Wick Communications

The meaning of the Fourth Estate

In journalism on July 28, 2016 at 2:37 pm

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Last week, I mentioned “the Fourth Estate” in a post about the need to listen better, to give people insight into the press’ decisions and effectively let the people into our branch of community institutions. It got me thinking about the term, what it implies and what It shouldn’t mean.

These days, in America, it most often refers to the press. There are the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Then there is us: the watchdogs, the fourth estate of government.

But it is not an American term of art. While there isn’t complete agreement, the term was apparently coined by an Irish statesman named Edmund Burke in the late 1700s. He was referring to the press that was allowed into the House of Commons at a time when the British government included three houses — the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.

When I was growing up, I interpreted it as a term of respect for a noble profession that helped galvanize public opinion during World War II and held the executive in check during Watergate. The Fourth Estate was a necessary check on abuses throughout government and the need for it was codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. …

Suffice to say, the press has taken a hit or two since then.

One reason is that so many people feel like the press is in on the game. There are people who believe the press is in Hillary Clinton’s pocket, for example, or fails to cover Wall Street (or in our case, Main Street) the way it should because it is largely owned by people with a lot of money. I think the real hazard implied in the term is more subtle than outright conspiracy.

Take the way we in community newspapers cover our local government. We turn around the press releases from City Hall almost without a pause. We talk to the mayor every other day. We share quips, coffee, churches and often even the very lifestyles of the people we cover in local government. It’s not so much that we aren’t interested in watchdog journalism as we are just another institution in a clubby community of Kiwannis interested in maintaining those institutions.

I’m proud to be a member of the Fourth Estate. As I grow longer in the tooth, I’m increasingly aware of the dangers of being co-opted by the other three. Something to think about.

Clay

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