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The Fourth Estate.

Pixabay | CC0

So there’s this phone app called HQ. It’s a daily online quiz where they give away real cash money if you can correctly answer a bunch of multiple-choice trivia questions. Mykids got me into it, and for a while we were playing every day. Sometimes the questions are easy for them because they’re young; sometimes they’re easy for me because I’m not so young.

Anyway, one day, one of the questions was something along the lines of, “What is the Fourth Estate?” Easy peasy for me — it’s journalism. The kids told me later that they’d never heard of the term before. That’s when I realized I’d never heard it until I went to journalism school.

Just in case you’ve never been to journalism school, I will explain: The news media are the fourth check-and-balance on the U.S. system of government. The other three “estates” are the three branches of government you’re familiar with from civics or history class: executive, legislative, and judicial. Journalists are not part of the government — and that’s what makes them so valuable. Being outside the system, they can report objectively about what’s going on inside the system; they don’t have to keep anybody in any branch of government happy in order to keep their jobs.

With me so far? Okay. That brings us to a meme which I have seen in a couple of different forms recently on Facebook:

Journalism 101: If someone says it’s raining & another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true.

I agree with the spirit behind the quote, but I’m not sure I agree with all of its implications. Because it is, in fact, the journalist’s job to quote them both — and if someone says it’s not rain, but drizzle, they should be quoted, too. All sides should be presented. It’s the news consumer’s job to figure out which one is true.

I’ve talked about this before on my hearth/myth blog in connection with the Keystone XL pipeline. In that post, I mentioned Edward R. Murrow, who went up against Sen. Joe McCarthy of Minnesota, a demagogue who pursued a personal vendetta to ruin everyone he didn’t like by claiming they were Communists. Murrow devoted several episodes of his news show to McCarthy, explaining his methods objectively. He didn’t hurl invectives or call Sen. McCarthy a liar; he simply showed his viewers what was going on and allowed them to draw their own conclusions.

Once the shows aired, Murrow had reason to attack McCarthy; the senator got mad at Murrow and accused him of being a Communist himself. Why didn’t Murrow call him out as a liar? Because in attacking Murrow, McCarthy showed his true colors. Murrow didn’t do editorials. He was a journalist. His method was to give McCarthy just enough rope to hang himself.

The framers of the Constitution realized how important a free press would be to our nation; that’s why the First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech and of the press. But for the Fourth Estate to do its job most effectively, news consumers have to be aware of all sides of the issue. They cannot be expected to decide what’s true when presented with just one side of the story. They definitely cannot be expected to know what’s true when they’re constantly being told that the journalists at major news outlets — people who believe strongly in their role as part of the Fourth Estate — are purveyors of fake news and enemies of the people.

On July 20th, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger met with President Trump at the White House. The meeting was supposed to be off the record, but the President tweeted about it last weekend anyway. Trump said the discussion centered on “the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media.”

That prompted Sulzberger to break his silence. In his statement, he said, “I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.” And he said, “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.” (You may recall that five people were killed in a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, last month. Police say the shooter didn’t like something the paper had published about him.)

President Trump doesn’t appear to care. In a speech last week to veterans, he told them, “Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Don’t believe the journalists, in other words; believe only me.

I’ve talked about gaslighting on the blog before, too. You may recall I said that the gaslighter’s ultimate aim is to convince his victim that the only person telling the truth is the gaslighter.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

(Note: This piece originally ran at hearth-myth.com.)

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