The Myth of the Fourth Estate

What is the true purpose journalism?

By Gregory Shaya

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942.

Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942. Photograph by Marjory Collins. Library of Congress.

In The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 send-up of the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago journalism, the ace reporter Hildy Johnson is ready to throw in the towel. “Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.”

Johnson longs for a more respectable job and a steadier income. But he’ll see the light—when the next big story comes in through the window, in the guise of the death-row escapee who pleads his innocence—and devote himself once again to the pursuit of truth. But his question would linger. And for what? What is the purpose of the press?

Frank Capra provided a telling response in The Power of the Press, a silent film from the very same year. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as shiny as a new dime, plays the eager cub reporter at the Times. He’s stuck in a corner of the newsroom, stuck on obituaries and the weather report, and longs for his chance at the big time. Ambitious as he is naïve, he lands his break when he catches the daughter of a local politician sneaking away from the home of the murdered District Attorney.

Stop the presses! A screaming headline will be drawn up and our bright-eyed reporter will be the hero of the newsroom. But glory is fleeting. Before long he discovers the ill effects of his scoop and comes to see that he got the story completely wrong. Our hero will get an education in life and letters in the last reels of the film. The intrepid reporter defends the young maiden’s honor, catches the real killer, battles the corrupt politics of the metropolis, and finds love along the way.


Capra plays the story for laughs and romance. But he also serves up a portrait of the fourth estate in all of its complicated glory. Bumbling and misguided, the reporters and editors do whatever they can to sell papers. But somehow, out of the industrial machine of the modern press, the truth will out.

It’s a fun ride. And it stands in pretty well for the heroic vision of the fourth estate. It’s only a few steps to the more earnest vision of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, served up by Alan Pakula in his memorable account of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men. The word—stamped in black and white from typewriter to teletype—will set us free.


It’s a long time since Thomas Carlyle described in 1841 the power of the press as “the fourth estate.” He attributed the idea (mistakenly) to Edmund Burke, who he supposed to have said that “there were three estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact.” Carlyle elaborated, “Printing, which comes necessarily out of writing, I say often, is equivalent to democracy: invent writing, democracy is inevitable.”

The faith in the press as the guardian of truth, the watchdog of power, the foundation of democracy—in brief, the fourth estate—lies at the heart of the liberal imagination of the west. It is the principle enshrined in the First Amendment, nestled in between freedom of religion and the freedom of assembly. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—adopted in 1789, the same year that the Bill of Rights was submitted for ratification—was loftier and more circumspect. “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.” These foundational statements paid homage to the same dream. “Where the press is free and every man able to read,” Thomas Jefferson explained, “all is safe.”

Flash forward to the present day—to our age of Judith Miller and Jayson Blair, Rupert Murdoch, the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, media consolidation, the waning circulations of the daily press, etc., etc.—and the heroic vision of the press seems to have lost its shine. A Gallup poll from 2010 found that 57% of Americans surveyed have little or no trust in the media to accurately report the news, a record high. If the public is down on the fourth estate, the fourth estate can’t be feeling so good about the public. Our citizenry is more eager to remain well informed about Kim Kardashian’s marital woes than the latest conditions in Fallujah or the intricacies of our health care system. Oscar Wilde wrote—in another day, to be sure, but his words still resonate—that “the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

And what should we make of the fact that the viewers of one prominent cable news station (yes, of course, Fox News) are more likely to hold mistaken beliefs about, well, you name it, global warming, health care, Iraq, than those who don’t watch cable news at all? Or the fact that, all through the Iraq War, in the midst of no shortage of evidence to the contrary, surveys turned up the enormous frequency with which Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11 or that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the war?

In the midst of such misconceptions, it is no wonder that so many attribute enormous power to the media, not to inform, enlighten and uplift, but to mislead audiences, to close off discussion and buttress authority, to hide the machinations of power, to control readers and viewers. In the words of Howard Jones (to a synth pop tune), “The power of the media will make up our minds / The power of the media will take down our minds.”

For Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, the modern media are but the propaganda arm of big business and big government. They borrowed their title,Manufacturing Consent, from Walter Lippmann’s lament for the failures of the American press and public in the 1920s. By their view, one that has had remarkable resonance within and beyond the academy, the press is not the watchdog of the public, but the guard dog of power. These days, the corrupting power of the media is a more familiar refrain on the right side of the political spectrum. Today, the entire Republican Party is locked in a campaign against the “liberal media.” To be sure, this is not a new song. It was the Nixon White House, as part of its own struggles with the press, that encouraged the use of the term “media” in place of the more traditional expression, the “press.” William Safire explained that the “media” sounded more manipulative. And besides, the press hated it.

So Hildy Johnson’s question comes to mind once again: And what for? What is the purpose of the press? And what is its power? In the sixth century of Gutenberg’s reign, more than four hundred years into the run of the periodical press, at the dawn of the second century of electronic media, a few decades into the Internet era, we still don’t have much of an idea of the impact of our media. We’re surrounded by fantasies and phantasms of press power, blinded by the liberal dream of the fourth estate and its evil doppelganger, the specter of media control. The impact of the media turns out to be much less and much more than these visions allow.


The first newspapers, dating from the dawn of the seventeenth century, took the names “gazette,” after the Italian gazetta, after the copper coin that was the price of the first Venetian papers, or “coranto”, with the promise of current events. Others took up names like “News” or “Relations”. More imaginative titles would soon be on offer: the Journal, the Record, the Morning, the Evening, the Times, the Press, the Post, the Telegraph, the Intelligencer, the Advertiser, the Tribune, the Sun, the World, the Mirror. The very names of the periodical press held the promise to inform, to announce, to instruct, and to reflect the world in all its complications.

The four centuries of press history that have followed constitute a vast archive of modernity. There is no easy way to reckon the promises and prospects to be found within it. But it should be clear that what the press has promised—in all of its variety—is something far more complicated that the role of watchdog to power. We can leave aside the big lies of Big Brother, the propaganda machine of Goebbels and Co., or the production reports of Pravda, and restrict our vision to the press in democratic societies, where the formulation of the daily record has followed a recipe of roughly one part commerce, one part public interest. Here, the promises of the press are legion.

The press has promised to hold up a mirror to the world. Walter Cronkite famously signed off, “And that’s the way it is.” A CBS executive called him to task the first time he used the line, but he persisted. He wanted his own signature on the news. Edward R. Murrow opened his radio reports from wartime England with a marvelous promise: “This…is London.” His reporting brought the war to American living rooms before Americans were ready to make the war their own. In 1888, in the 6th Taráz of his Ornaments, Bahá’u’lláh (founder of the Bahá’í faith) wrote that “the pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world … a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech.” It was in that same year that T.P. O’Connor, the founder of the Star, explained his aims for the paper: “Our ideal is to leave no event unrecorded.” Théophraste Renaudot’s Gazette de France, the country’s first weekly newspaper, founded in 1631, promised “all the true news.” (It would occasionally print the false as well).

The newspaper would be a mirror to the world, perhaps, but the mirror shouldn’t be allowed to reflect just anything, should it? “Make a paper for the nicest kind of people,” wrote William Randolph Hearst in 1933. Decades earlier, Adolph Ochs, who picked up the New York Times for a song and built it into the paper of New York’s establishment, added the memorable, long-lived pledge of “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” In contrast to the yellow journalism of Pulitzer and Hearst, he would offer a “clean, dignified, trustworthy, and impartial” paper. The press has always been selective in its vision. At its start, Renaudot’s Gazette de France barely printed any news from within France.

The press promised to make better readers, to inform, to instruct, to ennoble its audience. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Matin of Paris promised to be an “education in democracy.” Walter Cronkite put it this way: “A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name… This is the meaning of freedom of press. It is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”

The press has promised to make a better world. That was Joseph Pulitzer’s idea. His paper, he wrote, should “never be satisfied with merely printing news.” It “should always fight for progress and reform; never tolerate injustice or corruption; always fight demagogues of all parties…always oppose privileged classes and public plunderer; never lack sympathy with the poor; always remain devoted to the public welfare…” His paper wouldn’t be just a watchdog on power. It was the very representative of the public. William Randolph Hearst in 1936—at about the same time that he was shaking hands with Hitler (though he’d come to see the menace of fascism in the wake of Kristallnacht)—explained that “It is essential for the papers to conduct constructive campaigns for the benefit of the community with which they are associated.” W.T. Stead, the pioneer of the “new journalism” of late nineteenth-century Britain, a distant cousin of the yellow journalism across the pond, proclaimed “government by journalism,” while sitting in prison for his investigations into the “white-slave traffic” of London. “I am but a comparatively young journalist,” he wrote, “but I have seen Cabinets upset, Ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, Bills transformed, estimates remodeled, Acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted by the agency of newspapers.” He thought it was all for the better.

The press has promised to move its readers. To reflection, to compassion, to anger. An old jingle for Time magazine made it plain: “Read Time—it takes you there. Read Time—it makes you care.” Timothée Trimm, a star columnist of the nineteenth-century French press, wrote that he found his subject matter in curiosity and fear, in “the event in the street that makes you open your window, the drama of the night that makes you lock your door.” This was just the start of it. The press would move its readers to department store specials and elixir sales, to plays and films and sporting events. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the advertising income of the largest newspapers already exceeded their sales income. It was a sign of the world to come.

And the press promised to bring together readers. In 1893, France’s largest daily, Le Petit Parisien, explained the power of the press to create new solidarities. It was manifest in the collective action of reading the newspaper. “[T]he same thought, at one and the same time, animates the whole population of the country…from one border to another…every heart beats as one…It is the newspaper that establishes this sublime communion of souls across distance.”

For all of these high-minded ideals, the press has promised to entertain. “To instruct and amuse,” that was one of the mottos of the best-selling French newspaper of the nineteenth century. The mass of the public doesn’t want algebra. It wants emotion, sincerity, a good story. Hearst asked his editors to give people the kind of news they wanted to read, not the kind “that they were supposed to read but didn’t like.” “We must have the courage to be stupid,” said a Paris press baron, If you only listened to high-minded discussions of the fourth estate you could forget that most of what the press has provided is not news of any importance. Or news at all. An Irish journalist from the nineteenth century explained that the mix of his daily newspaper would include “plenty of entirely unpolitical literature—sometimes humorous, sometimes pathetic; anecdotal, statistical, the craze for fashions and the arts of housekeeping and now and then, a short, dramatic and picturesque tale.”


Listening to so many promises, we find ourselves a long way from the austere image of the fourth estate as a check on government. We’re caught in a web of contradictions and tensions—to tell all the news and to tell the news that readers want, to make a better world and to entertain readers—contradictions and tensions that continue to shape the media landscape. But this isn’t the half of it, for the promises of the press only tell part of the tale. The practice has so often failed to live up to these promises.

The mirror of the press turns out frequently to be a funhouse mirror. It’s an old story, but one that George Orwell memorably recounted in Homage to Catalonia, some ten years before he created the specter of Newspeak. Returning to England from the Civil War in Spain, a bullet wound in his neck and an education in political propaganda for his trouble, Orwell couldn’t escape the feeling that the real story of what was happening in Spain would never make it to the light of day. He had the misfortune of joining up with an independent militia of anarchist leanings that was suppressed by the Communists in Spain in a bit of civil war within the Civil War. His militia, he was surprised to discover, had been tarred by Communist propaganda as the allies of Franco, and that black legend was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the London papers. It calls to mind Walter Lippmann’s diagnosis of the New York Times’ reporting on the Bolshevik Revolution. He wrote in 1920 (with Charles Merz), “In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.”

The power of the press is also the power to misinform. It was evident enough in the early years of the Republic. As President, Jefferson was hounded by an opposition press that mixed slander and misinformation. It was the dawn of the nineteenth century when Jefferson (yes, the apostle of a free press) wrote that “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.” In his excursions through the young sister republic of the United States some decades later, Tocqueville saw the power of the press and its faults. It’s not just that the American press was selective in its coverage. It was full of partisan bickering and eager distortion.

When it does work its magic, the power of the press can be an awesome sight. But its effects are not always in the service of truth and justice. We will do well to remember Emile Zola’s defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and his attack on official corruption in “J’Accuse!” “Truth is on the march,” he wrote, “and nothing will stop it.” Zola’s article, written as an open letter to the President of the Republic, reinvigorated the public debate surrounding Dreyfus’ (false) conviction for treason. It was a heroic moment in the history of the public intellectual, one that would lead to Zola’s conviction for insulting the army andenergize the defenders of Dreyfus. But to tell the history of the press through the Dreyfus Affair, it would also be necessary to look to the right-wing press that rallied French readers in defense of the army (and against the would-be traitor), to the Catholic and anti-Semitic press that pictured the Affair as a battle over the soul of France, and spread warnings of the influence of Jews and liberals and intellectuals. If the press was one of the mechanisms of Dreyfus’ salvation; it was also the tool of his enemies.

What of the promise of the press to bring together its audience? Under the sign of a common catastrophe or the threat of war, with music hall tunes or flag lapel pins, the press has worked to create a common sense of identity for its audience. But the press is never simply a force for cohesion. It can just as easily serve the ends of division, giving voice to conflicts of all shape.

And for all of our hopes that the press might move readers to compassion and action, we can’t escape the sense that our appetite for news may be something less than civic. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Marcel Proust described the “abominable and voluptuous act of reading the newspaper.” Proust likened it to a sensual experience, nine parts stimulation for every one part reflection. The newspaper, he wrote, served up “all the miseries and catastrophes of the world during the past twenty-four hours—battles that have cost the lives of fifty-thousand men, crimes, strikes, bankruptcies, fires, poisonings, suicides, divorces, the shattering emotions of statesmen and actors alike.” And for what? “A daily feast that seems to make a peculiarly exciting and stimulating accompaniment to the swallowing of a few mouthfuls of coffee brought in response to our summons.” Sometimes, to be sure, the press has almost no power at all. The most shocking news can be read by a distracted eye and the shrug of indifference.


For all of this tumultuous history, we hold fast to a vision of the powerful impact of the press, for good and bad. It is an old story, already a common theme in the nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the First World War—and the propaganda machines operated by western governments—a social scientific frenzy explained the enormous powers of the media. The curiosity is this: the ninety-some years that have followed have turned up precious little evidence of the direct impact of media. In 1940, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld headed out for middle America to track the influence of press on opinion. His study of the presidential elections of that year—The People’s Choice—came to the conclusion that the effects of the press were remarkably limited. Family and friends—can we think of this as the Facebook Effect?—turned out to be much more powerful in the shaping of political opinion.

A flood of research in communication studies in the decades since Lazarsfeld has elaborated and revised his findings. The press doesn’t seem to have large, direct, measurable effects on opinion. The standard answer of the sociology of communication is that most of the effects of the press are limited and indirect. The press has the power to set the agenda, to direct attention, to frame political and cultural issues, to shape perceptions over the long term. These are real and meaningful influences, but they are a far cry from the immense powers that are so frequently invoked. It’s a difficult idea to fathom, for we put much stock in the power of the media, whether for good or ill. But it has been borne out repeatedly in careful analysis, even if it has not made much of an impression on the general public.

In the popular imagination, the press is an agent of enormous power for good and bad. We think of the yellow press fomenting war against Spain. “Remember the Maine!” goes the cry and the public followed. Or the common view that television news turned American opinion against the war in Vietnam. Neither story stands up to much scrutiny.

Take the case of William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War. When Frederick Remington cabled from Cuba in 1897 that there would be no war, Hearst is said to have replied: “You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war.” American intervention in Cuba would come the next year. It is a wonderful anecdote that seems to embody the entire vision of the manipulations of the yellow press, one reason that it has been told and told again countless times. The only problem—demonstrated in detail by the media historian W. Joseph Campbell—is that the exchange almost certainly never happened.

But leave aside the anecdote. Did the yellow press drive America to war in 1898? Those who have considered the question carefully say that the press role was certainly not the dominant one. The New York press, which sold a lot of papers on the promise of Spanish atrocities and Cuban resistance, did not have enormous impact on the circles around McKinley that pushed for war. Early accounts of the war made no special mention of the yellow press. And why should they have? It was easy enough to explain the rush to war with a look to the expansionist tendencies of American foreign policy.

What of Vietnam and television? It is offered up as a lesson of media and war: when the American public sees American casualties, the war is lost. It was an opinion held fervently by government leaders, who were enormously sensitive to the color of war reporting in all its forms. But, as Michael Schudson explains, “Television news coverage was overwhelming favorable toward the American war effort up to Tet in 1968. Far from demonstrating the horrors of war, television sanitized the conflict, and the networks were particularly loath to show American soldiers who had been killed or wounded.” The public, it turns out, was way ahead of the news. A 1967 poll showed that 50 percent of Americans saw the American effort in Vietnam as a mistake. When Walter Cronkite famously declared on February 27, 1968 that the war was unwinnable, he was, Schudson explains, “only coming around to the views of middle America.”

And what about Watergate? This is the founding myth of contemporary investigative journalism. It’s remembered as the David and Goliath story of two journalists who brought down a president. For many, it stands as the finest hour of the American press. (Though, to be sure, some conservative voices have latched on to another view. In the words of the popular historian, Paul Johnson, it was “the first media putsch in history.”) Here, too, history tells a more complicated tale than the mythology. We will have a hard time pinning the uncovering of the scandal on the press itself. What Bernstein and Woodward did was to reveal the work of the FBI and the courts and Congressional investigators to a wider public. To be sure, the Washington Postmoved forward on a story that left most American news outlets uncomfortable. They gave it wide play. They helped legitimate the investigations. But that’s a far cry from picturing the press as the maker of kings. Woodward put it plainly himself: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”


What then should we make of our fantasies and phantasms of press power? The press as liberator? The press as controlling power? These are more the product of the liberal imagination (and its fears) than of historical experience. We are caught in the grasp of the myth of the fourth estate (and its evil double, the specter of media control). It is a myth, not patently false but selective and obscuring, a sacred story that embodies higher values and ignores so much in the history of the modern world. It is not that the press cannot serve as a check on power, or a bulwark of authority, or a force for dissent, etc. At various moments in its wide history, the press has been all of these. But its powers are so frequently misunderstood. The effects of the press are powerful, but rarely as direct as popular imagination would have them.

To understand the powers of the press, we should look beyond the tumult of the quotidian. We should think of reading the paper and watching the news as acts belonging to the world of ritual as much as the commerce of information. We can take a page here from Hegel, who wrote that the newspaper was the morning prayer of the bourgeoisie: a morning prayer, an act of devotion, a ritual that binds the reader to a community. Or from Jürgen Habermas, who (more recently) presented the newspaper as one of several institutions (together with the coffeehouse, the literary salon, the novel, and more) that served as the basis for the “bourgeois public sphere,” a space of rational-critical debate that changed the very possibilities of politics.

If the press is a mirror to the world, it is also a mirror to the public. And more. It gives form and shape to a public of readers and viewers who are reflected in its distorting glass. When he sought out the eighteenth and nineteenth-century origins of nationalism, Benedict Anderson looked to the power of the press to create an “imagined community” of the nation. He pictured readers across the land reading the same stories in the same paper from the same capital. That action, he explained, was the very foundation of a national imagination.

For some, the point is that the press will make its public. Pulitzer put it in dramatic terms—and put all of the responsibility on the press. “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.” But the lines of action go both ways. And in any case, the press can’t make its public any way it chooses. The actions of readers and listeners and viewers surely help to shape the press as well.

What was the purpose of the press, Hildy Johnson asked? He tossed off the short answer with disdain: “So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.” If that’s it, he seems to be saying, we’d best find another racket. It’s an old jibe but also a mark of time and place that female readers should serve as the sign of the inconsequential. But we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the prospect, for knowing what is going on—across the street and across the world—is not a trivial pursuit.

Among the highest powers of the press is the capacity to stand as witness to the unfolding of events and to tell it like it is. Bill Moyers likes to cite the example of Martha Gellhorn. After half a century as a journalist, from the Spanish Civil War to the Nicaraguan Civil War and everywhere in between, one of the great war correspondents of the twentieth century, she had little faith in the promise of journalism to change the world. But she found a different sort of power to the press. “Victory and defeat,” she wrote, “are both passing moments. There is no end; there are only means. Journalism is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself.”