The Fourth Estate: As journalism goes, so goes democracy.
While observers of the Casey Anthony trial focused on the apparent injustice of the verdict, defense co-counsel Cheney Mason used his first opportunity in front of a microphone to call reporters to task for “media assassination,” and for publicly promoting an assumption of guilt. “I can tell you that my colleagues coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television to talk about cases they don’t know a damn thing about,” Mr. Mason said.
Mason’s rant aside, no one denies that loudmouth Nancy Grace, pop shrink Dr. Drew Pinksy (his degree is in internal medicine), CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and a very long list of respectable print, electronic and online media sources have feasted on the Casey Anthony trial over the past 3 years. And the American public, including this writer, did not resist the sideshow, nor reject the media’s conclusion that Casey would be found guilty and put to death.
The day prior to the Anthony verdict, a news story broke regarding one of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids, News of the World, involving accusations that in 2002 its journalists hacked and manipulated the cellphone messages of murder victim Milly Dowler, 13, while her family and police were searching for her. The newspaper had previously admitted to intercepting the cellphone messages of celebrities, politicians and other public figures in the mid-2000s.
But the revelations about Milly Dowler are significant because in 2002, the editor of News of the World was Rebekah Brooks, a confidant and friend of Rupert Murdoch – whose company also owns the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Brooks, who is now chief executive of News International, the British newspaper division of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, has always denied knowing anything about phone hacking at any Murdoch-owned papers.
Here’s the point of all this:
The historical roots of journalism, now mass media, were nurtured by its role as The Fourth Estate; the independent public watchdog that keeps in check the three major democratic “estates” of power (in Britain the houses of Parliament, in America the three branches of government). So in spite of the great amount of attention it pays to murder trials, royal weddings and the lives of celebrities, the media plays an important role in our democracy; and to function properly it must be objective, unbiased and independent.
The problem – demonstrated by the media’s conduct in both these recent incidents – is that the line between news and entertainment continues to erode. All media sources are competing for the same eyeballs, so speed is more important than accuracy in reporting, and there are no rules regarding how the news is gathered. The journalist’s role has shifted from fact-based to opinion-based reporting. Journalism is now “communitainment.”
Three years ago, veteran journalist Bill Moyers explained it this way: “Our dominant media are ultimately accountable only to corporate boards whose mission is not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the whole body of our republic, but the aggrandizement of corporate executives and shareholders…These organizations’ self-styled mandate is not to hold public and private power accountable, but to aggregate their interlocking interests. Their reward is not to help fulfill the social compact embodied in the notion of “We, the people,” but to manufacture news and information as profitable consumer commodities.” [Read Bill Moyers “Is the Fourth Estate a Fifth Column?: Corporate media colludes with democracy’s demise” in its entirety.]
As we continue to feed on mind-numbing, easily digested communitainment…let’s keep in mind what we’re really giving up in exchange for what’s often falsely packaged as the truth.