Burke was the first to voice the idea of “The Fourth estate” to embody a political entity that was outside the three estates of “The Lords Spiritual,” “the Lords Temporal,” and “the Commons.” He is said to have made this reference as the proceedings of the House of Commons were being opened up for the first time to journalists. Here in the United States, the term is often used to refer to the press, in distinction to the three branches of government.

Fast forward to the year 2000. In early June of that year, the American Meteorological Society conducted its first policy forum – on the subject of Hurricane Preparedness and Response. Meteorologists received a comeuppance at the forum when one of our number referred to TV meteorologists and reporters as “partners” in getting out hurricane warnings and otherwise helping with emergency management. Seems innocent enough, right?

But the response from one of the broadcast meteorologists was swift and cutting: “We report what’s happening. We don’t partner with anybody.” This sensitivity to the independence of the media, and the essential importance of a free and independent press, reflected two centuries of tradition and culture. Point noted! We went on with our session.

Yet even at that time forces had been at work for a while undermining that independence, fraying it a bit around the edges. And those trends are even more pronounced and evident today, and the source of much soul-searching, not just by the press, but more broadly. The once-proudly autonomous Fourth Estate risks slipping back to Estate 3.5.

This matters, because in all countries, the vitality and independence of the press (or their lack) shape the policy process in important ways. Can a country’s leaders make deals and formulate policies in back rooms with little or no public awareness and oversight? Then you get one outcome (usually recognizable because graft, corruption, and malfeasance are rampant). Or are even the smallest details of the policy process open and accessible to the public? You get quite another (one that most of us prefer). Incidentally, what you get depends not simply on the press per se but also on an educated and engaged public readership. Neither is sustainable independent of the other, is it? Their long-term fortunes necessarily go hand in hand. [More on that tie in a later post.]

So just why is the press finding it increasingly difficult to remain independent? One problem is the breakdown of the long-established business model. Take newspapers. For quite some time, advertising has been the main source of their revenue. Much of that advertising came from city-center department stores, and from the classified section, especially help-wanted ads. Today, fewer and fewer people are doing their shopping at major stores downtown; the action has shifted to suburban shopping malls. And most people look for job listings on-line. Advertisers aren’t dumb; in response to these realities they’ve demanded lower prices. And subscription income is going south at the same time, isn’t it? You and I don’t want to pay so much either. I get home delivery of my newspaper for a tenth of what I paid when I first moved to Washington, DC. But, arguably, I get less too. That daily newspaper is a lot slimmer now, isn’t it?

Newspaper staffs have been trimmed down in response. The major papers are continually cutting back staff, closing offices abroad. They’re even reducing their access to major news services. Where they’d once subscribe to three – UPI, AP, and Reuters – they now make do with one or two. Increasingly, you and I are turning to the web as a news source. It’s immediately accessible and up to date. But it’s not necessarily better – and the disconnect between the eyeballs (on the Internet) and the advertising revenues (in the hard copy) is a prescription for continuing decline.  

Does the problem faced by newspapers extend to television? Yes, indeed. Time was when we had three broadcast major networks, with centrist news staffs. Today, we have a staggering set of alternatives on cable television and on-line. Probably a good thing! Viewers no longer have to settle for a single centrist outlook. However, studies suggest that instead of exposing ourselves to a full range of perspectives, we tend to consult sources that play to our pre-existing biases. Over time, this reinforces and hardens those views, and polarizes our society. And revenues are marginal for all these sources.

One way – just a small example – of how this compromises journalist independence? Think about those Sunday morning talk shows. To get the good ratings requires access to the highest political figures. Ask the program guests softball questions, and maybe they’ll allow themselves to be invited back. But probe and make them uncomfortable? You have just made your quest for the next guest more difficult. Finding the sweet spot here is not just about the news, is it? It’s also about the financial side. Again, an educated and engaged public helps. If both journalists and political figures alike know that the public insists on openness, and can tell the difference between rhetoric and accomplishment, then it all becomes more sustainable.

So…why go into all this here?

For the simple reason that coverage of science and the environment has not been immune. Fewer and fewer newspapers retain environmental journalists. Increasingly they’re moving to the blogosphere.

These trends are underway, just as environmental scientists are feeling growing urgency about the latest findings, and seeing a need for more concerted public action. Declines in fresh water availability and purity; growing urban air pollution; loss of habitat and biodiversity; ocean acidification – and so much more – cry out for attention. However, amidst the revolutionary change underway in journalism, much of this seems to be lost in the shuffle. Announcements of these findings are either squelched, or misrepresented, or outright manipulated, distorted , and exploited for political gain or financial self-interest by private sector groups and NGO’s.

What to do? Some thoughts in the next post.

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One Response to The Fourth Estate…now tending to Estate 3.5?

  1. Pingback: Getting out the science message? Journalists need readers, viewers, hearers. | Living on the Real World

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