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The Fourth Estate or What happens when the gatekeepers leave?

20 March, 2009

(LATimes)   Newspaper cuts open door to more political trickery

I passed over this piece by James Rainey when I first saw it, but hit the back button and looked it over more closely.    I have several points of view about newspapers, some from the inside.  Obviously I’m not a journalist; I’m a blogger who writes about the news.  I’ve long had a preference for using my computer to read and search news stories, columns and comments even though at least one daily newspaper lay on my table.

I’ll get back to my inside point of view in a minute but let’s look at what Rainey is saying “political consultants,” “operatives,” political pros” are pleased that newspapers are going out of business.   Why?  Because they can more easily manipulate the way we look at the world around us if the gatekeepers are gone.  Information or disinformation can win an election as we have seen several times over.  A smear campaign, false rumors, unvarifiable sources, limited access to accurate news sources, even images can change the course of a person’s life, thoughts or actions and affect the entire nations’ path.  Politically that can be a dangerous thing.   Newspapers (and eventually television news) used to be considered a trusted means of informing the citizens of this country what was going on.   I know that there have been lots of instances of “yellow journalism” being used to manipulate the country into unfounded wars as far back as the Spanish-American War.

The Spanish-American War is often referred to as the first “media war.” During the 1890s, journalism that sensationalized—and sometimes even manufactured—dramatic events was a powerful force that helped propel the United States into war with Spain. Led by newspaper owners William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, journalism of the 1890s used melodrama, romance, and hyperbole to sell millions of newspapers–a style that became known as yellow journalism. here

But there have always been investigative reporters who helped us to see what was really going on in this country:  Lincoln Steffens (who specialized in political corruption and wrote about urban blight), Ida Tarbell (whose series on Standard Oil led to the breakup of that company),  Edward R. Murrow (in-person reports of WWII, radio and TV broadcaster who set the standard for many who followed him*), Walter Cronkite (whose credo was “to get the story fast, accurate, and unbiased” (here),  Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post (who brought us Watergate) and an endless list of honorable men and women who adhered to the code of ethics for journalists.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.(here)

Newspapers and then broadcast journalism has been considered the fourth estate of a country long before the term was coined by Edmund Burke.

Its coinage, with its present meaning, has been attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 -1797), a British politician. It comes from a quote in Thomas Carlyle’s book, “Heros and Hero Worship in History” (1841).

“Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

The three estates in the above quote refer to the British parliament, the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual and the Commons. The Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual combined being The House of Lords, the upper House of parliament. And the Commons is The House of Commons or the British lower House. here

Clearly, the media has let us down in this regard, questioning less and repeating stories from major outlets.  This is in part due  to newspapers trying to remain profitable as readership decreases;  they cut staff and experienced journalist find work elsewhere.  The people left to “put out” the paper end up doing the work of three and have no time for investigation.   Meanwhile, the internet continues to cut into readership and newspapers “go under” or go digital.   As far as I am concerned television journalism (with few exceptions,  has been sensational and superficial.*

The end result is serious.

The diminution of mainstream news outlets and constant attacks on their credibility leave us confused about where to turn for information about our leaders, agreed Dan Schnur, a one-time Republican consultant who directs USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics.

“Technology and blogs and the like make it much easier to get information out,” he said. “But what is missing is the credibility that comes with that message coming through the mainstream media.”

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One political consultant told me he regularly encounters less-experienced (and more easily bamboozled) reporters when he works on state and congressional campaigns. He was the one who told me the newbies often didn’t bother to check whether ads were really going to have any serious presence on television. The net effect: He got thousands of dollars worth of “free” media, exposing the public to ads the politician would never pay to put on the air.

The consultants cited a few recently departed veteran journalists who wouldn’t fall for such funny business: Time magazine’s Jay Carney, the Chicago Tribune’s Jill Zuckman (the Tribune, like the L.A. Times, is owned by Tribune Co.) and our paper’s Dan Morain, who took a buyout last month and went to work for a lawyers’ lobbying association.

Rainey thinks that community blogs, bloggers, and websites will have to pick up the mantle of investigate and unbiased journalism.  What will happen to us if no steps up?

*Edward R. Murrow saw it all so clearly:

“This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” – RTNDA Convention Speech, October 15 1958[10]    here

…in 1958, the year he excoriated the broadcasting industry in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent” and television for “being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us.”    here

Oh, I nearly forgot about my inside view:  my father worked as a journalist, early and late in his life, and he taught journalism.  I took a few journalism courses before I decided it was not my field.  And my husband is one of those senior staff members who were recently let go to increase the profitability of the company.  His office which had been cut down to a staff of four is now handled by one person.

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