Free-Write: The Demise of the Fourth Estate

As I have told my students, prior to being a teacher I was a journalist. I wrote for weekly and daily newspapers in Connecticut for eight years, covering national scandals, significant state rulings, and issues that mattered to people living in neighborhoods. For a while, I believed in the work, and was thus passionate about it. But, over time, and due to my own personal struggles, I began to view cynically the work of being in the media.

As a journalist, you have the opportunity to do noble work – to “shine the light on darkness” – but the need to produce content so quickly and regularly, for me, became an obstacle for doing that. Ultimately, I saw my work as simply feeding a beast that I was growing less fond of by the day. And this was before the explosion of social media.

There seems to be a lot wrong in the world right now, and I have come to see the media – writers, journalists, newspapers, websites and social media – as a major contributor to the chaos. For the past few months, as I listen to people being interviewed or public debates or spectacles or press conferences, I consider how I, if I were still a journalist, would have framed that story. And, often, when I see how these events are framed by the media I am so flabbergasted that I question whether the writer and I are looking at the same thing. “What is going on here?” I ask.

I think an answer, unsurprisingly, can be found in some biblical teaching. In Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, there is a scene in which Jesus is denouncing “the scribes.” Now, back then, the scribes would have been those educated enough to write, which would have been an elite class. They would have been the ones writing the law and controlling the stories heard.

This is much like today in that while mostly everyone is literate enough to write at some level, government legislators and those who are paid to write for the largest publishers – the big daily newspapers and cable stations which make up the mainstream media – are considered (and consider themselves) in an elite category of thinkers. In the scene from Matthew, Jesus tells people to “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts . . .” What does this mean?

It means the scribes – the elite class – wanted people to salute them in public places and be honored at big dinners. They wanted adoration. They wanted the feeling of being liked and respected. And Jesus tells us to watch out for them. To be leery of what they say. Why? Because they are in it for the wrong reasons. What reason are they in it for, then? They are in it for themselves. And . . . so . . . how is this seen today?

The adoration today’s writers and journalists and legislators want comes not in the form of “salutations in the marketplaces” or the “best seats in the synagogues” but with the amassing of Likes and Followers on social media. That is how we show adoration today. If we read something we like we Like it. So, what’s wrong with this?

Journalism is supposed to be an unofficial check on our system of government. America’s three columns of government – the executive, legislative and judicial branches – are meant to check, or push against, each other from going too far in any direction so that this trinity prevents the country from going too far off the rails. But, even within this system, entire columns can collude, and the country can veer from the center.

Enter the Fourth Estate: journalism, which is a “branch” growing from our quintessential American right of free speech. But, for journalism to “check” the government, it must be skeptical of it. And, if you are outwardly skeptical of people and power, you are thus seen by those powerful people as an opponent. And, opponents are not liked by each other.

Now, for many years it seemed, being liked by the common people and not the “elite” was enough for a lot of journalists. But, over the past 20 years or so, not coincidentally coinciding with the rise of the internet and social media, it seems journalists want to be liked by the elite and powerful and popular; they want to be part of that party, because, as middle school students know, it is tough to be left out by the cool crowd. And, who is in this cool crowd, the one in which journalists want acceptance: celebrities, entertainers, influencers, athletes, professors and politicians, as well as analysts and anchors on cable news shows. And, here’s the problem: once you are part of that party, if you are then seen as raising questions, being skeptical of the in-crowd – the stance journalists need to check the government – you risk being collectively tossed out: “cancelled,” as they say today.

Thus, the demise of the Fourth Estate.

For thousands of years, those kicked to the margins of society have been yelling for others to hear, but either their voices get drowned or they get killed; they got cancelled. As Bob Marley sang: “How long shall they kill our prophets / while we stand aside and look?”

Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, urged people to listen to “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Where are those voices today? They are on the fringes of society. To be clear, not all those voices are worth listening to. But some must be. Why? Because some of those voices are speaking for the right reasons. And, because if no one is listening to those voices “in the wilderness,” then everyone is listening to voices which are largely joined in unison and are accepted and amplified by society-at-large. And why should this not happen? Because of the basic rule we all learned in grade-school: Just because everyone is doing it does not make it right.

As a previously mentioned speaker for the marginalized once said: “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

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About rcjockers

I am a middle-school language arts teacher in Connecticut. I like eating hot peppers from my garden, writing, and watching German soccer matches in the dark.

4 thoughts on “Free-Write: The Demise of the Fourth Estate

  1. I agree with what you said big news companies are stepping out of line, and a result is that small independent journalists are almost fading away into some abyss. The ones that question the narrative however, are quickly labeled as spreading misinformation. Especially now with coronavirus, if anyone questions it they are immediately labeled as crazy, then banned from social media. A country with freedom of speech seems to being going backward, in my opinion.

    1. Thank you for reading my post and commenting upon it, Dillon; I was not sure if any of my students were going to read it; it was a long one.

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