April 11, 2014

Understanding journalism and the proper role of the Fourth Estate

As Andrew Sullivan said, "Every now and again, it’s perhaps worth revisiting the entire definition of journalism." At present, journalism and the media is out of step with the original and traditional model. The traditional model is based on the premise, as Glenn Greenwald said, that:
"Basic to political science and the American founding and to human nature is that people cannot operate and exercise power without checks or they’ll inevitably abuse it."
As Daniel Ellsberg, the Edward Snowden of the 20th Centruy, said:
"Secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts." 
Therefore it falls upon journalism and the free press, Edmund Burke's "Fourth Estate", to shine a light upon the powerful and those who want to act in secrecy. Journalists are to be the adversaries and opponents of the powerful. Their job is to be in confrontation against, and not in collaboration with the government. Glenn Greenwald said July 2 2013 on Fox and Friends:
"Thomas Jefferson, 250 years ago, said those who most fear investigations are the ones who attack free press first. This is what journalism is about, shining a light on what the most powerful people in the country are doing to them in the dark. "
 He further said:
"There is a protected free press precisely because institutions are needed to check and scrutinize government claims — based on the long-standing recognition that those in power tell self-serving liesnot uncritically amplify them and convert them into Truth under the guise of independent reporting."* 
The phrase "freedom of the press" dates back to around 1661 and to a pamphlet produced by Roger L’Estrange. He took part in the newspaper licensing debates that we now associate with John Milton and his Areopagitica of 1644. And Edmund Burke knew a free press held great responsibility:
"There were three estates in parliament; but, in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."
Yet in recent times, the role of the journalist has been subverted and the traditional journalist-government relationship has been inverted. As Greenwalds last quote said. Matt Taibbi said:
"[For too many journalists] the appeal of the job has more to do with proximity to power. They want to say they had a beer with Hillary Clinton or whatever it is."
Shane Smith also criticised the current model:
"What fucking liberal media? They’re all afraid of losing Budweiser of GM as a fucking advertiser. They’re all multi-billion dollar companies. There’s four companies that do all news in America. And they just said, well we’ll take the Left, and we’ll take the Right, and we’ll just do school-yard bullying, we’ll just do name-calling, partisan name-calling.
Andrew Sullivan criticised the current model when he said:
"The cult of the journalist as celebrity, with all the lucrative speaking gigs that it brings. The classic journalistic trajectory in Washington is, get a low level reporting job. You can be 21 and a politco at some sub-minimum-wage internet treadmill. And your job is to get on MSNBC for ten minutes, and then your job is to get famous, and then your job is to give speeches and make the real money."
He explained how journalism should be done:
"That’s not what journalists should be doing. Obviously. Journalism in Washington is corrupted by clubbiness, by a consensus which unfortunately is not even that explicitly noted. It is much more dangerous, because it is totally subterranean. The notion that journalists have reputation, that we should be up on a pedestal - maybe it’s because I’m British, I think we’re the lowest of the low. I think our job is to say things that no-one else will say and to find out things that make people very uncomfortable - the powerful and the powerless. I think our job is not to worry about the impact of what we find out and say, but to say what we think, and to report what we see.”
As Margaret Sullivan said on the proper role of journalists:
"The press is not supposed to be cozy with the powerful. Journalists are supposed to be a check on power, and that means not being afraid to be adversarial when needed: to dig out the truth when people don’t want us to, to state it clearly and let the chips fall where they may."
Matt Taibbi said:
"Journalists should be dark, funny, mean people. It’s appropriate for their antagonistic, adversarial role."
Andrew Sullivan said in his March 2014 address to Harvard:
"I believe that journalists and writers have to be grubby, rude - the kind of people that don’t mind being thought of as assholes. And that personality - speak truth to power - is just incompatible with hobnobbing with the people at conferences which is financing your entire operation."
Thomas Paine said, "The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government." Rand Paul said the same:
"Our Founders never intended for Americans to trust their government. Our entire Constitution was predicated on the notion that government was a necessary evil, to be restrained and minimized as much as possible."
Bob Franken, MSNBC reporter said:
"Well, let’s use the “P” word here. This is propaganda when it comes from the White House: government covering the government. It’s not what you’re supposed to do in the United States of America."
Hunter S. Thompson went even further, saying that we need a partisan, rancourous and subjective press. He said
"Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon."
In America there exists the First Amendment. In the UK speech does not possess "constitutional status" - there is no explicit law that protects free speech does not possess; but there is an esteemed tradition for free expression and a combative press that dates back to the Book of Martyrs.
Yet we have lost it. On both sides. On the side of journalists where there is clubbiness and a desire to collaborate with the powerful. On the side of the powerful where they want the press to amplify and spread their message. There is also a failure on the part of the citizen. Yet as Andrew Sullivan said:
"I believe that online journalism and blogging contains within it a revival of citizen journalism in a way that can bring truth back to the discourse."
As David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen) said:
"A blogger is more akin to the pamphleteer than a newspaper editor."  
We need to win back and protect the hard won freedoms that speech and the press enjoy. As John Adams said:
"Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it."

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