Acton Commentary

The State of the Fourth Estate


The line of supplicants on Capitol Hill has become long indeed. Hardly a day passes without the announcement of some new bailout package or we see representatives of an industry "too big to fail" begging for bridge loans from the government. One institution that truly is too important to fail (something that cannot be genuinely said of all the recipients of Congressional largesse) is the free press.

Journalism, like so much else today, is in crisis. Declining ad revenues and subscriptions, the popularity of Internet news, as well as lowered public trust in the mainstream press, have created the perfect storm for the demise of old media. The 2009 State of the News Media report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23 percent in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By Pew's calculations, "nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet."

For journalism not only to survive but also to invigorate a free and virtuous society, the mavens of new media have a lot to learn from their predecessors. There are some hopeful signs that this will happen. Just as for Martin Luther every believer is a priest so too has the concept of citizen journalism transformed every person into a reporter. Even so, the priesthood of all believers does not destroy the ministerial office, and amateur bloggers are no substitutes for professional journalists.

Without traditional news media, there is simply nothing for the chattering classes to chatter about. Blogging, as it is commonly practiced today, is dependent if not parasitic on the hard work of old media professionals. But there is nothing inherent in digital forms that will discourage the migration of "old" habits to "new" media. Professional journalism need not be tied to any particular form of media.

Many bloggers still view their platforms as means to some "old media" end. The list of bloggers-cum-book authors or op-ed writers is long. In this transition the novelty and vigor associated with digital outlets are harnessed and honed through integration into established media channels. This phenomenon exposes a paradox at the heart of our media world: authors still desire to see their work in print but want to consume the work of others digitally.

The pressures that bear on the distribution and consumption of scholarly media, particularly the prestige that attaches to printed publications, are less pronounced in popular media. At some point the proliferation of quality digitally native outlets will mitigate the extent to which "prestige" is attached to "print." And once print media no longer has a monopoly on journalistic prestige the last real barrier to digital dominance is overcome. But this can only happen if quality does not suffer in the transition from print to digital media.

Professional journalism must be present for a free society to flourish, and it is in the pursuit of this calling that Christian reflection and practice over the last two centuries has a critical role to play. No less a cultured conservative than Edmund Burke described the press as the "fourth estate," along with the government, the church, and the citizenry, upon which a flourishing society is built. The multi-talented Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper was also a newspaper columnist and editor. Kuyper thought of the press as a critical bulwark for the realization of his vision of a "free church" and a "holy nation." The journalist is no less the recipient of a divine calling than that of the governor, the minister, or the homemaker.

The ethical standards connected with journalism as a profession have arisen out of centuries-long practice and reflection. At the heart of any authentic ethic of communication must be the biblical prohibition against lying and a commitment to, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, "love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it." The responsible cultivation and treatment of sources, including recognition of why someone would want to speak "off the record," are among the lessons that new media professionals need to learn. To abandon these standards in the rush to new media would impoverish public discourse to the detriment of us all.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase "creative destruction" as a descriptor of the good coming out of the upheaval and chaos associated with the dynamic transition from one phase of development to another. Newspapers as we have known them are being destroyed. Whether or not they will be replaced by something qualitatively equal or better, whether their destruction will be creative rather than degenerative, remains to be seen.


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