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The Fourth Estate

The news of the day encouraged me to look up the history of the fourth estate. The press, widely recognized as the fourth estate, derives it's roots from the European dependency of the clergy, nobility, and the commoners, the only players in old politics. Once the press was allowed to observe parliamentary debates in England in the late 1780s, they gained more prominence than the parliamentarians had hoped.

Edmund Burke (1730-1797), an Irish statesman and member of the House of Commons observed that the press was far more powerful than the three estates of parliament - the Lords Spiritual (bishops), the Lords Temporal (royalty, nobility), and the Commoners (House of Commons). In 1803, the press was allowed to sit in the public gallery. In fact, Charles Dickens started as a journalist in the halls of British parliament.

The current press gallery in the British parliament is an elegant chamber wired with high-quality acoustics so the reporters can hear the proceedings without interruptions.

In the United States, "secularity" and "representation" were envisioned as the core threads of our government. Bishops, royalty and nobility had no equivalency in politics. Right about the time when the Brits were opening their legislature to the press, the Americans crafted the first amendment, solidifying the position of the press as an independent and impartial provider of check-and-balance for the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government.

Our forefathers wisely said: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

How is it that we have traveled from this noble objective to where we are now? Today, the relationship between politics and press is entangled like a soap opera that plays out the same story line in an endless loop.

The press has become polarized just like the country. You have the liberal media, the conservative media, fake news, opinion hosts, news anchors intersecting at light speed.

The resulting whiplash dulls our senses and leaves us crying for a revival of the print media, delayed news cycles, and one hour news shows in the evenings. Perhaps, the brain says, if we weren't wired 24x7, we would get better quality information and the press could go back to being the watchdog they were envisioned to be and for which they deserve the constitutional protection that they are guaranteed.

Today we found out that a self-professed "opinion journalist" with a large audience, who pedals questionable opinions and debunked stories, did not reveal his own conflicts while covering a recent story. In the end we - the audience, citizens, public - have abdicated our responsibility that was an unstated yet essential requirement for the rights granted in the first amendment: we put "opinion" and "journalism" at par, we don't really care about the facts, just what we believe. Perfect convenience for the providers, consumers, and advertisers.

As I mull over my role as a consumer in this new world, I have a sober thought: long live the free press. Longer than politicians and the audience on the right or the left. Or else we will need a fifth estate to oversee the fourth.

Oh wait, the fifth estate already exists and I am part of it. It consists of bloggers and journalists not part of the mainstream media. Perhaps a sixth estate, then? Yes! It exists and it is a critic of the fourth.

There we go, long live the sixth estate!

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