Journalism is often called the 4th Estate because of it’s role in the political process. Historically the notion of press as the 4th estate is found in 18th century French writings. At the time the three estates were the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. In modern times we might think of them as the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government. While these bodies set policy, make laws and interpret the law, it is the press that reports abuses of authority and defends the rights of citizens. In essence the press allows all members of society to participate in the democratic process. Without a free press to examine and critique the political process, governments operate in secret and may easily subvert the will of the people.
The release of Scott McClellan’s book* this past week provided a reminder of the delicate relationship between government and the free press. Former White House Press Secretary McClellan served the Bush administration after Ari Fleischer and before Tony Snow and the current Press Secretary Dana Perino (CSU-Pueblo/MCCNM alum, 1994). According to press reports, McClellan now claims that the press shirked its responsibility in the months and years leading up to the Iraq war. Rather than serve as the nation’s watch dog, the press corp was too easy on the Bush administration. According to McClellan…
“If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq,” he writes.
He continued, “In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”
These quotes are from the man who, while press secretary, criticized the media for being too aggressive and for undermining the administration’s efforts to protect the country. Of course hind-sight is 20/20 and it is too easy to second-guess decisions that were made under very difficult conditions. Today members of the press continue to defend their performance in the period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war. Here’s a video clip in which the three network TV anchors respond to the question. What do you think? Does the press fulfill it’s role as guardian and watch dog, or is it too easily manipulated by the forces that control wealth and power?
* What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Currently ranked #1 at Amazon.com