“The Fourth Estate,” as a nickname for the press, is anecdotally attributed to Edmund Burke, when the House of Commons was opened up to press reporting in the 18th century. The idea is that the press is another branch of government without official recognition, representing the interests of civil society as a whole, and acting as a sort of check or limit on the others. The Fourth Estate’s job, in Anderson Cooper’s words, is “keeping ‘em honest.”
But then the original Three Estates themselves — the Crown, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual, and the bourgeoisie — were in theory supposed to be rivalrous interests that kept each other in check. But by the 19th century, after a limited insurgency by upstart industrial interests against the privileges of the landed classes, they had coalesced into a de facto class alliance: The monarchy, landed interests, Church and industrial capitalists against everybody else.
And in the United States the Fourth Estate, likewise, has ceased to be a check on the official branches of power and instead become part of the same interlocking establishment. We live in a world where the late Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, told a room full of intelligence officers that “there are some things the American people don’t need to know.” What the establishment press calls “journalism” consists mainly of stenography, studiously writing down exactly what the public spokespersons for “both sides” on any issue have to say about it. “Both sides” are actually the center-left and center-right wing (center and center-right, really) of the same establishment, with 80% of their assumptions in common. Indeed, some 40% of column inches in newspapers consist of material generated by public spokespersons, press releases and PR departments.
Establishment journalism, as often as not, shares the perspective of the political and corporate establishments it’s supposed to report on. We regularly see talking heads like David Gregory denouncing those, like Edward Snowden, with the temerity to actually expose the activities of those in power. We see the New York Times’ Judith Miller, who acted as Cheney’s mouthpiece in feeding pro-Iraq war propaganda to the American people, chiding Wikileaks for inadequate fact-checking. ...