Gregory Shaya has an essay on the Lapham’s Quarterly blog about what he calls the myth of the Fourth Estate. Therein, he rejects both the romantic assumption that an uncensored press is all we need for a free society and the suspicion that the media are systematically manipulating public opinion in the interests of the real Masters of the Universe:
We’re surrounded by fantasies and phantasms of press power, blinded by the liberal dream of the fourth estate and its evil doppelganger, the specter of media control. The impact of the media turns out to be much less and much more than these visions allow.
Shaya argues that the press is actually much less influential than most people assume. His main point seems to be that the press isn’t influential enough to qualify as one of the great Estates of society, on par with a branch of government.
It all depends on what you mean by power. Shaya notes that it is difficult to measure the impact of media coverage on public opinion. True. But then again, virtually everything we know about the workings of our government comes from media reports. When was the last time you checked the Federal Register?
It’s not clear how much the tone of media coverage affects public opinion about, say, the Affordable Care Act. Yet, virtually everything we know about the ACA comes from media reports. Scrutiny itself is a check on power. Politicians and public officials are constantly thinking about how their decisions will play in the press. That’s not the kind of power that a news outlet can wield to make people vote a certain way, but scrutiny, or the possiblity of scrutiny, is an important structural check on all kinds of power.
Shaya cites Watergate as an example of the myth of the Fourth Estate. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t single-handedly bring down Richard Nixon:
And what about Watergate? This is the founding myth of contemporary investigative journalism. It’s remembered as the David and Goliath story of two journalists who brought down a president. For many, it stands as the finest hour of the American press. (Though, to be sure, some conservative voices have latched on to another view. In the words of the popular historian, Paul Johnson, it was “the first media putsch in history.”) 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. Woodward put it plainly himself: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.” [Emphasis added.]
Yes, Woodward and Bernstein revealed the work of the FBI, the courts, and Congressional investigators. And the Congressional hearings that followed the news coverage had a bigger impact on public opinion than the original scoops, but the hearings had broad impact because so many people followed them in the press.
Shaya seems to assume that that the “work” of these public servants would have come to light even without Woodward and Bernstein. That’s a dubious assumption: Mark “Deep Throat” Felt leaked to Woodward because he didn’t trust the FBI to share its “work” with the public. He went to the press because he was afraid that the Nixon White House would try to subvert justice.
Felt believed he was protecting the bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the bureau for political reasons. The young eager-beaver patrol of White House underlings, best exemplified by John W. Dean III, was odious to him. [WaPo]
So, here again, we see the press acting as a check on presidential power. Despite his best efforts, even Nixon couldn’t stop a whistleblower from going to the press.
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