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Kidd Millennium: Free the Fourth Estate

Free the Fourth Estate

By Ron Callari

Mass media’s obligation is to fulfill the critical role of fourth estate, the defenders of public interest. The term is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Thomas Carlyle who ranked the press above and apart from the three Estates of Parliament. His perception was based on the media being the watchdog that continually held the barbarians at the gates.

Carlyle asserted that the public sphere where the media existed was a neutral zone, free of censure and persecution. Within that arena, people could exchange ideas, beliefs and debate collectively and rationally for the benefit of the common good while keeping the government in check.

From that philosophical premise, the supporters of a free unregulated media have argued tenaciously that media institutions must be independent of the state otherwise they will be in some way beholden to it.

Today, however, the question that needs to be asked is: Is the press free at all?

Recently the Federal Communications Commission dramatically overhauled the rules governing who can own what and how much media real estate can be assumed by any one company. The changes have a potentially huge impact on how Americans will get their news and entertainment - with the net effect probably being a reduction in the number of outlets available. The commission voted to allow TV networks to own newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same city; and to allow companies in large markets to own as many as three TV stations in the same viewing area.

Anti-trust issues aside, the argument in permitting ownership to have free reign also effects how the media will think, react and respond to criticizing the government of the day for fear of losing subsidies or provoking restrictive legislation.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp., for instance, claimed that the price paid by British broadcasters to own media conglomerates are their privilege and freedom. One could argue, however, that the media, which is owned by major corporations, must be obligated to those corporations, a corollary, which Mr. Murdoch chooses to overlook.

The merger of media firms with non-media corporations is also concerning. With the declining role of national state governments and the increasing power of transnational corporations, the media watchdog should pay more attention to abuses by global capitalist institutions than to the state. However, those that belong to such organizations are not foolishly going to bite the hand that feeds.

Bias and partisan issues in Carlyle’s day were abhorrent to the press. Today, the big-media journalists are overly cautious of what they put down on the page. The herd is becoming well-paid conformists who are distancing themselves more and more from the masses. They are responsive to the urban elitism of the day, the electorate and the powerful enterprises that control them.

Bush’s popularity ratings continue to rise, while his motives for war go unchecked. His belief that Iraq fostered weapons of mass destruction, even though unproven, is offset by the fact he was able to depose a ruthless dictator. Yet Bill Clinton was impeached in office because of a tryst he chose to lie about. While the media had a field day with the latter, Bush’s reputation appears to go untainted.

Is this a matter of right or wrong, or who’s buttering what side of one’s bread?

The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 --
along party lines and the decision was a victory for FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who just happens to be the son of our Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Fox TV (another Murdoch offspring) is a perfect example of a large corporate entity that continually spouts one sided, right wing leanings. Its political convictions often override journalistic ones and yet it brands itself as “fair and balanced” news.

Reacting to the FCC’s rulings, anger seems more intense in the House of Representatives where lawmakers vowed to introduce legislation to reverse the FCC decision on ownership.

"The American people, regardless of their political affiliation, are outraged by this decision and what is going on with media today," said Bernie Sanders, an independent congressman from Vermont. "During the last several months some 750,000 people contacted the FCC and said: Don't do this! Don't allow a few giants increased ownership over what we see, hear and read."

The jury is still out, but the current state of the fourth estate appears in jeopardy. And as a result, America may be at the precipice of a cultural decline. If Big Brother is going to spoon-feed us what they want us to believe -- how can a nation based on freedom ever be truly free? The 'dumbing-down' of modern media will not prepare us for the worse. It will only engender a limited diet, leaving us passive and unwilling to tempt our palates with new and varied menu items.


Ron Callari is a freelance journalist and editorial cartoonist who resides in Jersey City, New Jersey. He and co-creator Jack Pittman produce kidd millennium cartoons weekly.

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