Are the American media doing their job of shining a bright light on events for our benefit, thus helping preserve our democracy? Or, on the contrary, are they casting a fire that is slowly burning our nation to the ground? What lessons must we learn and never forget, and what ought we to do?
Even before America gained her independence in the late 18th century, Europe’s tabloid presses were already having a field day exposing sensational events that would put today’s reality media to shame. Stories like the gruesome attack on a businessman and the “deflouring” of his two daughters appeared in a Dutch pamphlet in 1601 and led to a crackdown on banditry. Tabloid reports on the adulterous escapades of England’s popular Queen almost sparked a revolt in the early 19th century (Economist 107).
So powerful were newspapermen that Burke (1729-1797) coined the term “Fourth Estate” to describe them as a new and powerful social class in England. It was Burke who pointed out the duty of the press as guardians of public interest and watchdogs of government. He believed that newspapermen had a power all their own in government: the power to speak and the power to make others listen through the printed word, and to act as a check and balance to the other social classes (Lords, Clergy, and People) by upholding democracy and defending public interests (“A Vindication…”). But it was Carlyle (1795-1881), quoting Burke, who extended the description as to include the “Able Editors” and printers (“Heroes”), widening the Fourth Estate as to include the whole mass media. Carlyle, an individualist who vehemently distrusted democracy and legislators and hated industrialists, had in mind William Cobbett, England’s great newspaperman who denounced the political system as nepotistic, corrupt, and elitist and had to flee to America in 1818 to escape trial. Returning in 1820, Cobbett reported juicy tidbits of the