History of the Fourth Estate: The Press

  • What do we mean by The Press, and how has it changed in modern times?

Origin of The Fourth Estate

The term estates is a European word that refers to a great power in the political life of a nation. It goes back to the separation of powers during the Roman Republic. In modern usage the term is first attributed to Lord Brougham in 1823 while he was addressing the British Parliament, or to Thomas Macaulay, who in an 1824 essay wrote:

  • Second Estate: Nobility — sometimes including the monarchy, sometimes not, especially if believed he was appointed by divine right.
  • Third Estate: Common people — the bourgeoisie. Townspeople, usually landowners and merchants: non-nobility.
  • Fourth Estate: The Pressquatrième pouvoir, as we will discuss. The French writer and journalist Balzac affirmed in 1840 that:
  • Legislative Branch — with a British-style bicameral Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  • Judicial Branch — with the Supreme Court and other Federal Courts.
  • The Press — which is sometimes placed alongside the other three branches of government. This Fourth Estate refers to the watchdog role of the Press that is important to a functioning democracy.

Mistrust of The Fourth Estate

In today’s world, people’s trust in the Press is at an all-time low:

  • 58% think that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

The Challenge of The Fourth Estate

While the 1st Amendment to the Constitution made “free” the press from any government control or oversite. Our traditional newspaper, with its traditional profit model of subscriptions, has a shrinking readership. What other media can fulfill that role, taking responsibility as the people’s watchdog?

  • Cons: The danger of such focused news feeds, of such self-curated news sources, is that they tend to create a “confirmation bias” bubble where only your views are catered to. It is not like the traditional Press with a limited number of major presses. The printer trade is becoming obsolete with electronic typesetting, as is the curation of news by traditionally trained journalists.

A Cautionary Tale from our Nation’s Beginning

In 1798 during John Adams‘s presidency, he signed the Alien and Sedition Act making it a crime to publicly criticize the U.S. Government, President, or Federal officials. Part of this was motivated by Adam’s Federalist party’s fear that resident aliens would support France, with whom we were engaged in an undeclared naval war from 1798 to 1800. Such French residents were they to become citizens would vote for the opposing party in the next election in 1800. But mostly it was to silence dissent from the Democratic-Republican (Republican) party — that of his political rival Thomas Jefferson — which it considered subversive. I’ve written previously about how contentious that election was.

Writer and technologist. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, and pop culture. billpetro.com @billpetro

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