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The Myth of the Fourth Estate
July 16, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

The Myth of the Fourth Estate
posted by Cloud King (42 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by JPD at 10:39 AM on July 16, 2012


This is hardly surprising. Journalism has always been a propaganda device, though in some eras it's more obvious than others. The first thing any authoritarian government does is to assert control over the media. Why would our plutocratic government function any differently?

What I think makes Fox News so successful (and such an interesting case study) is that unlike other media outlets, they treat journalism as a commodity rather than a propaganda device - by selling right-wing conservatives news the way they want to hear it, Fox has successfully monopolized a very large niche market. The greatest threat to Fox isn't the "liberal media" as they claim - it's the possibility of a competing conservative network coming along and peeling away their market share.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:44 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The pedophile scandal in the Catholic church would not have been exposed if it weren't for the Boston Globe's reporting.
posted by Melismata at 10:46 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just read that whole thing and I have no idea what the author is trying to say.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 10:51 AM on July 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


The greatest threat to Fox isn't the "liberal media" as they claim - it's the possibility of a competing conservative network coming along and peeling away their market share.

...Except that combating the "liberal media" is the only reason Fox News exists, and its being such a massive, profitable success has always been an afterthought to its core propaganda mission, given Fox News' real, ultimately political mission was originally conceived by Ailes and other Republican political operatives in the Nixon era (warning: link to Gawker, for those with online allergies), as documents from the Presidential Archives have now shown.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:00 AM on July 16, 2012


So in short, they would keep running it as a loss-leader for the party even if others lined up behind them, since getting the media to line up behind them was the original mission.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:01 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The takeaway point I got was in this paragraph:
A flood of research in communication studies in the decades since Lazarsfeld has elaborated and revised his findings. The press doesn’t seem to have large, direct, measurable effects on opinion. The standard answer of the sociology of communication is that most of the effects of the press are limited and indirect. The press has the power to set the agenda, to direct attention, to frame political and cultural issues, to shape perceptions over the long term. These are real and meaningful influences, but they are a far cry from the immense powers that are so frequently invoked. [emphasis added]
The myth referenced in the title is not that the press is or isn't objective. The myth is that the 4th estate is the primary means by which citizens inform their opinions.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The greatest threat to Fox isn't the "liberal media" as they claim - it's the possibility of a competing conservative network coming along and peeling away their market share.

There's a non-conservative news network?
posted by DU at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


The myth is that the 4th estate is the primary means by which citizens inform their opinions.

Or maybe the myth is the citizen opinions matter, given that:

The press has the power to set the agenda, to direct attention, to frame political and cultural issues, to shape perceptions over the long term.

The press can get any candidate out of office by hyping some blownup non-troversy, as has been shown repeatedly. If a candidate from either party strays too far from The Party line, down comes the hammer.
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on July 16, 2012


Wretch729: "The press has the power to set the agenda, to direct attention, to frame political and cultural issues, to shape perceptions over the long term."

That sounds like pretty immense power to me. You don't need the power to shape opinions if you can distract people from forming them in the first place.
posted by klanawa at 11:05 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jinx.
posted by klanawa at 11:06 AM on July 16, 2012


The myth referenced in the title is not that the press is or isn't objective. The myth is that the 4th estate is the primary means by which citizens inform their opinions.

If you include broadcast media (in particular, television) under your definition of "the press" (as most lay people would these days) then I think this is a ridiculous claim.

Also headlines are bigger opinion movers than news articles themselves, in my own personal observation. Misleading headlines are a powerful opinion shaping tool, but in-depth investigative journalism typically not so much.

If the argument is simply that printed newspapers aren't very influential, well, sure, that's probably a true but very trivial point in the post-television/internet age.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:10 AM on July 16, 2012


No, I think the argument (and it's not clear that the point of the article is really to argue this) is that most people's political leanings are influenced more by family and friends and other direct social influences than by the media.

This seems like a pretty reasonable claim; I'm not sure that Fox News has really changed anyone's mind, but it surely acts to confirm many of its viewers biases.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:14 AM on July 16, 2012


The press doesn’t seem to have large, direct, measurable effects on opinion. The standard answer of the sociology of communication is that most of the effects of the press are limited and indirect.

OK, but is that the point of the fourth estate in the first place? I thought it was to inform, not shape opinion.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:19 AM on July 16, 2012


To be clear I wasn't saying I unreservedly agree with point I took from the article, just that that seemed to be the clearest statement I found of the article's argument, to the extent that it was arguing a point and not just presenting information.

Although on second thought, I should have included Kadin2048's point, since that is the conclusion the article draws in the paragraphs following the one I quoted.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:23 AM on July 16, 2012


People believe what they want to believe, and consume information that supports their own beliefs. We tend to think that things would be better if Fox News weren't around, but its audience has made a choice to consume its product (as opposed to tuning in to Amy Goodman).

I think the real problem is just a complete lack of critical thinking skills out there. There is so much information available to all of us now that that no one needs to rely on a single news source for anything - we can often get news right from the very source, thanks to the internet.

But I see some of the weird viral stuff circulated by my Facebook friends - stories from Russia Today, for example - that I just wonder how much people *want* to think critically, and challenge their own assumptions.

Sometimes it's easier to embrace one's own worldview, and consume media that supports it.

Is that the media's fault? No, because we all have the personal responsibility to get our facts straight. We don't need an elite seemingly smarter than we are to do it for us.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:32 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This seems like a pretty reasonable claim; I'm not sure that Fox News has really changed anyone's mind, but it surely acts to confirm many of its viewers biases.

They aren't used to shape opinions directly, though, they're used to poison the well of reliable information with false information that, if accepted at face value, will lead people to false conclusions. The mechanism isn't the changing of core beliefs and values: it's through the use of information to mislead that these campaigns are effective.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:32 AM on July 16, 2012


Is that the media's fault? No, because we all have the personal responsibility to get our facts straight.

How are we responsible for getting facts we largely have no direct access to ourselves right? The press has access to info sources we don't.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:33 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


How are we responsible for getting facts we largely have no direct access to ourselves right? The press has access to info sources we don't.

The internet allows to go right to the source, such as candidate websites if it's an election, or scholarly and government reports. The news is just entertainment, a bunch of talking heads designed to sell advertising.

I guess I really resent the idea that somehow the media has some sort of elite role determining "the truth". I've worked in PR and communications long enough to learn that every single news story contains an inaccuracy.

But like I said, being informed is a matter of personal responsibility, and that means getting news from multiple sources, ideally sources that challenge your worldview.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:37 AM on July 16, 2012


The internet allows to go right to the source, such as candidate websites if it's an election

That is nothing compared to being able to get audiences with the people who make deals off-line though. Ordinary folks have no clue what those guys really do; the press is often hoodwinked by them too, but at least, it's supposed to be their jobs to pay closer attention than any of us could.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:53 AM on July 16, 2012


I want to go back in time and punch my younger self in the face. "Journalism degree? Are you fucking high? That's going to be so worthless. I mean, seriously, you could ... What's that? Yes? Wait, you're actually high? Really high? Like, high right now? Oh. High all the time, then. Right. Yes, I remember that now. OK. That explains everything."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:56 AM on July 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


If you encounter Young Rangeboy in your temporal travels, CPB, please punch him, too.

"Gee, this journalism degree I got isn't very useful. I know! I'll get two more!"
posted by Rangeboy at 12:32 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The internet allows to go right to the source, such as candidate websites if it's an election, or scholarly and government reports. The news is just entertainment, a bunch of talking heads designed to sell advertising.

I don't understand what you're proposing. How would people find out about anything that's going on in the world without the press? A giant game of telephone? Wait for the academic report to come out a year after something happens? Also, are we supposed to take candidates at their word?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, there are different media channels, from online newspapers to blogs to social media. All I'm saying is that it is not necessary to depend on the mainstream media to get it right. If they report on a poll, for example, it's now possible to go and download the poll yourself and examine the methodology. If Fox reports on some sort of scientific study, it's possible to go an and see who funded the study, or to read more than the abstract of the study, which is what is usually regurgitated by the press.

But while the media always directs the conversation, it never ever reports on what is most important, which in my mind are events that citizens can directly influence locally in their own communities.

The solution to the "Myth of the Fourth Estate" is individual engagement in one's own community. We do not need to depend on a group of elites to tell us what to think.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:55 PM on July 16, 2012


Sometimes it feels like the experience of Metafilter is: read five threads built entirely around information derived solely from highly competent journalists working for major news outlets such as the NY Times then read a thread where everyone complains about how the media is completely useless and nothing but corporate lies.

Right now the MF front page has multiple NYT articles, multiple BBC articles, at least one Guardian article, multiple New Yorker pieces etc. etc. All our worlds will be horribly impoverished--and our access to useful and believable information radically impaired--if the news media don't find some sustainable economic model. Metafilter, for one, would be reduced to essentially an adjunct of YouTube commenting in such a world.
posted by yoink at 12:59 PM on July 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Didn't the NYT facilitate the Iraq War? The New Yorker's China correspondent doesn't speak Mandarin. The BBC does not have an independent editorial policy. The Guardian supported the LibDems in the last election.

Not that any of these are shit; it's just that we all have the individual responsibility to be critical about all of the media we consume.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:07 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The New Yorker's China correspondent doesn't speak Mandarin.

Cite? This blog post says he is fluent in Mandarin. I couldn't find anything saying otherwise.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2012


Well yoink, I guess the question is did any of those articles change your mind? They may have added data, but did they change your opinion on anything? There are a lot of comments in this thread ragging on the press, but the actual OP article is about the myth that journalism (print, TV, whatever) affects opinions.

I like a lot of the links to media outlets on Metafilter, generally they are interesting and informative. It has been a long time since I saw one that changed my mind about anything. (MeFi comments, on the other hand, change my mind reasonably often on more minor things, so make of that what you will.)
posted by Wretch729 at 1:35 PM on July 16, 2012


The article was good for the first half, but then foundered. It would have done well to address the abundance of mid-century critical media theories, such as those proposed by Gramsci, Marcuse, McLuhan, Benjamin, etc. rather than get hung up on Manufacturing Consent (which although interesting is basically entirely Marcusian in its approach, while the article makes it out to be some sort of intellectual breakthrough). Then you would have provided your reader a general overview of how intellectuals have struggled to understand the power and relevance of the fourth estate, and equipped them make their own decisions about whose explanations carry the most weight.

Okay, maybe that would have been an entirely different article. But it would have been better.
posted by mek at 1:46 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I seem to recall reading somewhere that Evan Osnos is not proficient in Mandarin, but a quick search neither proves nor disproves whether or not he does.

I would say that I was profoundly disappointed in Osnos' coverage of the 3/11 disasters in Japan; neither the Times nor the Guardian did any better. I say I was profoundly disappointed because until then I had always considered the New Yorker to be a step above other periodicals in terms of the quality of its reportage. However, it must be said that there really isn't anyone reporting accurately on Japan at the moment, and if not Japan, then the rest of international reporting is suspect, including China. And if international reporting by the big papers and magazines in inaccurate, it is only logical that their national affairs are also of low quality.

The only way to ferret out the "truth" is by triangulation.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:27 PM on July 16, 2012


Except that combating the "liberal media" is the only reason Fox News exists, and its being such a massive, profitable success has always been an afterthought to its core propaganda mission.

How did you arrive at that conclusion? Combating the liberal media was the reason Fox News was created - I'll go along with you on that. But conflating the reason something was created with the reason it exists is a gross misconception of the vast gulf between theory and reality.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:32 PM on July 16, 2012


Interesting article, but it makes a very unpersuasive case for the unimportance of Woodward and Bernstein. The author tries to make their reporting fade into translucence with phrasing like this:
Here, too, history tells a more complicated tale than the mythology. We will have a hard time pinning the uncovering of the scandal on the press itself. What Bernstein and Woodward did was to reveal the work of the FBI and the courts and Congressional investigators to a wider public. To be sure, the Washington Post moved forward on a story that left most American news outlets uncomfortable. They gave it wide play. They helped legitimate the investigations. But that’s a far cry from picturing the press as the maker of kings.
Huh? Of course what B&W did was "reveal the work of the FBI and the courts and Congressional investigators to a wider public." That's what reporting is. By giving it that "wide play," the WP and B&W changed history. It seems as though the author is trying to suggest that their contribution was minor, since they were "merely" reporting events rather than making an explicit argument for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Which seems like a peculiar point. I think the author would rather not acknowledge the whole matter, since this is clearly a counter-example to his thesis.
posted by Edgewise at 3:28 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The only way to ferret out the "truth" is by triangulation.

Hasn't this always been ever thus? At least since the age of Rashomon.

It seems, KokuRyu, you want one news outlet that will be everything to all people and never make mistakes. That's an unrealistic request. You will always find something to be unhappy about with every news outlet. As a journalist, I have had some things go to press with my named slapped on them that I was unhappy about.

But everyone's trying, and some outlets do a consistently good job. A lot of them (even those that "facilitated" the Iraq war, a word which implies the very influential strength that is being denied in this article) are frequently cited on MetaFilter. The very act of aggregating and discussion here is one of triangulation.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 3:55 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll go along with you on that. But conflating the reason something was created with the reason it exists is a gross misconception of the vast gulf between theory and reality.

You're absolutely right; that is an important distinction to draw. Why it exists and continues to exist as far as I can tell is because it keeps working. Our culture keeps moving rightward (which of course means the audience for right-wing media keeps growing, and that keeps the money rolling in, which is the ultimate test of anything's worth from a certain increasingly popular POV).
posted by saulgoodman at 4:30 PM on July 16, 2012


KokuRyu,

The problem is you're conflating two different issues:

The internet allows to go right to the source, such as candidate websites if it's an election, or scholarly and government reports. The news is just entertainment, a bunch of talking heads designed to sell advertising.

This is just flat-out wrong. The Internet allows us access to some things, sure, but there are many things the average person simply can't access. Take your laments about international coverage; I can't personally visit Japan or China or Iran or Brazil when I need to learn about them. At some point I must rely on someone else doing it, someone who knows more than I, and reporting on it to me. There are some areas, like polls and studies that you mention, where I can personally read the source and judge for myself, but there are many areas where I can't. You must rely on people who do have access to tell you about it. And that's not even touching on guys like Woodward and Bernstein, people who can do the digging and make the connections that we can't because we lack the time and resources. There is a place for journalists. The Internet is not some magic power that has opened everything to everyone.

No, because we all have the personal responsibility to get our facts straight. We don't need an elite seemingly smarter than we are to do it for us.

Yes, we actually do. Not because they're "elite', but because they have the time, resources, and ability that we don't. This is like libertarians who rail against the FDA testing food and harping on "personal responsibility", as if everyone has the time, training, and equipment to conduct thorough product testing on everything they consume.


it's just that we all have the individual responsibility to be critical about all of the media we consume.


This is the more important point. You're right; though we must rely on others for much information, we should be wary and critical of what we take in.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:58 PM on July 16, 2012


It seems, KokuRyu, you want one news outlet that will be everything to all people and never make mistakes.

Actually, no I don't. I've been arguing that it's silly to expect that the media are actually accurate, and that it's important to look at multiple sources - original sources if at all possible.

I can't personally visit Japan or China or Iran or Brazil when I need to learn about them. At some point I must rely on someone else doing it, someone who knows more than I, and reporting on it to me.

That's the thing: the people reporting on international affairs often don't know much more than you do.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:15 PM on July 16, 2012


KokuRyu -I guess I really resent the idea that somehow the media has some sort of elite role determining "the truth". I've worked in PR and communications long enough to learn that every single news story contains an inaccuracy.

I would love to see you back up that very broad statement. Every article?
posted by Isadorady at 5:24 PM on July 16, 2012


Well, fuck, I don't know, but working in government and later for an industry association it was pretty goddamned obvious that reporting is a very imprecise business, unless the reporters had paid up the ass for a FOI request and were really, really motivated to dot the i's and cross the t's.

In terms of being "fair and objective", given their mood editors (at least in Canada) try to print the most ridiculous images of politicians possible. Take a look sometime at some of the stupid images that get thrown up on the front page.

I think something MetaFilter can get a handle on is the extremely poor quality of science and technology reporting out there. And the poor quality is not limited to that at all.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:33 PM on July 16, 2012


tl;dr: "The press doesn’t seem to have large, direct, measurable effects on opinion."
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:31 PM on July 16, 2012


Ridiculous article. Wonder what the real motive is behind it?
posted by blue shadows at 11:40 PM on July 16, 2012


David Brooks, Joe Klein, and the Courtier Press
posted by homunculus at 3:54 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back

This Just In: Nonsense
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on July 18, 2012


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