The Fourth Estate is under attack

Photo illustration by Raymond Brewer-Posey


Raymond Brewer-posey

Staff opinion writer


Journalism is so essential for our democracy, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Saying, “I don’t trust the news” is like saying, “I don’t trust technology.” The news, like technology, is not a singular entity that represents an entire industry. Instead, it is a collection of countless individuals and various organizations each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and prejudices.

Ironically, it is the people who condemn the news media as biased elites detached from reality, that seem infatuated with sensationalistic stories that share articles such as “FBI confirms evidence of huge underground Clinton sex network” on Facebook. However, it is not Grandma’s banter about how The New York Times sucks that threatens to undermine our democracy, but rather attacks from the federal government restricting the freedom of the press and other internal pressures that challenge the role of the fourth estate.

To be clear, the attack on journalism is not a partisan effort. While President Trump’s assertions of fake news are absurd, they are only the latest attempt to undermine the press. The Obama administration led an all-out attack against reporters and their insider sources or whistleblowers. Using the Espionage Act of 1917, the Obama administration prosecuted more journalists than every other administration combined.

The World War I era law made it “an offense to take, retain or transfer knowledge with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” Historically the bill was intended to punish spies but has increasingly been deployed against leakers. According to ProPublica, since 1945, the federal government has used the Espionage Act 11 times to prosecute government workers who shared classified information with journalists— 7 of which took place during Obama’s tenure in office. The law leaves out any whistleblower protections, requiring leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning to either leave the country or face jail time.

“The laws under which Snowden is charged don’t distinguish between sharing information with the press in the public interest, and selling secrets to a foreign enemy,” said Ben Wizner, lawyer and legal advisor to Snowden.

The lack of this distinction is the modern iteration of McCarthyism, is effectively allowing the government to restrict the freedom of the press under the guise of protecting national security.   

While both Obama and Trump have carried out attacks against the media, the essence of their attacks differ. President Obama’s administration punished leakers and the journalists they collaborated with by covertly using outdated laws. While Trump’s attacks are also political, his motive is to alienate the media as a whole and not individual whistleblowers. The method he has employed is the antithesis of the Obama administration’s closed-curtain approach. Trump’s attacks are meant to be seen by all and interpreted as, he hopes, a refusal to cooperate with the media, whose members he called “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” Instead of trying to tint the window through which the fourth estate observes the government as Obama did, Trump’s attacks are aimed at getting his constituents to see no reason for the window altogether.  

Aside from the covert and now overt attempts of the federal government to impede and delegitimize the news media, the industry faces internal pressures that threaten the relevance and even existence of journalism in the modern era. The two primary areas of concern for journalists are in repelling the commercial interests of the media conglomerates that employ them, and combating the displacing effect the internet has on journalists’ roles in providing information and interpretation to the citizen.

Beginning in the 1970s, deregulation of the media industry has led to the rise of media conglomerates, whose focus on maintaining market dominance has changed the nature of broadcast journalism. Due to both the financial responsibility of a corporation to make a profit and the expanding competition of broadcast entertainment, it is not an exaggeration to say everything has changed.

In the 1960s the main television networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — all covered news, but generally made significantly less money compared to television journalists today. Today, these media giants compete in an environment in which viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from. In the interest of cutting costs to remain profitable in the changing media landscape, these networks drastically reduced the number of journalists they employed and thereby diminished their news gathering ability.

According to David Trilling of the Economist, as competition intensified, the resulting media fragmentation rewarded companies that opted for a more sensationalistic presentation of the news. This led to a decline in the importance of political coverage and allowed cable subsidiaries to provide cheap news programs at a profit. The increase in television outlets, led broadcast journalism to become just another branch of entertainment, infotainment.The degradation of the news media is not limited to broadcast journalism alone.

The consolidation of the media industry encompassed both print and radio journalists as well. Now beholden to the corporate interest, newspapers and magazines are in the same market as tabloids.


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