In Defense of the Fourth Estate

In Defense of the Fourth Estate; or why I still think good media matters

Let me preface this by telling you, I’m livid with the media. I’ve been angry with the institutions of journalism for a long time. For years. And it’s not even because none of them will hire me because I didn’t decide I wanted to work in the media until I was 28, and the reason I decided I wanted to work in the media was because I was so fucking angry.

So bear with me reader, this might be a bit of a rambling ride. At some points you may question the title of this opinion piece, you might say “…this doesn’t sound much like a defense.”

But I assure, it is. It will be. So buckle in.

Why am I so angry?

I was born in 1985. So I was raised during the transition from television to the internet, from analog to digital. But even before the world-wide web was a glut of blogs like this one with people pottering away on their keyboards, I was angry with the media.

As a 16 year old girl, I watched September 11 happen on my television screen while talking on the phone to a friend. My own Father had passed away the year before. September 10th was the Anniversary of his death. I empathized immediately and viscerally with the imagined girls, just like me, who had suddenly had their whole world changed in an instant. That’s a big part of why, in that same year, it made it so very easy to be convinced about the evils of boat people, throwing their children overboard and smuggling in terrorists to wreak havoc on my own soil. Still very much a child, developing her critical thinking skills it was easy to be swayed by the narrative presented by my Government and the Australian media during the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal.

My English teacher in 2001 was an inspiring educator. A woman named Mrs. Portman.

The day after September 11 she brought in different newspapers from around the world and taped their front pages to the whiteboard in our classroom. She told us to look carefully at the different choices each newspaper had made, and told us to remember that what we saw on that front page was a choice.

Her words came back to me again on the 16th of August 2004, when Michael Scrafton, a former senior advisor to Peter Reith, revealed he had told John Howard in 2001 that the children overboard claims may be untrue, that there was no evidence of asylum seekers threatening to throw their children over the side of their boat if they were not rescued by Australian Navy.

The whole scandal had been a fabrication, the photographs presented as visual evidence by the Government had been taken the day after the asylum seekers were already on our shores.

The media had made a choice to run that narrative, not to oppose it, but to enforce it. They had failed, implicitly, in their self-appointed duty to rigorously investigate and uphold facts, and to provide a platform for constructive criticism of elected officials.

Nearing the end of my first year of a degree in Philosophy and English, my opinions about race, culture and certainly the right to seek asylum had undergone quite a change. Living out of home, attending university, grappling with large abstract concepts and meeting lots of new people had opened my eyes quite quickly to the injustices others face in our world. I distinctly remember getting into a fiery altercation Australia day of that year, defending a friend from work, an Indian exchange student, after someone had told her to “Go back where you came from.”  My response on her behalf was not only utterly un-lady like it was immature, full of expletives and insinuations about the size of the man’s penis.  It was also laced with guilt, I could still remember being sixteen and believing everything I saw on television.

But that all stopped by the end of 2004. By the end of 2004 I was openly cynical about the ability of the media to function as a vessel for the truth in the age of sensationalism. I regularly lamented about the quality of my state’s daily newspaper and I stopped watching television news altogether.

But, I did find some hope in the internet. On the internet I had access to digital content from all over the world, although in a far more limited sense than today. I began to read journalists who I felt were upholding those values the news media was supposed to aspire to, I found The Guardian in the UK and their insightful pieces by Glenn Greenwald, I read The New York Times, and while I didn’t always agree with everything, columnists like Roger Cohen got me thinking in broader terms than I had before. I accessed papers from other parts of Australia, became  and find pockets of what I viewed as ‘resistance’ to the pressures imposed by Editors due to falling subscriber rates and digitization.

But still, I was angry. By the time News of the World phone hacking scandal rolled around, I wasn’t just angry, I was flabbergasted. How could the media let itself become this?

I watched over the next few years as more and more of my friends began to express the same distrust of the media that I did. Some of them, like me, trawled the internet for those pockets of resistance. But some were different. Some turned away from the institutions of the mainstream media entirely.

And that is when I started to get a little concerned.

Don’t just get mad, get smart.

For a very long time I took for granted the skills that I’d learned deciphering Nietzsche and Jung and Sartre and Descartes. Surrounded by other students in academia every day, I didn’t realize that some people don’t even get a Mrs. Portman taping the front page of eight different papers to the white board. I, like so many other people in the world, assumed myself the baseline.

Shortly after I graduated, I moved to America, and witnessed first-hand the banal, empty banter that passes for news on cable TV. I watched the parade of talking heads with rising blood pressure. By now it was 2009, I was living in Harlem, New York City, navigating the newly minted age of smartphones, twitter and facebook. When I wasn’t internally (and sometimes externally) screaming at the television while my roommate had it on, then I was questioning the validity of some of my friend’s posts about the miracle of goji berries and their cancer curing properties. The time of alternative facts was just getting under way, and not everyone was coming into it with several years of experience identifying logical fallacies.

During this time Snopes became my best friend. But living in America had only given me even more reasons to be frustrated with the media. So I returned home to Australia in 2013 to pursue my Masters in International Journalism, in the hopes I could add to those pockets of resistance.

You don’t have to do this to get smart about reading the media, be it mainstream news of alternative blogger, the things I learned from a bunch of dead white guys are out there on the internet freely available. Just because they are dead, doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant. (See my post about why philosophy isn’t useless just because I’m unemployable here.)

If you learn understand the ways we construct meaning, then it becomes harder for somebody to fool you into believing something that isn’t true.

But back to that defense you were talking about?

Flash forward guys. It’s 2017. I’m graduating in March into an environment that is even more hostile towards the media than even I could have imagined. Welcome to the era of fake news, a time where people are so disenchanted with the mainstream media, they’re willing to believe a post from a non-existent newspaper that the Clinton’s are running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop just because their Aunt shared it on her facebook wall.

I won’t lie, this is not quite what I had in mind when I spent all those years hoping people would become more critical of the media.

You see, I may have become angry with the media. I may have become bitterly disappointed with them. But I’ve never abandoned them. When my Lecturers began to drill into me the importance of ethics and accountability, yes, I felt a rustling of my jimmies at the thought of all the globally distributed publications ignoring them. But I didn’t ever think the cause was lost.

You see, I believe in the idea of the Fourth Estate. I don’t think it’s an unimportant, or inflated concept.

I believe that the media should act as a watchdog for the citizens of our global society, they should provide them a platform within the public sphere to give their point of view, and when they can’t give that view themselves, I believe the media should be their mouthpiece. They should challenge institutions, and be gatekeepers of information only in that they will test the claims of the argument first, before allowing it a voice. These are the things the media promised me it would do.

I’m not particular worried if they did them before, I’m not worried if they’ve never done them at all. I only care that this is what they told us the Fourth Estate was. This is the idea that I believe in. And I honestly believe we need it now, more than ever.

But we created the media we see around us today. The fragmented and disjointed industry teetering between clickbait and controversy with every single headline. We did it because we stopped supporting it, and we stopped holding it accountable.

We stopped paying for it, and we let it get away with whatever it had to sell us to get our clicks for free.

It’s on us as much as it’s on them.

Even though I’m basically an unemployed journalism graduate (or freelance writer as I put down on forms sometimes to make myself feel better), I’m a paying subscriber to two newspapers online. One that I love, and one that I basically loathe. I don’t just do this to support an industry I hope to be a part of. I don’t do this just to have my views challenged some mornings or evenings, by conflicting points of view. I do this because, as I said, I don’t believe the cause is lost, and if I want to save it, I have to be involved with it. I even have a crazy idea of my own about a way to bridge the divide between the public and the media. A way to restore faith and trust, both ways.

In fact, that’s the whole subject of my PhD proposal… but that’s a crazy idea for another day.

 

 

 

Refs:

Jenny Brockie, SBS Insight, John Howard interview 8 November 2001 https://web.archive.org/web/20070830082852/http://news.sbs.com.au/insight/trans.php?transid=317

Catherine McGrath, ABC Radio’s The World Today 16 August 2004 http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1177463.htm 

Marc Fisher, John Woodrow Cox and Peter Hermann, The Washington Post, 6 December 2016 https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html