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Mass Media Effects on the Fourth Estate

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Mass Media Effects on the Fourth Estate

It’s been a long time since College – it’s been a long time since we read Jurgen Habermas, Thomas Carlyle, and Noam Chomsky.  In taking a random walk through the Internet one can come upon anything.  And so it was, there they all were in an article on the Fourth Estate. (See resources below for links)

If you don’t know what the Fouth Estate is here is the common citing

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, …. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ….. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. –Carlyle (1905) pp.349-350

The rise of “citizen journalists” in the Blogosphere are one manifestation of the Fourth Estate in the 21’st century.

In the Carlyle quote above the Fourth Estate is portrayed as a benevolent form of free expression that counters, or is a corrective, to state controlled forms of communications.

Thus, the term ‘fourth estate’ is used today to refer to the mass media as a powerful watchdog in liberal democracy, revealing abuses of state authority and defending the democratic rights of citizens.

Alternate Views

The quotes from Burke and Carlyle are products of the French Revolution hundreds of years ago.  This was before the mass media of radio, television, the Internet, and global communications.  The question is this – what really is the Fourth Estate in the 21’st century in the age of mass communications?

Jurgen Habermas – media a delivering “consumption units”

However, according to Habermas, after the first half of the nineteenth century the situation changed, as the public sphere became dominated by a strong, expanded state and a press which represented organized economic interests. The media, from having been part of the public sphere of reasoned discussion, became part of the process of ‘re-feudalization’ of the public sphere as state, industrial conglomerates and the media undergo a process of fusion.

The media became the manipulators of public opinion, conditioning the public into the rôle of passive onlookers and consumers. Similarly to Habermas, Elliott argues that in 1980s Britain technological and economic developments were promoting a continuation of the shift away from involving people in societies as political citizens of nation states towards involving them as consumption units in a corporate world. Elliott (1982: 243-244) in Golding and Murdock (1991: 23))

Reading this “…consumption units in the corporate World..” one could easily think of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others that are peddling Sleep Number Beds, Steaks, cold medicines, and all manner of consumption during what Rush calls “an obscene profit break”.  Rush has delivered “consumption units” (people) to the corporate world.  How successful is this? reported that in 2007 Rush was paid $33 million per year.  What sort of advertising revenue can support this salary?  Rush can deliver.

If Rush delivers 600 stations and 20 million listeners a week to advertisers how objective can the media which he hosts be a forum for “rational debate in the public sphere”?

You can make this observation yourself.  Many people listen only to people who will confirm their already held beliefs.  It is only the minority of people who will listen to an opposing view.  To “deliver” Rush has chart a delicate course of affirmation of already held beliefs of 20 million listeners per week to deliver these “consumption units” to advertisers.

The ‘fourth estate’, ‘guardians of the public sphere’ become increasingly converted into industries, wholly oriented towards the profit motive, just another business held by some conglomerate.

Noam Chomsky – media as propaganda

For Chomsky there is no essential difference between the American (and European) news media and those of totalitarian countries. Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions (1989) presents a devastating account of the propaganda function of the American media, not so much by the sophistication of the argument, but by the wealth of the evidence he produces of the American media parroting government policy.

For Chomsky and Herman, there are five main ‘filters’ in the construction of news:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by governments, business and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) ‘anti-communism’ as a national religion and control mechanism. (2)

Karl Marx – media as delivering ideology as “common sense”

Marx argued that the dominant class creates the dominant ideology. The media play a major rôle in transmitting this ideology to us as if it were ‘common sense.

This post is being written several days before the 2008 Presidential elections.  How many people notice the subtle use of language and phrases that introduce a new ideology and present it as “common sense”.

The new ideology of America

From the Obama campaign we heard these ideas

“It’s patriotic to pay more taxes”
“To not redistribute the wealth is selfish”
“Spread the wealth around”
“Economic equality”
“Everybody should have the right to own a home”
“The civil rights movement did not go far enough.  It achived racial equality but not enough toward economic equality”

A metric that advertisers use is “impressions”.  This is the number of times a message has been repeated to a particular audience.  If you say it enough times it becomes more and more familiar.

The Protestant Work Ethic – alive and well?

Most people have the understanding that the United State is a capitalistic country and that the protestant work ethic is alive and well – “work hard and get stuff”.  Capitalism includes failure.  You are free to succeed or fail.  Failing should mean “failing forward” – that is, you learn from your mistakes.  Failure is an opportunity for learning though which one gets better and improves.

What if you could not fail?  What if there was always someone (the government) to bail you out no matter what kind of mess you are in – can’t pay the mortgage; can’t pay the car loan; out of a job; etc.  Isn’t learning diminished in this scenario?

Equality of Rights – but not equality of ability or wealth

We are not created equal.  We may be equal with regard to rights but we are not equal to ability.  Capitalism sorts people out with regard to ability.  There are rich and poor.  The market provides economic reward to those whose ability matches societal need.  In a sense, greed redirects interests and resouces to satisfy high demands of societal needs.  Is greed good if it satisfies market demands for products, services, or benefits?

But what happens when “the media” also known as the “Fourth Estate” is reinterpreted away from its idealistic role as “guardians of the public sphere” and comes to the service of (as Marx says) “transmitting the new ideology” of the dominant class?

What happens when the sound bites of “redistribution of wealth”, “shared prosperity”, “paying higher taxes is Patriotic”, “spread the wealth around”, “economic equality”, and the language of socialism become as “common sense” in a media controlled by an Obama administration?

The signal of ideological change – no questions about “common sense”

The icing on the cake had to be when Joe Biden refused to answer any more questions from Barbara West a reporter and anchor for WFTV’s news when she asked him if spreading the wealth around was Marxism. 

Obviously, some questions can not be asked until the “common sense” settles in. 

That will come when these sound bites are given more and more impressions until the point that reporters like Barbara West will no longer ask questions about “spreading the wealth”.  Barbara West asked the question because, in a capitalist context, “spreading the wealth” is a strange concept.  The successful change in ideology will be signaled when reporters like Barbara West no longer ask these questions.  She will no longer ask the question when “spreading the wealth around” is part of “common sense”.  Why ask a question about common sense?  How many controlled media impressions will this take for this question not to be asked?

This is just a taste of what we found as an excellent article that explores diverse viewpoints of the effects of mass media on the Fourth Estate and society.  See resources below for links.  We snagged a PDF in case that page disappears from the Internet

We snagged an archive of this page as a PDF


Written by frrl

November 1, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Commentary and Opinion

Tagged with ,

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