Wednesday, August 28, 2013

David Carr Wonders: What Are We Thinking?

The New York Times Media Equation columnist David Carr may be stumbling toward your humble blogger’s conclusion of last month that Fear in the Fourth Estate is Good.

Carr reports with wonder, the rancor establishment journalists clearly feel for the likes Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who brokered the publication of Bradley Manning’s purloined information, and Glen Greenwald, the Guardian Columnist who broke Eric Snowden’s NSA revelations.

In his previous column on this subject, Carr tried to distinguish between “journalists” and “activists.”  Now he posits an “emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists, and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media.”  These taxonomies are important to Carr because he continues to cling to the notion that journalists, as members of the fourth estate, are a special, legally protected class.

The Fourth Estate is a class of people and institutions with an important but unofficial role in governance.   The fourth estate derives its power from independently supplying citizens with information they want, including information about government which government may wish to withhold.  Originally defined by the technology of printing, the class has expanded to radio, film and TV mediums.  Carr feels he has to invent a Fifth Estate because he is not yet ready to admit Internet upstart leakers, activists, and bloggers to his class.

But Carr feels conflicted.  He quotes Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame as saying “With Snowden in particular you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools- and I mean that in every sense of the term – of the Government.”  Carr suggests that establishment media would win Pulitzers and Peabodies for breaking the same stories that sent Manning to jail and Snowden into comrade Putin's free-press-loving embrace.

At the root of Carr’s dilemma is a common misinterpretation our constitution, which states in its first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We have conflated "the press" as a communication technology with 'the press" as a particular class of people engaged in journalism.  “The press” in context of the first amendment is a means of expression, like speech and assembly. It seems unlikely that the authors of the amendment would have penned a reference to a specific class of people between general references to speech and assembly.

Thomas Paine wrote in, “Common Sense,” his pamphlet of 1776, "a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right."  Our long habit of conflating a communication technology, “the press,” with a political class of people who employ the technology has left us unprepared for the implications of a new communication technology.

When John Peter Zenger, a newspaper printer, was charged, in 1734, with seditious libel for printing stories of corruption involving the Royal Governor of New York, his defense was that he had printed the truth.  According to the Judge, such a defense had no standing in law, but the jury ignored the judge and found Zenger “not guilty.”  Similarly the Judge in the Daniel Ellsberg case made the extra-legal judgment that Ellsberg could not be convicted for telling the truth about government lies.

What are we thinking?” asks Carr at the close of his column.  But he has already answered his own question.  He portrays an establishment press that feels comfortable with government restrictions but threatened by more courageous competitors.

The cold and harsh reality of the political economic equation is this:  The people’s desire for truth about their government can only be met by a press that is willing to defy their government in order to get it.  Ironically, the only protection the press can have, if it is to function as the fourth estate, is the politically potent power to persuade large numbers of fellow citizens and fellow journalists to stand on the side of truth.

True journalists have to make common cause with truthful leakers, activists, and bloggers. The hacks can serve only as government tools.

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