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A Self-serving and Biased Fourth Estate

We journalists make it a point to know very little about an extremely wide variety of topics; this is how we stay objective.
Dave Barry

Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.
Thomas Jefferson

Back in the good old days before revolution became popular, there were traditionally three estates or powers in government: the nobility, the clergy and everybody else – commonly referred to as the common folk or commons. Three guesses as to which two held most of the power and which other estate ultimately was led to discover the joy of revolution. As the story goes, Edmund Burke identified a Fourth Estate in an address to the British Parliament back in the mid 1700s – the news media although back then they thought of them simply as newspapers.

Journalism – a profession whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand. Lord Northcliffe

Journalism wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it is today suffering as it did from a lack of adoring self-importance. Journalists have made up for lost time, however, and the mainstream news media has become the mirror image of the other three estates which is to say, it represents a large group of people desperately searching for relevance but unwilling to actually invest the necessary effort to achieve it.

Many of today’s journalists are much like politicians – all hat and no cattle – although most reporters can’t afford the really nice hats most politicians purchase because reporters don’t have access to the money taxpayers so generously, albeit involuntarily, bestow on our elected representatives. I suppose there was a time when journalism provided a necessary function in a democracy but I confess that I am hard-pressed to see one these days.

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. -Ben Hecht

When freedom of the press was bestowed on the Fourth Estate, it was in the belief that a free and unfettered news media would hold government’s feet to the fire by reporting the news as it is rather than (as they do now) as they wish it to be. In those halcyon days of naiveté, the people (that would be folks like you and me) believed a free press would help to keep them free and for a time, it actually seemed to work.

But times change or more accurately, standards do and not always for the better.

Politicians have one great super power. Everything and everyone they touch is dragged down to their level; sort of like King Midas in reverse. As politicians are corrupted by power so too are many of the people they touch and that would mostly be the people who depend on politicians for their daily bread.

None are more dependent than journalists. Without politicians, journalists would be reduced to reporting crime and things like hurricanes and blizzards. Why, even such Canadian laudables as Andrew Coyne, John Ivison and Ezra Levant would be reduced to commenting about shoplifting and the weather. American ‘journalists’ like NBC’s Brian Wilson and Bill O’Riley over at Fox News would be reduced to having to actually report the truth instead of turning themselves into fictional avatars.

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. ― Thomas Jefferson

But more than anything else, however, politics is the bread that feeds the Fourth Estate and without it, most who serve the corporate media oligarchy would starve.

If that sounds a tad cynical, I make no apology for it. The state of the news media these days disgusts me. Few in our nations have as much constitutional freedom as the Fourth Estate and never have so many been given such freedom and done so little with it.

Just in the past five years alone, major news organizations in North America have been caught plagiarizing the work of others, editing raw footage to distort the facts and deliberately refusing to report specific stories that might prove embarrassing to whatever government their corporate bosses support. In Britain, it was the news media that was caught hacking the cell phones of anyone who might be newsworthy. In Canada, more than one news organization has been outed for buying information.

When Benghazi broke, for example, only the Christian Science Monitor and Fox News consistently reported on the story through the presidential election campaign. The rest of the American media were silent, deliberately preventing the people from making an informed decision about whether or not their current president could be trusted. Some, like MSNBC’s Chris Mathews went so far as to accuse anyone who didn’t vote to reelect Barack Obama as racist. I don’t mind being called a racist, especially by an idiot, but isn’t that really the job of the politicians campaign folks? Shouldn’t the news media be reporting and commenting on the facts?

Apparently not these days.

For an industry that claims to be the bulwark against censorship of the truth, the American media’s handling of the Benghazi story was a classic example of politically biased voluntary censorship.

I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information ― Christopher Hitchens

If the news media is only going to use freedom of the press to support a government regardless of what it does, then it becomes a propaganda arm of the government much like Pravda in the former Soviet Union. When it serves rather than objectively reports on government, it can no longer lay claim to being an independent defender of democracy or the truth.

Indeed, the news media as exists today is more opinion than fact. Conservatives like to think that the media is dominated by a vast left-wing liberal conspiracy against them but that’s hogwash. There are as many right-wing conservative pundits and media outlets distorting fact as there are those on the left and they all share one thing in common. They are less concerned with providing objective analysis than they are with influencing the opinions of the common folk – again, that would be you and I in case you had forgotten.

What you read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television, is hardly even the truth as seen by experts; it is the wishful thinking of journalists, seen through filters of prejudice and ignorance. ― Hans Jürgen Eysenck, Intelligence: A New Look

I heard a media pundit on the radio recently commenting on Canada’s new bill to increase the powers of the country’s security apparatus. He readily admitted that because he didn’t fully understand what all the fuss was about he decided to read the bill. His take was that he was troubled by some aspects but not by others. Interestingly, a month earlier, before he had read the bill, he appeared on a television program where he fully supported the legislation.

Excuse me?

How can you comment on something either for or against that you haven’t read? Christ in Heaven, that’s what the most extreme partisan cult members do as they blindly follow whichever political leader they’ve chosen to lead them to the Promised Land. Surely the journalistic standard should be a bit higher but in a lot of cases, it just isn’t.

It isn’t the job of the news media to blindly support government. It is their job to be the official opposition of both the government of the day and the opposition parties. It falls to the Fourth Estate to ensure that the facts, not a highly-decorated form of them or partisan opinion, gets to the people – all the people.

The Fourth Estate was intended to be the gatekeepers of truth not one more oily bunch of slick Willy’s attempting to influence others through spin and bias. We have enough Slick Willy’s – perhaps even too many. We certainly don’t need more.

Depending on today’s news media to provide the truth and objective, well-informed analysis that doesn’t omit facts that don’t support their opinions is like depending on Bernie Madoff to take good care of your money.

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists. -Norman Mailer

It’s small wonder that newspaper readership is in decline. Much of the content is self-indulgent and trite in many cases and television news and radio talk shows aren’t any better. The electronic media spend more time interviewing each other than they do the real news makers. I can’t speak for you but personally I’m far less interested in what a panel of journalists think than I am in hearing from the people who are actually part of the story. It’s true that often it’s mostly spin but I suspect it wouldn’t be if journalists asked penetrating questions and challenged the spin with facts rather than chatting among themselves for our entertainment.

But – that isn’t going to happen.

The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were. -David Brinkley

There’s a reason why many newspapers don’t publish the hard news for free and only charge a subscription fee to read the opinions of their columnists. Nobody would subscribe because nobody would pay to read the commentary – not even the intellectually challenged who troll web sites looking for opportunities to prove how clever they are with their sneering comments.

The reason television web sites don’t charge is because they don’t have to. They treat the news like entertainment and devote more energy to their sets and whether or not the news anchor and reporters are sitting or standing when their on camera.

News isn’t news anymore. It’s public relations dressed up as something more important than it actually is and that means we’re back to three estates: the nobility supported by one heck of a massive media PR machine, the clergy and the commons which continues to be you and I who pay for it all.

It’s small wonder so many in positions of privilege continue to shear us like sheep. They do it because they can and the Fourth Estate that was supposed to prevent the shepherds from shearing us follows the shepherds around like adoring sheep dogs.

It leads me to believe that another revolution may be coming soon. It’s unfortunate we won’t have a viable and objective news media to report on it.

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms. 
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72


© 2015 Maggie’s Bear

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Twitter: @maggsbear – Facebook: Maggie’s Bear  – ivmaki@sympatico.ca


  • V103115

    Just think if today’s excuse for the Fourth Estate covered WWII. Churchill and the Allies would have been surrendering to Germany within the first month and D-Day would have been broadcast to the world, just like today’s pull-out dates from theatres of war were actual news stories.

    Today;s media is lacking context, critical thinking and has stopped relying on the the 5 W’s of what a story should be. The only journalists I see with any backbone and reliance on critical thinking to go after a story are Sharryl Atkinsson and James Rosen over at FOX. Ironically, both were targeted by the government for doing their job.

    Bill O’Reilly a journalist? I don;t think so. To use his own words, he is a bloviating blowhard who is more interested in his book sales than hard news.

    Woodward and Bernstein must cringe when they see what passes for hard journalism today.

    • MaggiesBear

      I agree with you and as I said in my post, there are a few who still cling to the ethics and purpose of real journalism but they are so few and far between these days that it’s a wonder they’re still employable.

  • charlie98

    In the US the politicalization of news continues unabated with things like the threatened prosecution of James Rosen of FoxNews. His purported crime appears to have been refusing to tell the government who gave him information detrimental to the current administration.

    James Risen of the NewYork Times has had a similar problem with two US administrations.

    I consider it unlikely that Brian Williams of NBC will ever anchor a news show again given his mis-rembering something as simple as being shot at. Without “internet news providers” the establishment would continue to make sure you only get the news the administration wants you to hear.

    Canadian journalists treat the Conservatives as if they are the enemy but should be thankful the Conservatives aren’t as vindictive as Americans.

    I have not subscribed to the Edmonton Journal ever since they touted the Liberals as winning the Alberta Provincial Election only to have the Conservatives win with their biggest majority ever. Canadian news organizations appear to be extremely political.

    • MaggiesBear

      If a news media is not going to stand up to governments — all governments, not just those we personally don’t support — then it is of no use to us and becomes little more than purveyors of misinformation and propaganda.

      • charlie98

        standing up to governments is not the role of the media, the media should be reporting the news, not their opinion of the news. failure to articulate both sides consistently results in advocacy, making the media purveyors of misinformation and propaganda.

        BTW it’s Bill O”Reilly

        • MaggiesBear

          I don’t have a problem with commentary as long as it’s based on objective analysis and there are a few who do a very good job of that. But by and large, it’s pretty much just populist propaganda. And you’re right about O’Riley but it wouldn’t be one of my posts if it didn’t have at least one spelling mistake in it. :-)

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