The Price of the Fourth Estate

credit: Rishabh Sharma on Unsplash

When did it begin? Within my recent lifetime, I believe. Like Hemingway said about bankruptcy, it happened very slowly and then very suddenly. The Fourth Estate is in its death throes HERE and HERE. To be accurate, there are many diehard journalists about and looking for new ways to practice their craft HERE, but the candle in the wind analogy might be amended to a hurricane.

Now that traditional printed news sources are disappearing into the maw of the hedge funds who gut them HERE, and most of what remains of the broadcast species are nothing more than propaganda mills, it is the most egregiously telling example of the nearly absolute corporate dominance of society.

The lords of commerce and those in the political realm who serve them gladly are trading the Fourth Estate for a Fifth Estate, that gaggle of bloggers, tweeters, and social media influencers, each of them a broadcast network unto itself, and each a purveyor of whatever it considers news and information. We are supposed to accept that this is the new news source society relies on.

Who among them is a reliable source and if the answer is none, or better said, none that easily can be separated from the pack and identified as such, does it really matter? It does to the power structure, divide and conquer being an always dependable strategy for consolidating that power.

Conspire not to withhold information; rather inundate us with it to the extent no one can sort wheat from chaff, should they be among the few who continue to care. For the rest of us, it’s merely entertainment HERE. We’re supposed to accept it as such. Pick a preferred teat and nurse away to your heart’s content.


Thanks to modern technology, everyone has a forum. Free speech grants the right to say pretty much any damn thing one pleases and there is apparently everywhere a throng of audience primed to believe whatever is said. Critical thinking not only is not required, it’s pretty much frowned on.

Mass communications today is a cacophony designed to effectively obscure truth from view. There is no longer any one holding the powerful to account because everyone is holding everyone else to account and information has become merely noise. 

To entrust the distribution of information to everyone and anyone is to accept any random theory or concoction as science, free from peer review, testing, or validation. Baby, you can drive my car, you can fly my plane, you can operate on my brain, just tell me you know how and make it entertaining. We be good. 

The Fourth Estate once had legitimacy. For all its problems, it served a critically important function, or at least made a valiant effort. Journalism was the watchdog, examining the political debate, defining its implications, speaking truth to power, and holding them accountable by informing the citizenry.   

That capability and the willingness to deploy it has been eroded over time in direct proportion to the ascension of naked corporate influence over the political process, the acceptance of unlimited financial contributions to influence election outcomes, and legislation that favors capital growth over individual well-being. Billionaires are denizens of the modern Mount Olympus, politicians their acolytes. And deities disdain accountability.

credit: wikipedia.en

The death of the Fairness Doctrine, which was allowed to expire under the Reagan Administration, was a mighty blow. Why insist that both or all sides of a story be explored and discussed when a single shrill blast can be trumpeted so much more persuasively? 

The pathway for corporate dominance of information was finally cleared by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which the Clinton-Gore Administration blithely signed into law. Step up to the window and place your order, titans of industry. Like burgers at McDonalds, you may help yourselves to as many instruments of the media as you have dollars to purchase.

The cleverness of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war machine in Iraq that “embedded” journalists with the troops to report on the course of the war was a big step toward co-option. Report they did. All sorts of “insider” views of the battles for “the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. The bravery of the troops, the individual challenges they faced, the triumphs they achieved, the tragedies they suffered.  

Never though did any of those reporters say, “Let’s ask the Big Questions: what in the hell are we doing here? Why are we attacking Iraq in response to bin Laden and his upper-crust Saudi pals attacking us? Where are those weapons of mass destruction? In what way is this instituting democracy in the Middle East, as promised? Why are none of us exposing the lies and deceit of this Administration and its silly charade of a war?” Embedded, or just bedded?


Sometimes the easiest way to get it done is the most direct. That revolving door from reporter to shill is a time honored tradition for bringing a critic on board, never again to question the hand that so generously feeds and caresses, and never more easily swallowed now that media jobs are perilous HERE.

We long since have quit broadcasting and are narrow-casting to increasingly slimmer divisions of a populace that is being dumbed down by addiction to distraction. Soon will be the Pulitzer for click bait.

Look around at any ten people on the street and note the vast majority of them have a communications device welded to the hand held before the face. What information they are receiving is anyone’s guess, but we can be certain it’s nothing in depth, nothing nuanced, and definitely not a balanced view. Who has time for that stuff?

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Meanwhile, there is a hue and cry about artificial intelligence, the ChatGPT and it’s Bard equivalent that are going to replace all manner of human endeavor with a rapid-fire approximation of what a mere person might produce if that weary soul could cull the sum of all that’s gone before and make from it something sensible. We still do in our feeble human way but maybe not much longer.

The essence of that concern as relates to this article is that A.I. can produce very slick looking, reading, sounding journalism with no commitment to fact nor truth HERE. It is a wonderful tool for disinformation, which would seem to have a ready place in today’s media market.

There is concern among reporters, those few still with us, that AI produces weird, even frightening results when one interacts with it. Should we be surprised? Consider the source material HERE.

Not only have they learned from us, it seems they may well know how to play us, too. Perhaps they’re even designed that way. The Internet already has become the most manipulative advertising mechanism ever devised (what Vance Packard would make of it? The Hidden Persuaders, indeed). A.I. is destined to take that sway to unimaginable new levels of connivance. When it gets done with us, we just might buy anything HERE.

Goodbye Fourth Estate and hello Brave New World. If we marry the two together, we can see potential for a final conquest of corporate and political interests over the populace. Will we even notice?

What might be an unintended consequence of this tele-communal manipulation occurs to the twisted portion of the mind that savors irony where nothing else can be enjoyed in an experience. Given that the majority of traffic on the Internet is said to be pornography, and A.I. draws its wit and wisdom from its source material, perhaps the 2.0 version of the ChatGPT will be a highly sophisticated, ultra-maximized realization of the quintessential dirty old man, who will easily have its way with us. Creepy, isn’t it? But isn’t it all?  

John Oliver: [on the risks of using AI chatbots] “One reporter asked a chatbot to write an essay about the ‘Belgian chemist and political philosopher, Antoine de Machelet,’ – who does not exist, by the way – and without hesitating, the software replied with a cogent, well-organized bio populated entirely with imaginary facts. Basically, these programs seem to be the George Santos of technology: They’re incredibly confident, incredibly dishonest, and for some reason, people seem to find that more amusing than dangerous.”



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