Sunday, February 26, 2006
HISTORY: Origin of "fourth estate"; the press remains powerful
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Press is growing meeker: Still powerful but with less respect
By Evan Cornog
Publisher, Columbia Journalism Review
It was Thomas Carlyle, a British historian of the 19th century, who
popularized the term "fourth estate" in reference to the press. Carlyle
credited an earlier man of letters, Edmund Burke, with the phrase, saying
that Burke had observed that in addition to the "three estates"
represented in Parliament -- king, lords and commons -- there was a
"fourth estate," the press, more powerful than them all.
This notion of the power of the press is a popular one among American
conservatives (although if the press is as liberal as they claim, it is
hard to reconcile that notion, and the idea of the press's power, with the
current Republican ascendancy in all branches of the federal government).
Another testimony to the power of the press is the way that reporters have
become targets of violence by both sides in the Iraq conflict. Scores of
news people have been killed since the war began, and they continue to be
But if the press is powerful, it seems not to be well respected. Jayson
Blair, the Dan Rather report on President Bush's Texas Air National Guard
service (or lack of it), and other sins and stumbles of what bloggers call
the MSM (mainstream media) have sapped the profession's reputation, and
the more recent fiasco surrounding James Frey's fictionalized "memoir," "A
Million Little Pieces," provoked the apologetic outrage of the nation's
empathy-in-chief, Oprah Winfrey.
If journalists are currently unpopular, they are not ignored. I can recall
no time when the news media were so central to the national conversation.
The latest evidence of the centrality of the news media to our current
state of affairs is the fact that two of the five films nominated for Best
Picture in this year's Academy Awards are bio-pics of journalists,
"Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck."
The story of Truman Capote's strenuous pursuit of the story of the murder
of a Kansas family in his book "In Cold Blood" provides a rich portrait of
the journalist as anti-hero, and Capote's intellectual seduction of his
most important source, the murderer Perry Smith, walks a fascinating line
between infatuation and cynicism.
Capote's despair when Smith and his fellow criminal, Dick Hickock, are
granted a stay of execution, thus postponing the longed-for conclusion of
Capote's magnum opus, is brilliantly rendered. But the portrait Philip
Seymour Hoffman gives of Capote as a bribe-giving, insinuating and
duplicitous man (he lies to Smith about the book's title, which he knows
will upset his prime source) hardly paints a bright picture of
In contrast, "Good Night, and Good Luck" presents a worshipful picture of
one of the classic heroes of American journalism, the CBS broadcast icon
Edward R. Murrow. The bad guy is the oily red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy.
In the film, Murrow is the embodiment of that liberal media figure of
conservatives' nightmares -- and, indeed, Murrow's combative style was
nothing like the dexterously cautious tone of the so-called mainstream
media today. Murrow launches a crusade against what he sees as McCarthy's
bullying, and helps to put the bully in his place, in spite of the
possible (and actual) costs to him, his friends and CBS. The film
overemphasizes Murrow's role in defeating McCarthyism, but Murrow's
reports on McCarthy really did exemplify what Carlyle meant by the press's
potential to function as a fourth estate.
Today the press is perhaps more timid, but it has grown even more central
to the distribution of power in America. This year's Oscars testify to a
national concern with the role of the press in our society. It may be that
the two phenomena are inextricably linked -- that the press' growing
importance has required it to rein in its earlier, crusading spirit.
Is that a good thing, or not?
Evan Cornog is publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and associate
dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote
this article for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. Contact us at
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