The news media has been referred to as the “Fourth Estate” for a long time. Thomas Carlyle, in his book "On Heroes and Hero Worship," attributes the origin of the term to Sir Edmund Burke: "Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." Burke believed the Fourth Estate to be far more important than the other estates because its job was informing the public of what Parliament was up to.
The high regard for the Fourth Estate carried over to the colonies, and when the United States was formed the work of what we now commonly refer to as the news media warranted protections in the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, because its function was viewed as essential to the republic and protected the purveyors of important information from those who might prefer their activities to not receive wide dissemination, and who might use the courts or other means to keep important information from being made public.
Where news media is concerned, the First Amendment provides: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
However, while the Constitution can protect the media from those who dislike it by guaranteeing its freedom to tell all it knows, it does not have the ability to enforce integrity, honesty and fairness on the media. Those qualities are expected to be organizational and personal, ingrained in news providers and students of journalism, who should be taught and adopt the ethics of journalism and practice them always.
People in certain positions in our society have the job and the duty to play it straight down the middle, without allowing whatever personal feelings they may have to enter into the performance of their job. Among these are referees and other sports officials; judges in legal proceedings and other adjudicatory activities; and the news media, the people who provide the public with the critical information necessary for people to be able to make informed decisions.
The mechanisms for defending news reporting remain intact, but sadly the same cannot be said for the ethical imperatives of news reporting, as is being demonstrated daily in the national media. The most glaring example of this lack of ethics and integrity is the coverage of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump vs. that of Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.
One of many examples arose during the final presidential debate. When asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace if he would pledge to accept the results of the election, Trump’s answer was influenced by his oft-stated belief that the election system has many flaws, and he said, “I will look at it at the time.” Clinton slammed him for his answer, saying he is “undermining the pillar of our democracy,” the peaceful transfer of power.
Well, no, he was not. Who can really blame someone for wanting to wait until the election is over before deciding whether is was handled fairly? But Clinton’s position on that issue is much more highly favored by the media than Trump’s, so guess what the major news outlets told the world?
Things like this fire Trump’s claims that the news media are biased against him, and a new Quinnipiac University poll finds agreement among a majority of those polled. Fifty-five percent of likely voters agree the press is biased against Trump.
Earlier this month, Trump said some American soldiers “can't handle” the horrors of war, which causes their PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). This statement was then distorted to suggest Trump disdains those who suffer PTSD.
This farcical misinterpretation was identified by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, no great friend of Trump, who said: "The bias that is in the media. What he is saying is that some people, for whatever reason, and we really don’t understand why, suffer from PTSD, and others don’t.”
The news media's reaction to Trump’s PTSD comment appears to be the reaction of someone with an IQ south of 70, but we know that most media types are not stupid: Lack of intelligence is not the problem; media bias is the problem.
The media’s yearlong thinly disguised dislike for Trump has erupted into an open sore, and the collapse and disgracing of a critical component of our society is now inarguable. Attempting to justify this flagrant abandonment of professional ethics, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg writes, “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that … That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”
But some reporters, editors and producers regard Trump as so bad that normal standards no longer apply, and journalistic ethics that once were sacrosanct and provided a substantial measure of balance and fairness in news reporting have become obstacles to a media agenda.
One of the worst possible situations is when the source of critical public information abandons neutrality and takes sides. Like widespread corruption in government, widespread corruption in the information system is deadly to liberty.