The Fourth Estate

Interestingly enough today, something clicked in my head about all of the complaining about how terrible the media and the press are.  In particular, what crystallized this thought was a post from Andrew Sullivan.  Although his post was mainly about Sarah Palin, it did, at the end contain this sentence:

And in this context, we have to realize that the US no longer has a truly adversarial press. It has a commercial press that is entirely driven by fear of losing readers and/or viewers.

What I would say to this is that this idea of an “adversarial press” that functions as a “fourth estate” or fourth branch of government, etc., etc… that only makes sense in a situation where being part of the “the press” is really not a commercially driven enterprise.  What I mean is that if you look at how the press came to possess this role of keeping gov’t’s accountable or of being something that helps prevent tyranny, you should look at the structure of the press that existed in the 17th and 18h centuries.  At this time, you basically had various people putting out their own little screeds on paper that attacked or supported various people and the goal of this “press” was to advance political causes.  This “press” also mainly consisted of a few politically active people with a printing press available to them.  This “press” was not a huge business in itself, nor did it see itself as such.  It wasn’t like the shipping industry, or agriculture, or any manufacturing or service industry–it wasn’t an industry at all, actually.

As the 19th century came along–these things became a bit more formalized and larger–but they were still mainly political operatives that branched out into various business activities in order to support themselves… but as it got later and later in the 20th century, this whole “business” proposition has taken over more and more of the purpose of “the press”–which totally changes the incentives for anyone working within this field.  If you work for a corporation that depends on people buying your product–you cannot really afford to offend to many of them–and thus your decision to be “adversarial” seems counterproductive.

Does this mean we are doomed, however, with the decline of this helpful body?

I think not.  What’s very clear to me is that while the old-school press has structurally changed to move away from being adversarial, there is a strong and growing group of people that are pretty much doing exactly what the early pamphleteers who made up the original “press” did.

They are the bloggers of the interwebz.  They have their very own personal press and they can be as adversarial as they like–in fact, it makes them money to be more so.

Anyway–nothing profound, I know.. but something to keep in mind when you think about how terrible the MSM is.  It seems somewhat inevitable that once “news” becomes a product to sell rather than a means of changing minds, then the societal importance of this industrial branch changes markedly…

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About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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