Most of us who have gone through the K-12 State indoctrination program, have likely heard the media referred to as the fourth estate; an additional and important check on power. The story, at least here in the U.S. goes; our republic was established so that the three governing bodies; legislative, judicial, and executive; would check and balance each other, in pursuant of a more perfect union. The popular understanding of the fourth estate is in its relation to these three branches of government; as originally attributed to the comments of Edmund Burke in his 1787 British House of Commons debate on allowing the press to report on the activities of parliament. In Burke’s meaning of the term, he refers to the three estates of parliament; Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons; to which he suggests the media, an outside force, as the fourth.
Though this has become the common meaning of the term, Burke was using analogy in his argument; referencing the classical understanding of the Estates of the Realm. In the classical understanding, the power structure of Christian Europe could be divided up between clergy, nobility, and commoners; in order of importance; God ordained the clergy, who ordained the royalty and nobility in His name, who conferred privilege to or levied rents from the commoners. The fourth estate in this understanding was that of an influential force outside of the established power structure; considered threatening to the hierarchy itself.
The difference between the modern and classical understanding of the term fourth estate may be subtle, but the consequences are significant in application. Whereas the modern understanding suggests the fourth estate is an integral part the three branch government system, working as a function of the triumvirate; instead the classical understanding sets the fourth estate up as something antithetical to the power structure. If we consider the media in this delineation, we can see it in two lights; one, the media as an intricate function of governorship, and two, the media as a threat to the power structure.
At first glance, the modern mainstream media of the Western world might (depending on how naïve you are) look as though it is critical of the power structure; though with closer examination, it quickly becomes obvious that they are not in fact criticizing the power structure itself, but rather those within the structure. The media in this sense is acting in the fashion our high school teachers have taught us; in accord with, rather than against the power structure. There are many forms of this cooperation; access journalism, press release copy, and corporate owned media; this last form is when a corporation (as defined legally by a government and granted privilege hereto) which has legislative interests, owns a media outlet. The important thing to take away from this relationship is the mutual benefit the mainstream media and the power structure enjoy from one another.
Knowing that the mainstream media acts in cooperation with the power structure, rather than in opposition to it, we can assume that it is not a true fourth estate. So is there, or has there ever been a fourth estate to speak of? Of course; historically, with each innovation in mass communication, there has been a temporary resurgence of the fourth estate. The first major blow to the Estates of the Realm came in the sixteenth century when the German monk Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German (a common language). This single act led quickly to the European kingdoms placing strict control on the printing presses. With the advent of radio people could speak their mind to any who could obtain a receiver; governments were quick to create licensure for frequencies; again, this was done with television stations once those came into the mainstream; their excuses being for the public welfare.
The impact the Internet has had as an agent of the fourth estate almost doesn’t need explaining. Considering revelations such as that procured from WikiLeaks and those of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald; or the Arab Spring, where millions of people coordinated protests through social media that led to several U.S. puppet dictators being overthrown; or the counter-economy, things such as what cryptocurrency, TOR, and PGP have made possible. The influence of this fourth estate has not gone unrecognized by those it threatens however; some governments of the world, such as China, have all but outlawed its use in their country; with many more, including Western governments, making serious efforts to restrain its functionality.
Like the controls that were placed on the printing press, radio, and television; so too is there a push to control the Internet. A federal bill disguised as a Shield Law with the innocent sounding name The Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 (s. 987), is being pushed by people like senator Dianne Feinstein; a bill that seeks to establish who is and is not considered a journalist worthy of the protections awarded in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights. An example of similar, but bluntly more aggressive is legislation that was proposed in my home state of Michigan;
“The bill specifies that to get a license the journalist must meet the moral and ethical standards set by the state, have a degree in journalism or equivalent field, have three years’ experience as a journalist, submit 3 or more writing samples, and have received an award or recognition related to their reporting.”
Perhaps more insidious in the long term, but less obvious, is what something like Net Neutrality may have led/lead to. This bill has several avenues for exploitation by the power structure. In a nutshell, the bill claims to prevent Internet Service Providers from prioritizing certain forms of traffic, and potentially charging tiered packages for access to certain types of content. The validity of that argument aside, the bill creates an even greater central authority over the Internet; an authority the ISPs, content providers, and politicians in the name of the general welfare will most certainly leverage. Once the precedent is set that the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to regulate traffic on the Internet, what is to stop them from requiring all IP based products and services from requiring licensing? The FCC/NBA did this with radio and television; what is so far-fetched to assume they would do the same with the Internet? Can you imagine needing a license to run a blog? Would you need to be what Dianne Feinstein calls a licensed journalist to obtain one?
There is a fourth estate; a real one. It is not the cable news stations or most syndicated talk radio shows; it is those who question the power structure; those who threaten the other Estates of the Realm. Those who fear it are actively working to take it from those who threaten their legitimacy. While they may win the battle over the established IP infrastructure, they have already lost the war of communication; the fourth estate will adapt and evolve as it always has.