Apologetics and the Surrender of the Fourth Estate

It has been debated whether the term “the Fourth Estate” which refers to journalism or a “free press” was originated by Edmund Burke, who once pointed to the gallery of reporters in the British Parliament and declared them to be the fourth, and most important, element overseeing a triumvirate of governmental power. In my opinion, this was one of the most perceptive descriptions of democracy and its processes, applying equally well to the British Parliament and the Estates General of France (from which the term was derived); the constituents were supposed to be representatives of the society’s main elements— the nobility, the middle class and the clergy. Burke was saying that the influence of a free press was, and should be, greater than any of the other three because the “word,” written and spoken, was the key to power.

(Incidentally, the “debate” arises because a guy named Thomas Carlyle is the one who actually put the following statement in writing: “Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament but in the reporter’s gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”)

Who said it first? Was it Burke? Was it Carlyle? Does it matter?

What does matter is that the uncertainty of Burke vs. Carlyle symbolizes the dilemma of whom or what we believe. In this country today, if we substitute the terms “United States Senate” for the “nobility” (makes you want to vomit doesn’t it?) the “House of Representatives” for the “middle class” (not very appetizing either) and “fundamentalist Christians” for the “clergy,” (Well, that’s not too bad) it is apparent that little has changed, with one glaring exception. The Fourth Estate has sold out to the combined forces of its previous antagonists and we now have the deplorable situation where the people have lost the protection of the “more important far than they all.”

Where is today’s Fourth Estate? Nowhere to be found, because sadly, with the exception of only a small minority of courageous and perceptive people, whom the other three estates have managed to portray as unpatriotic troublemakers, the American press has surrendered its role in the “reporter’s gallery,” and is no longer fulfilling Burke’s/Carlyle’s indispensable obligation. This is a devastating loss. It is devastating because access to the truth about governmental matters, of which the press has been the guardian, has been abandoned.

It is a loss similar to the one suffered when science capitulates to religion in the presentation of ideas, and is apparently unwilling to say exactly what its research has found because it comes into conflict with the clergy’s view of the world. The issue of stem-cell research is a notable example, because the only reason this is considered to be an “issue” is the Christian view that a “soul” is created at the moment of conception, and research involving embryos therefore, destroys that soul.

Mortimer Adler’s definition of truth is, “ideas that are in accord with reality.” Here we find the parallel I refer to between science and journalism . . . ideally, both are committed to Adler’s definition of truth; both science and journalism search for (or should search for) hidden facts, evidence, and information. And most important, they are obligated to bring these ideas to the attention of the rest of the people.

Journalism and science should be the leading proponents of ideas that “are in accord with reality,” but scientists have become reticent about espousing ideas that may get them fired (or jeopardize their research grants), in the same way that the Fourth Estate is rapidly abandoning its responsibility to keep the other three estates honest.

Both religion and politics frequently seek ways to distort facts, evidence and information. Both have always relied upon a misrepresentation of the truth. In fact, they go further and frequently try to pass off ideas that are not in accord with reality as truth, and when they are unable to do so (because the ideas are too preposterous) they make it illegal (or heretical) to investigate those ideas. This is why we have Christian apologists making statement such as, “when the Bible says the world was created in six days, it may mean that at the creation, each of god’s days was two billion years old.” It also explains why politicians are able to say “This pastor has been my spiritual advisor for twenty years, but I had no idea that he said, ‘God damn America.’” In theology it’s called “apologetics.” In politics they call it “spinning.” Both are systematic and planned attempts to deceive.

Is it an accident that the power structure of the last seven years has been formed from neo-conservative god-fearing religious “intellectuals” who are educated and intelligent enough to know better but apparently feel they can employ their mental skills to manipulate a gullible public into following them into the Armageddon they so ardently seem to desire?

Due to the exponential expansion of the media, radio, television and, especially, the Internet, the importance of the written and spoken word, and hence the Fourth Estate, has been magnified a thousand-fold. As a result of this growth, Burke’s (or Carlyle’s) words have never been more critical for the healthy functioning of free societies, yet they are becoming increasingly irrelevant, because the “free press” has apparently lost its will to fight. Information, or “truth,” of which the Fourth Estate has been the guardian, has become virtually under the control of a corrupt nexus of the clergy and the nobility, (Judeo-Christian leaders and the United States Congress) at the expense of the middle class and everyone else. And in a clever quid pro quo, the clergy has conferred a dubious morality and virtue onto a corrupt government while the government has reciprocated with laws giving preferential treatment to religion. This is a clever arrangement in which the congress has protected the clergy with a network of tax laws, regulations and immunities, while in return the clergy adorns the congress in an aura of sainthood because of their acceptance of the false morality acquired through opening prayers, swearing on the Bible, and pious allegations that they are the guardians of a Christian Constitution.

In this manner, these “estates” can play the role of martyrs by claiming to be besieged. Besieged by whom? Why, of course, the forces of science, reason, logic, words, journalism, “secular humanists”—in short—information. They say, “Our religion is true but it is attacked by evil scientists, Atheists, secularists and other spawn of the Devil; and our politics are a noble enterprise—our leaders courageous patriots who have to suffer the indignity of being attacked by unpatriotic, ungrateful whiners and dissidents, rabble rousers with no other purpose than to destroy our most cherished ideals.”

The war in Iraq is the quintessential example of the convergence of the two frauds—the religious and the political—whereby all of the most insidious qualities of both institutions, deception, self-aggrandizement, greed, power, and most important, the debasement and castration of the truth, have intimidated a once fearless press. And this fact may conceal the real reasons behind the timid behavior of investigative reporters and the surrender of the Fourth Estate.

Is it reasonable to hope that the Internet can fill the gap? Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! into cyberspace. Woodward and Bernstein, where are you now that we need you?

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