The New Fourth Estate

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.

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