The Myth of Democracy and the Demise of the Fourth Estate

Our system of government is based on a concept of checks & balances between branches of government. Executive, legislative, and judicial. A fourth “branch” or “fourth estate” has historically been the informal final arbiter of truth within this system.

Journalism had enjoyed a reputation of objectivity for some years. Think Murrow, Cronkite, and the unsung heroes of truth that trudged the wires for AP and UPI. Broadcast journalism was the first to fall (the “Eyewitness News” model) and the line between truth and “message” became blurred.

NPR and PBS were my last hopes. NPR has increasingly come under fire for some administrative personnel decisions (Juan Williams) but for my money, continues to provide generally objective, thoughtful content.

Then PBS. Another stalwart of objective journalism. The PBS Newshour and Frontline are, in my opinion, unmatched for in-depth editorial content. Other news organizations such as Al Jazeera and BBC also continue to produce top quality content.

Now this.

I read this article from David Sirota and another piece of me died. To summarize, PBS is launching a two-year series called “The Pension Peril”. The series promotes cuts to public employee pensions (disclaimer: I am a former county employee who is not receiving a public pension and is adamantly opposed to exorbitant public pensions).

Here’s the poison pill: the series financed by, as the article states “former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.”

Et tu PBS? Your argument that you retain editorial control over content is a shameful expression of crap clearly designed to save face in light of the disclosure of your masters.

That the PBS Newshour promotes the series sickens me. When I think PBS, I think objectivity, truth, integrity.

Whether it is an economic reality forcing this funding or not matters little. They’ve entered the partisan arena inhabited by subjective “news” organizations such as Fox and the Wall Street Journal.

I have no argument with balance. The MSNBC counter to Fox and their ilk. What I have issue with is the demise of the Fourth Estate…

Of truth…

Of integrity…

Of the myth of democracy…


About Conversations With The Moon

Divorced father of two amazing young adults. College student, plodding away at a liberal arts degree. Formerly a Fire Captain and Paramedic. Dabbler in fashion. Liberal. Believer in Karma. View all posts by Conversations With The Moon

6 responses to “The Myth of Democracy and the Demise of the Fourth Estate

  • kingmidget

    I work for a state agency that recently acquired the responsibility to create a 401k type of retirement program for private sector employees who don’t get access to one through their employers. The way it has been set up is that the state will not spend any money on the feasibility studies. We have to get donations to fund those studies. The Arnold Foundation has stepped with an offer of a $500,000 matching grant. And they have set absolutely no pre-conditions or requirements on the money, other than that it be used for the feasibility studies or other retirement savings program needs. Based on that experience, I have a little bit more respect for the Arnold Foundation as looking to finance programs (or news programs) that are designed to explore the issue, without retaining control over the outcome. I get your concern and the funding source is worrisome, but … almost every PBS show I have ever watched has been preceded and/or followed by an identification of their funding sources. So this is nothing new.

    • Conversations With The Moon

      I think the degree of issue-centric control is what’s new. Here’s an organization with a laser focused agenda, funding an ostensibly “objective” news program. That’s my issue. I’m not even developing an opinion on the agenda itself; my sole concern is the blurring of the lines. Yes, we’ve been headed down this road for some time and yes PBS programs are always “funded” by sponsors. I can’t remember a more improper connection however…one that PBS lamely attempts to sever.

  • zentalfloss

    Hello: Sorry I am months late to this conversation. I wonder if journalism has ever been completely non-partisan. You are a student now and I’m sure you’re aware that there have been many studies done that talk about the effect that the researcher has on the research. Same with all media, I think. I am a few years older than you and a long-time watcher of PBS and for as long as I can remember, all shows had corporate sponsorship of one kind or another – all those X,Y,Z foundations helping finance programming. That’s not to say that they influence the point of view of the programming, but in some cases, I wouldn’t be that surprised if there were subtle shifts in emphasis. I suspect if you did a long survey of journalism back to pre-Revolutionary days, you’d find there really was nothing ever objective about it. You don’t have to look to the Yellow Journalism of Hearst to find it. Just look to Benjamin Franklin. Or even the Federalist Papers which, okay, weren’t “journalism” per se, but were published to persuade the colonists as to the rightness of revolution and a new constitution. Maybe wire services are objective.

    But I wouldn’t ever say that the major networks are, or PBS, or any of the others. The rise of Fox News, MSNBC and before them, even CNN, is just a response to loosening the so-called “equal time” rules which were never exactly equal to begin with. I think what happened when we were younger is that we didn’t have cable and tons of choice and counter-programming like we have now, so we considered what we were watching, Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, to be fair and objective, when really, I don’t think so. We just had nothing to compare these guys to. That’s not the same thing as fair. In fact, nowadays when a huge percentage of journalists consider themselves liberals and vote Democrat, is it any wonder that many readers, viewers or listeners have fled.

    To tell you the truth, the nail in the coffin as to “fair” journalism was probably the 2008 election when many folks in fly-over country (and even some on the coasts) felt that the press were in the pocket of a certain candidate. It was pretty impossible to find any push-back except on conservative media. Nobody asked any questions or did any investigative digging – they just wanted to get him elected. Now nearly six years later you see mainstream journalists beginning to question policies during news conferences, but it has taken a long time for this to occur. That doesn’t speak well of the journalists and their employers. I don’t blame the President for this, but if we’re going to have this system of checks and balances, we need people who are willing to ask the questions and dig for the truth.


  • Conversations With The Moon

    Laura, thank you for your very thoughtful response. Very well articulated and on-point. You are likely correct in your assessment of the Huntley/Brinkley/Cronkite days. I’d like to think, however, that they were somewhat “less” influenced by their corporate masters than their counterparts are today. And fascinating take on the Federalist Papers.

    I suspect too that we fundamentally disagree on the impact of conservative v. liberal media. True, it is through the lens of a liberal that I view our world and frankly, with all due respect, have a hard time swallowing any conservative media coverage. As much as I despise the same fare from the left (and I’m sure we probably disagree on the definition of that as well).

    Truth is an elusive prize, and it seems to always be shaded by inherent prejudices but I do believe there is something close to an objective truth out there…I simply don’t see it exposed to the masses much anymore (as you pointed out, if it ever was). I also agree that the press may have been infatuated in 2008, but for my money, no more so (and probably less) than they were post 9/11.

    Thanks again for your comment!

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