From the early days of the printing press, through its evolution to books, newsprint, radio, television and the internet, social scientists and historians alike have tried to analyze and determine the role and importance of the communications media. Edmund Burke coined the expression, “The Fourth Estate” to both define and clarify how important he understood the role of the press.
The Fourth Estate accounted for the new fourth leg of power solidifying the other three legs: Clergy, Nobility and the Secular world. The Press grew in importance once the there were enough organizations researching, reporting and even creating news stories. The Hearst Corporation has been accused of precipitating the Spanish American War by reporting on the sinking of the USS Battleship Maine in Havana, Cuba Harbor in 1898. The paper claimed—without proof—the Spaniards had blown it up.
Those were the days when the press reigned. Then radio came along and there were denizens who promoted conspiracies even unto the present with the likes of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. On its heels came television and the McCarthy Hearings. Then in the 70s came 24-hour television and CNN with never-ending newscasts. How could things get worse?
In the 90s, we saw the rapid rise of the internet and instant news… with no more filters at all. That brings us today with the fetish for “Breaking News” and Fake News and hacks. The fall election of 2016 was the first US election argued, debated and falsified on the internet. The attention-span of Americans dropped to an all-time low as even the president-elect proved his attention span was only 140 characters long.
Libraries, authorship and truth no longer matter. Honesty is meaningless and the public does not care. The broader the chasm between the factions, the less effort we find for the common ground. We have come down to Lewis Carroll’s words he put in Humpty Dumpty’s mouth so long ago:
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
So reality becomes entirely subjective. Lies become subjective and reality is something virtual.
The question becomes: If there is no longer an objective truth, how do we communicate? We might just as well be trying to communicate with alien beings from a galaxy far, far away.
All the so-called estates have lost their meaning. The clerical estate has confined itself to lucrative private mythologies; the governmental estate has been reduced to selective ideologies of exclusivity instead of inclusivity; and the secular world only has power if one has abused enough people to become a billionaire—thus buying out the clergy and the government.
Until recently, the Fourth Estate maintained a degree of objectivity and sought out the facts. Now the media have come down to control by a small handful of giant corporations who praise the billionaires and demonize any and all who dare challenge their version of reality.
In a strange paradox, the fewer tolerated opinions there are, dictated by the billionaires, the more unified corporate “truth” becomes. Unwittingly, we turn into a twin fascist regime as dictatorial as North Korea—a country where dissent does not exist.
That leaves us with the Fourth Estate 2.0 or—as some have called it—the Fifth Estate… the Social Media. That’s us! That is the power we have to communicate among ourselves. What used to happen in conversations in soda shops, on front stoops or around the dinner table, now takes place on tiny keyboards controlled by two thumbs and spell-check… maybe.
Here’s a brief test to measure how far we have come. Stop reading this for a moment and look around you wherever you are. Is communicating with your phone or computer right now more important than communicating with those around you? If change is needed to rebuild our society, does it begin on the computer or by staying in touch with those you love? Maybe it is a matter of balance. We can only change society if we take each other along into tomorrow… with no one left behind.
Roger A Chauvette