The New Fourth Estate

Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.

I recently read that today’s youth can’t determine whether or not a story is factual or fictional. Some of this no doubt is because there is just too much information available and there is no consequence of disseminating false information. I had an interesting conversation with a smart, older millennial recently and she didn’t know the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The policy was called the Fairness Doctrine and its intent was to ensure viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987 and some believe its demise played a role in an increased level of party polarization.

Fast forward to 2016. We now have a President-Elect who tells outrageous falsehoods, (on TV no less), and then claims he didn’t say them. We have his surrogates who lied repeatedly during his campaign and continue to do so. We have Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump supporter and CNN commentator, who recently said “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” (Evidently, there’s no such thing as proper grammar either.) She followed that outrageous comment with “people believe they have the facts to back that [Trump’s tweets] up.” WHAAAAAAAT? No. Believing you have facts is not the same as well…ACTUALLY HAVING THE FREAKIN’ FACTS!!!

I believe if our democracy is to survive, we must find a way to once again agree on facts. Not on what to do with those facts–I’m not that delusional. Can’t we at least though, find a way to agree that the earth is round, it revolves around the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon causes tides, and climate change is real. Okay, okay, I know that last one is a bridge too far for now, but one can hope.

The media has been referred to as the Fourth Estate, but I wonder if it still holds that place. I offer that rather, money is the new Fourth Estate and the media (legacy media as some now call it) should be lumped in with bloggers and social media in the Fifth Estate. After all, Wikipedia defines the Fourth Estate as “a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.” Ever since the Citizens United ruling, the power of money has been exponentially increased. It buys access, which buys influence, and ultimately, buys votes. Yes, we still have the potential power of the individual vote, but that power only works if the voters are well-informed and then actually vote!

Amazing, isn’t it, in this time of incredible access to information and connectivity, we are less well-informed and truly connected than ever? We are bombarded with “breaking news” 24/7/365 and scandals are stretched out until the next one comes along. Not only do we have a dizzying array of sources for our unvetted information, but, complicated algorithms increasingly tailor the “news” to our liking. Google and other search engines, along with all the forms of social media have no doubt, contributed immensely to our country’s polarization. Yes, a person can still be well-informed if they really work at it, but now, they can think they are but in reality, only be getting news that validates their viewpoints irrespective of the truth. Who should arbitrate what is “real” news? How do we determine what is actually factual? Maybe when teaching our kindergarteners how to read, we need to teach them how to differentiate fact from fiction. It will be a long process, but we cannot afford to ignore the need.

As we learned during this presidential election, if people don’t have faith in the legacy media, its influence is greatly reduced. And, I doubt anyone would argue that social media and Internet “news” sites had a real impact on the election. Interesting that Trump and his supporters frequently throw the accusation of “media bias” at legacy media, but seem to give free rein to the entirely unfettered, unvetted world of social media. One thing is for sure, the days of Walter Cronkite reporting the “way it was” once each day without embellishment or sensationalism are long gone.

I’m generally an optimist and try to remain hopeful. I’m not one of those who since the election, is predicting the end of civilization as we know it. Our nation is resilient and the pendulum swings both ways. No doubt though, we’ve witnessed a wide ass swing this time. How long it will take to swing back and what damage will be done in the meantime has yet to be seen. But, I do worry that if we can’t get back to agreeing that facts and truth exist and they aren’t the same things as opinions, we are in trouble. And, if we don’t have a functioning, effective media that the people trust to give them those unbiased facts, our very democracy is at risk. A free press is after all, one of the freedoms that sets us apart form so many other countries around the world.

A fully functioning press is dependent however, on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. A Democracy cannot function as a spectator sport. Therein lies the rub. We can’t just blame others for the current state of our politics and governance and walk away. We all have a solemn responsibility to engage. Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” As hyperbolic as it may sound, I believe it is the key to saving our democracy.

31 responses to “The New Fourth Estate

  1. “I believe if our democracy is to survive, we must find a way to once again agree on facts.”

    That is not as easy as it sounds, Linda. The internet changed that. You may have noticed that Not Tom and I have running gun battles over the issue all the time. He believes firmly that the truth is to be found via Google but when he posted examples in the past, his examples were suspect because they came from biased sources that often substituted opinion for facts. That goes on all the time. And when you do find stories that that are supposedly factual, you have to question the sources used by the writer, and then you have to question the sources used by that source, and so on. It used to be called journalism. Today, however, most of the time one of those sources will turn out to be someone “interpreting” an action or event with all of their biases intact and what they pass as facts are nothing more than an opinion.

    A specific example of a “fact” that isn’t a fact? The statement that Republicans have stated outright, even bragging, they deliberately passed voter suppression leglislation to block minorities from voting. Think about that a second…does that even sound reasonable? Would ANY politican ever say something like that to a reporter? Anyway, I was told to look it up on the internet. I did. I found dozens of stories all titled along the lines “REPUBLICANS ADMIT THEY PASSED VOTER SUPPRESSION LAWS TO BLOCK MINORITY VOTERS”. Why Chris Matthews was beside himself in anger and ran four seperate interviews where prominent Republicans supposedly admitted it. What each one of those Republicans actually “admitted” was that where Voter ID Laws were in place it seemed to favor Republican Candidates. That’s all. Nothing more. I interpreted that to mean the Voter ID Laws worked and kept people who shouldn’t vote from playing games with the election system. Liberals interpreted that to mean “WE ADMIT WE PASSED VOTER ID LAWS TO SUPPRESS MINORITY VOTERS”. As to “facts” from this, I would consider the number of people who actually voted as a “fact”, but my interpretation of what was said as an “opinion”. Liberals have chosens to take the interpretation of what was said and call it a “fact”. This “fact” has been cited here on these numerous times.

    Anyway, I was long winded here only to point out that agreeing to what constitutes a fact is going to be difficult as long as people are willing to believe the worst of “the other side”. There is no end to the most ludicrous stories that are fervently believes by both sides to realize how hard it is going to be to ever go back to agreeing on a fact.

    • There is no doubt Steve, that questionable sources siting questionable sources sets up an echo chamber to destort facts. But, there ARE real, no kidding facts that do exist. As for whether or not a politician would ever say something outrageous…PLEAAAAASSSEEEE, this election year should prove that there is no end to outrageous things politicians will say.

      • I tend to discount this election because it was so abnormal. You don’t usually hear politicians talking the way Trump did. Most like to be re-elected and they usually avoid saying thiongs that might keep them from being re-elected.

        I do agree that there are real, genuine facts out there, but they are getting harder and harder to find. Partisan politics has corrupted so much of the discussion that even so-called “scientific fact” is being called into question because so much of it has been proven to be bogus, corrupted by political objectives.

        If you would like an example of what I mean, I offer the climate change issue. The opinions range from “their is no climate change” to “not only is climate change real, but it is going to kill us all in the next couple of years”. And, not surprisingly, all sides have science “fact” to prove their position.

        • On climate change, I think it is 97% of the world’s scientists say it is real. Don’t think there is much, if any, science in the other 3%.

          • The concensus is not near as high as you imagine, Linda, but I understand your position. I will just offer one small fact from that “3%” you mentioned. Are you aware that NASA has noted that temperatures on the other planets in our solar system are on the rise at a rate equal to, or exceeding, the rate here on earth? The “concensus” has chosen to ignore that…

          • For Sure Not Tom

            The only planet that appears to be warming is Pluto, and it takes 248 years to orbit our Sun, so very little is actually known about the climate of Pluto. We actually don’t know.

            And Pluto is not a planet.

            Solar warming of the other planets is a common theme used by fossil fuel propagandists to fool the mush minded older generations.

            Climate change used to be a bi-partisan issue until the oil companies decided to bribe and threaten politicians and right wing media. Now that they have neatly divided the country between conservatives and liberals, with each side rabidly hating the other, it’s easy to say “climate change is a commie plot” and have their conservative base, trained to hate anything liberal, jump in line.

            NASA and the Pentagon are taking climate change seriously, the Pentagon is preparing for wars and massive refugee movements. I think I’ll take their word for it over some blog trolls.

          • I’m glad you trust NASA because earlier this year, one of NASA’s reports is where, once again, they talked about the planets in the solar system heating up. You always tell me to Google for information…well, I suggest you do the same. There are several studies, reports, etc., with all the data, charts, bells and whistles that a person could ask for that demonstrate there is a solar system wide phenomenon of warming going on. But, as I have pointed out about “the greatest source of information in the history of man”, you can also find other studies that state there is no such warming going on. Pick your poison, Not Tom.

            Personally I am certain that climate change is occurring. It would be stupid to deny it. Geological history shows numerous warming and cooling periods. In our recent history we experienced warming during the 1100s and 1200s and experienced a mini-Ice Age in the 1500s. It wasn’t that long ago when a sheet of ice several hundred feet thick covered most of North America. So the evidence is clear that some sort of change is taking place right now. The real issue is “Why?” I don’t think it has anything to do with man…I think it is just a natural cycle and we are along for the ride.

            I think a majority of liberals want to blame man because they can then justify draconian penalties and taxes to “compensate” Gaia for the damage we have caused by massive wealth transfers to poor nations. That is a very satisfying solution for liberals because it satisfies two cravings at once: (1) It punishes us for our success, and (2) It lets us feel good about ourselves by giving money to the deserving needy. Kind of hard to beat a deal like that…

          • For Sure Not Tom

            Steve, I can’t find anything from NASA to corroborate your claims.

            I can find dozens of junk science websites saying “NASA said”, I just can’t find where NASA said it, and the websites don’t have links.

            I can find NASA’s website proving climate change is happening and that humans are speeding it along.

            Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobile have all admitted they contribute to climate change.

            Here, from Exxon’s own website:

            corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/current-issues/climate-policy/climate-perspectives/our-position

            Here’s another search for you that may help, search “insurance companies and climate change”.

            Don’t take my word, listen to people with billions of dollars worth of skin in the game. Stuff gets real when money is involved.

  2. John Huppenthal

    Lynda, you quoted Wallet Hub for educational data in your last post.

  3. Sen. John Kavanagh

    I agree that an informed population is essential for a healthy society and the information the population needs consists of both true facts, well-reasoned opinion and critical thinking skills. That is the cure for false news.

    I think that cable TV and the Internet have decreased the influence of money because anyone can now be a “news” and/or commentary source. Gone are the days when three TV networks and a dozen newspapers controlled the flow of public information.

    The last people I want filtering news for “truth” are the government (FCC) or near monopoly social media and search engine companies. I believe that that is a greater threat to democracy than yahoo (not the search engine) websites and crazy social media postings.

    • For Sure Not Tom

      Yeah! If someone actually did something about fake news, who would show up for Kelli Ward’s chemtrail meetings?

      • But I thought the internet was the greatest source of information in all of human history. Are you admitting that some of that information might be pure crap?

        • For Sure Not Tom

          Some people use the internet to search for truth, some people use the internet to troll.

          Half the time you don’t even make sense.

          • You seemed to understand what I was asking just fine. And thank you for acknowledging that the internet is flawed. That is a big admission for you…

          • For Sure Not Tom

            My point wasn’t that the internet if full of crap, you do that all the time, you drift into weird sidebars.

            My point was that you can use the internet to sort through the crap if you aren’t too damn lazy, or afraid of having your personal belief’s challenged.

            Remember the “Obama said you didn’t build your business” thing? It was and still is a rallying cry on the right.

            But you can go look up the entire speech, and what Obama said was the roads and bridges and infrastructure your business needs, you didn’t build that.

            But asking people to support America’s infrastructure doesn’t make Obama look bad, so they take a part of a sentence and make it into something it wasn’t.

            But conservatives don’t like to be contradicted, so they don’t bother to fact check for themselves.

            One of Trump’s people said in an interview on NPR last week that there are no such things as facts.

            That’s the right wing world for you, right there.

    • John – guess you are one of those that thinks government is evil. Interesting that you work in government. I believe government has a purpose, the most sacred of which is to provide for the common good. Business is about making profit, churches are more narrowly focused, and non-profits try but don’t have enough resources. Government is supposed to represent us all and protect all our interests. And in the end, government is not some monolithic evil empire, government is US!!!!!!! We elect representatives that appoint and hire other government workers so ultimately we set the tone in government and we can decide how government intervenes or not in the delivery of truth or anything else. I disagree that the influence of money has been decreased because access is everything and money can buy an awful lot of access. I also think you are downplaying the effect “yahoo” website and “crazy” social media postings had on our recent election. I imagine though that you are happy with the outcome of the election so maybe that plays a role in your thoughts on the subject. Just curious…what do you think are the greatest threats to our democracy?

      • Senator John Kavanagh

        I believe the greatest threats are external, as they have always been – fascism, communism, Islamic terrorism.

        Internally, I think it involves sacrificing freedom and independence for safety and government paternalism. But I believe the internal threats are far less threatening and they come and go. We can survive them.

        I do not share your love of government because I believe in limited government, as did our founders who wrote the Bill of Rights to protect us from government.

        But if you feel comfortable entrusting government with the task of filtering out false news, I might be persuaded to let the Truman administration give it a try. What do you think?

        • Senator John Kavanagh

          SPELL CHECK ALERT: I MEANT TRUMP ADMINISTRATION. THAT SPELL CHECK ERROR IS ACTUALLY PRETTY FUNNY.

        • Senator John Kavanagh

          Funny spell check error. I meant TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

        • Frances Perkins

          You are correct John. We can start saving government money by eliminating all elected officials from Fountain Hills. We succeeded with one, a few more to go. Voila, tons of money saved!

        • Actually John, you make a frightening point. But, what is the answer? It is not okay for trolls to make up horrible stories that ruin people’s lives just so they can have fun or make a buck (or two.) Is there no middle ground?

          • Senator John Kavanagh

            Education and rebuttal. We should teach our children to confront ideas they disagree with and not to flee to a “safe space.”

          • They will never learn that in the Universitys, John, where opposing views and spirited discussion are discouraged if not outright banned. Too many graduates today are incapable of reason or confronting new ideas and that partially explains the attitude of the Millenials. A recent posting here discussed how Millenials look to a single strong leader as a better way of governance over democracy. Easy to understand when our Universitys are producing weak minds incapable of spirited debate or even decision making. Democracy requires a strong and informed electorate, not sheeples protected from other points of view and never developing a strong mind to reason things out.

          • Come on Steve. That is a sweeping generalization that simply cannot be true for every university in America. And oh by the way, we have some incredible young people in this country who give me hope about the future.

          • Sen. John Kavanagh

            Remember, this country was set up as a democratic republic. People elect leaders who they believe can best represent their views because few citizens can take the time to study each issue. This is one way that the effects of fake news is lessened but obviously not eliminated. If there is one lesson to be learned from this election it is that some bad press about a candidate is not the end of the campaign for him or her. If so, we would not have President-elect Trump.

            Also, some fake news is so ridiculous that few people believe it and those that due are probably less likely to be politically engaged and vote. Who in their right mind would believe that Hilary Clinton in the midst of her campaign was running a child prostitution ring out of a DC pizzeria?

          • You got me there John except a father of two drove six hours to check it out. Just as violent video games can promote violence in the children who play them, fake news can encourage even sane (not saying pizza man was), but gullible people to do crazy things. On the issue of elected representatives mitigating the effects of fake news…sorry but there’s plenty of them I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw them (Joe Arpaio and Paul Babeu come immediately to mind.)

  4. Frances Perkins

    I believe the post-fact era was called the Soviet Union. Read the North Korean news service on-line. It resembles Donald Trump speak.