Media: Big Business or Fourth Estate

The First Amendment gives media awesome power, which has earned them the unofficial designation of the “Fourth Estate” by some and “watchdog” by others. However, with this awesome power comes immense responsibility.   When the media focus on profits over truth, then democracy is in danger.

When the founding fathers penned the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1789, they sought to create in this country a “marketplace of ideas.”  This concept, later articulated by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, provides that only through the exchange of all ideas, not just those of the majority, can some ideas be determined to be unworkable and other ideas be proven of value.

Without “the marketplace of ideas” there is a real danger of tyranny of the majority, meaning that only the ideas of the majority will be deemed true or untrue. Without the First Amendment’s protection, how could the Civil Rights movement or Women’s suffrage have succeeded? The ideas fueling these movements were not held by the majority at the time. Their success was dependent on the fact that all ideas need to be heard and considered.  

The year before the First Amendment was passed, George Washington acknowledged his wish that America would have many outlets for free speech, “For my part I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications; insomuch as I could heartily desire, copies of … magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in the United States.”

A quick review of the history of newspapers reveals that our first president’s wishes were realized at least for a time. By 1856, there were 2,526 newspapers in America, and by 1880 Americans had 11,314 different newspapers ( That translates into 11,314 potential venues to raise ideas in the marketplace of public discourse.  

To facilitate an unfettered marketplace of ideas within communities across the country, the founding fathers insisted, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or of the press.” The founding fathers wisely predicted that in order for democracy to flourish, the press must reveal to potential voters both the good and bad actions of their elected officials. Prior to the First Amendment, it was illegal to criticize the government even if the criticism was true.

Within the framework of the marketplace of ideas, the American press is charged with printing the truth. And while it’s easy to print what someone says is true, printing what is actually true is an often exigent responsibility. When news media do their jobs well, it makes our communities and country stronger.  Woodward and Bernstein come to mind.

However, in their frenzy to be first with the news, media have frequently sacrificed credibility for ratings and readers. Richard Jewel, who was incorrectly accused of the Centennial Park bombing, comes to mind, as does the more recent, erroneous reporting of the coal miners’ survival in West Virginia in 2006. 

On a more individual level, for most of us, everything we know about a public figure or national or international event was told to us by the media. In a sense the media help shape our reality. Underlying this reality is a basic agreement between the reporter and the reader. The reporter agrees to present a fair and accurate account of the news, and the reader agrees to believe it.

In short we are dependent upon newspapers and other media, so that we may be informed consumers and make educated decisions. There have always been obstacles to reporting the truth and preserving the marketplace of ideas, but the challenges are becoming increasingly insurmountable. Newspapers and other media have become big, BIG business.

Newspapers have been gobbled up by chains, which through years of mergers and acquisitions have resulted in the concentration of media ownership into five global, multi-media conglomerates. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Ben H. Bagdikian wrote in his book “New Media Monopoly, “These five huge corporations — Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) — own most of the newspapers, magazines, books, radio and TV stations, and movie studios of the United States.”  Thus the potential venues for the marketplace of ideas have been severely restricted. This is not what the founding fathers had in mind.

The First Amendment was not written for big business, it was written for purveyors of truth. “What is at stake,” according to Bagdikian, “is American democracy itself. A country without all the significant news, points of view, and information its citizens need to be informed voters is risking the loss of democratic rights.” 

The effects of the concentration of media ownership while subtle are tangible.  The journalism textbook I use in my classes defines news as a change in the day’s events that is important and/or interesting to a significant percentage of the readers. On the other hand, media mogul Ted Turner, who launched 24-hours news into America’s living rooms, once defined news as “$”. He drew a dollar sign and said if any news company says differently, they’re lying. The point Turner was making is that big media have big bills, and they are operated less by purveyors of truth than by businessmen.

In Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy media critics Delli Carpini and Bruce Williams described the new media managers as, “. . . a new generation of media operatives who hold little allegiance to prior codes of journalistic ethics.” Furthermore, according to Bonnie Anderson, veteran reporter and later executive manager for NBC and CNN, “Major news outlets are no longer content with news divisions generating reasonable profits. They are demanding profits some call obscene.”

“If it bleeds, it leads,” has been the mantra for media, often more interested in the bottom line then conveying an accurate account of the day’s events. Hungry for ratings and readers, much of today’s major media are also blurring the line between news and entertainment. When “infotainment” precludes important news, democracy suffers.  When newspapers and broadcast media are chasing celebrities, what significant news stories are not being reported? In her recent book, Newsflash:  Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News, Anderson said she believes the United States is at a very critical juncture — that irresponsible journalism has become a threat to democracy.

Media consumers are partially to blame for the state of the media. With ratings for shows like Jerry Springer and Reality TV in the stratosphere, Americans have all but demanded sensationalism over substance. Nevertheless, media professionals must take the ethical high road, and resist lowering their standards to attract consumers. Lowering standards has proven unsuccessful in boosting ratings, and it has exacerbated credibility problems. Media outlets must be required to uphold the responsibility entrusted to them by the founding fathers. Media must return to their charge of being purveyors of truth.

Fortunately, it is not too late to clean up the media mess. In his Media Monopoly (5th edition), Bagdikian proposed a series of solutions to America’s media problems. They include the following:

* The Telecommunications Act of 1996 needs to be replaced by a new law that can begin to break up the most egregious conglomerates, reinstate mandatory local community access, and put teeth in the requirement that stations demonstrate their record of public interest programming.

* Public broadcasting must be financed through a new, nonpolitical system, as is done for the best systems in other democracies. Today, non-commercial broadcasting depends on appropriations by federal and state legislatures that themselves are heavily beholden to corporate interests.  

* The Federal Communications Commission needs to be reconstituted to include specified representatives from nonpartisan groups like the Parent Teachers Association, as well as presidential appointees.

* The country needs easy, inexpensive licensing of low-power, city- and neighborhood-range radio and TV stations. Japan has them and so can the United States.

* Teach serious media literacy in the schools, using independently created curricula.

Individuals can also participate in organizations devoted to improving the media. The following is a list of media watch groups with a brief description as supplied by the organization: 

FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. 

MediaChannel is a media issues supersite, featuring criticism, breaking news, and investigative reporting from hundreds of organizations worldwide. As the media watch the world, we watch the media. 

The Center for Creative Voices in Media is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving in America’s media the original, independent, and diverse creative voices that enrich our nation’s culture and safeguard its democracy. When independent, creative voices are locked out of that marketplace by media conglomerate “gatekeepers,” not only are the artists harmed, so

 is the public. As a nation, America is poorer for a homogenized media concentrated in the hands of a few corporate behemoths that too willingly sacrifice creativity before the altar of maximum profits.     

Free Press is a national nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in crucial media policy debates, and to generate policies that will produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented media system with a strong nonprofit and noncommercial sector. 

No the sky is not falling, but the marketplace of ideas is falling apart. If democracy in this country is to continue to be “Of the People, By the People, For the People”, America needs the Fourth Estate back. Thiscountry depends on the media for governmental checks and balances. For too long, the media have been preoccupied with their own checks and account balances. Citizens must demand the return of purveyors of truth. Democracy depends on it.


About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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