The New Fourth Estate

16Jul08

Bill Moyers had a column out recently about the decline of the fourth estate. His column goes on to express concerns over media consolidation and support network neutrality. In my opinion, he should have focused more on the big picture evolution of the fourth estate.

I think most people would agree that the operation of a “press” is vital for a good republic. However, I think Moyers (and others) have gotten a very fixed picture of what “the press” looks like into their heads. Newspapers, television news, magazines, and maybe a few of the more reputable blogs seem to count, and should be preserved for the good of the nation at great cost.

However, I would be interested in taking a more abstract look at the fourth estate. What do we think the founders meant by a “press?” What process were they trying to protect? Surely they weren’t in the business of protecting any specific industry… to my knowledge “the press” as we understand it today didn’t exist in any syndicated fashion back then. So what were they after? At present, I think it was primarily enumerated to ensure that free speech applied to the written word as well as its spoken counterpart. Since that freedom isn’t really at stake, I think people are more concerned about another function the fourth estate has taken on, the watchdog of government and society.

Like many among my generation, I think that the Internet can replace this function of the present press. It has already had cannibalizing effects on newspapers, broken stories ahead of cable news, and provided deeper analysis of a single story than any nightly broadcast could hope to cover. In many ways, it has beaten news as we know it at its own game. However, viewed as the new fourth estate, the Internet isn’t without its drawbacks, including a surplus of ditto-heads, irrational and hateful commentors, and unverified rumors that can spread like wildfire.

Despite these drawbacks, I believe the Internet can become the new fourth estate, so long as we implement some new institutions to help it along. I’ll detail my ideas for these institutions in coming posts, but if you think I’m already off track feel free to let me know in the comments.

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