One of the most chilling realities of the contemporary age in the United States and other Western nations is the demise of the Fourth Estate. The death of a vigorous and free press came when mainstream media and other vital components of the information establishment became propaganda organs for the government.
"If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without a free press or a free press without a government, I would prefer the latter," said Thomas Jefferson.
Edmund Burke, an 18th century British political philosopher, seeded the concept of the Fourth Estate. The "three estates" present in the Parliament were the king, the lords, and the commons. But, said Burke, there was a "fourth estate" that trumped them all –
The contemporary co-opting of journalists and journalism by politicians and their regimes has led to a polarization of media. As mainstream print and broadcast journalists have veered increasingly to the left, the right has responded with its own conservative media establishment.
This was a necessary development, vital for countering leftist propaganda. But the demise of the Fourth Estate means there's not much left in the middle to probe for the truth buried somewhere beneath the shrills and shills of left and right. Who can the people trust to give them the plain, unspun facts?
Journalistic agenda-ism has suffocated the Fourth Estate. And that brings danger to what is slowly becoming less and less a free republic.
A phone call I received at my Washington-area home on a cold Tuesday night in February, 40 years ago highlighted this for me. The caller was Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. The Watergate scandal was oozing up like polluted water from the Potomac, and was spreading over Washington and the nation. He wanted to recruit me as a spy.
I was stunned and speechless. On the one hand I didn't want to become a White House mole for the Washington Post, but on the other I knew whatever was apparently going on – which I knew about, ironically, from reading The Washington Post mostly – must be brought into the light before it destroyed the President and harmed the nation. I was saved from having to give Bernstein a Yes or No because the moving truck was due the next morning.
Yet I knew Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were doing their job.
True, The Washington Post was and is a left-leaning publication whose editorial policy too often tints its reporting and journalistic judgment. However, America needed to know about the Watergate break-in, the collusion between the White House and other federal agencies, the abuse of the authority Americans had given the President to cover up the scandal – just as it needs to know about such alleged abuses, collusions and cover-ups now.
In fact, the nation needs to know the facts every administration tries to keep hidden. Americans and the world need to know the truth about Benghazi. We needed to know what Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were up to in the Oval Office. Now we know John F. Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, but we needed an aggressive press back then. Many reporters were dazzled by Camelot and wouldn't expose a President so cavalier he could have been sleeping with spies in the most dangerous days of the Cold War.
The Soviet experience shows that when the information establishment is a propaganda tool of the government, samizdat, the underground press, tries to fill the void and refute the disinformation. The blogosphere has become the samizdat of our troubled times. But as important as they are, bloggers are driven by point-of-view more than an unbiased quest for factual information.
This does not mean journalists are barred from holding personal opinions. What it does mean is that point-of-view must not be the door that determines what is allowed into print or on the airwaves. The only gateway for the press in a free republic must be that of stand-alone fact.
On the bitter February afternoon of our last day in Washington in 1973, Irene and I, with our two then-small children, went to the monuments and memorials to tell Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson goodbye.
As we stood in the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial I could see the statue in the foreground, and the White House where I had spent nearly three years out in the distance. I began to sense that tragedy would soon fall on Washington, and confusion and chaos on the nation Jefferson had helped birth, and which I love. I could not stop the tears that seemed to freeze on my face as soon as they surged from my eyes.
Maybe I could feel a small degree of the concern of Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders over the fragility of the free republic, a rarity in history. Jefferson knew, and we are learning, that our hard-won liberty is in danger when there are mostly propaganda organs and agenda-driven tabloids, and almost no true Fourth Estate.