The press was christened the Fourth Estate in response to the French Revolution, during which the Third Estate effectively overthrew the other two. This could never have happened were it not for an explosion in newspaper and pamphlet publishing that excited debate and increased popular awareness of the affairs of state.
Given that we are still experiencing the repercussions of this event, the subsequent designation of the news media as a vital force in public affairs has always been taken for granted.
Not so much any more, perhaps.
Hillary Clinton got 500 media endorsements to just 26 for Donald Trump, yet the voters ignored the overwhelming consensus of the media and elected him.
If you go by readership size, of the top 50 newspapers, not one endorsed Trump.
I’ve previously expressed the view that claims of media bias should be treated with some caution. It’s not that it doesn’t exist (journalists are only human, after all). But because they cover controversial topics, reporters are always going to be accused of bias even when they go to great lengths to be balanced.
If you are a partisan of a particular candidate, party or cause, the chance are you will find fault with any coverage of the subject. It’s just human nature.
That being said, it’s impossible to maintain that the American media was an impartial chronicler of the last election. The manner in which it pushed for Hillary Clinton’s victory was evident from the nature of its coverage and behaviour of American journalists themselves.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, ABC’s Martha Raddatz – who actually moderated one of the debates – struggled to hold back tears as she talked about the Clinton loss. In mid October, it was revealed that a staggering 96 per cent of campaign donations coming from journalists went to the former secretary of state.
And what could be inferred from such conduct was more or less confirmed by Wikileaks. It turned out another debate moderator emailed Clinton’s campaign chair to, among other things, brag about how he had successfully baited Trump, solicit question ideas and even offer campaign advice.
Another prominent reporter was caught repeatedly running copy by the campaign for approval prior to publication. The questions in upcoming CNN debates were leaked to Clinton’s staffers on multiple occasions.
Again part of the falling trust in media.
It sometimes looks that, their forebears having done so much to sweep the First and Second Estates from power, America’s reporters have now come to see themselves as the aristocrats and clergymen of the twenty-first century.
They certainly sound like would-be aristocrats when they talk about the lower income voters who flocked to Trump. You get the feeling that for many covering the election, “the peasants are revolting” is an observation that carries more than one meaning.
Jokes about hillbillies, rednecks and white trash may comfort you about your perceived superiority, but they also reek of the same hauteur that characterised the gentry of old.
Not much better are the anguished pieces about how these poor benighted people aren’t to blame for their ignorance and what is really required is a better method of “explaining” to them why their values are wrong. Both approaches boil down to the same basic idea: that the serfs lack the dignity and agency required for citizenship.