Power as generally understood is divided in the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. And then there is the press, which has been labeled the Fourth Estate. The media does not make laws, does not enforce them and does not pronounce rulings over the law. However, it has the immense power of daily influencing the hearts and minds of the people. Oscar Wilde, a while back, had to say: “Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism”.
We all know that people should be able to think for themselves and all the rest, because, well, everybody is free to do so and we have freedom of expression, that people should be able to distinguish information from propaganda (and we don’t have any propaganda anyway, that is only stuff for the Russians) and all these other nice appeals to the reason of the individual, but real life seems to be a world apart from the ideal image of man thought by some Enlightenment philosophe. We live in an age of information overflow, where at the same time most established media do not seem to offer a very wide spectrum of opinions and what is not mainstream is immediately labelled as “fake news”. The mainstream media likes to explain this phenomenon as some sort of natural consensus of the enlightened and civilized people: because we clearly know what it right and what is wrong, being at the forefront of human progress, it is no wonder that we all appear to agree, because we are after all a bunch of educated and intelligent people, and only a cretin, a monster or a Russian agent could possibly disagree with our views anyway.
Governments come and go. But the media is there to remain. The New York Times, one of the most influential newspapers on the planet, has been run by the same family for a century and a half. All major media in the United States belong to only six giant corporations which have outlasted many Presidents and Congresses. For many decades, before the advent of the internet, they pretty much enjoyed a monopoly of information. Access to free information online has hit the established media catastrophically, slashing its advertising revenues and endangering its very existence. Howeer, it is impossible to deny that the established media still have an incredible advantage in terms in resources over the non-aligned media: money goes where visibility and potential advertising is, which is translated in terms of prestige and immense technical advantage over the lonely blogger.
In some European countries, like the UK, Germany or Italy, public broadcast service is directly financed by the taxpayer: if you want to have quality media that it is able to exert its vital function of checking the works of the government in a democratic society, you need to pay, the argument goes. The media never tires of remind us of their indispensable function in the democratic process. Maybe. Or maybe not. Because public broadcasting media, in spite of all talk of editorial independence, ultimately depends on the government too, the function of the fourth power has regularly colluded with the interests of those in government and vice versa. More and more citizens are not happy to pay a fee to get their daily dose of government propaganda, but because of the high fines, they still continue to pay.
The established media is the real manufacturer of consensus; all the rest is lunacy for them and it becomes lunacy for the largest part of the general public too. Nobody likes to pass as a weirdo and a freak. Even those intellectuals with a streak for genuine indipendence of thought can rarely resist the media conditioning effect induced by incessant repetion: Trump, Russia; Russia, Putin, Trump; impeach, Trump, Putin, Trumputin, Russputin, Russtrump; Trumputin, sexist, pussy, racist, Putin, killed, Trump … you get the picture? Intellectuals whose career and respectability is build on the foundation of a large consensus (simply because otherwise they would not be able to live off their thoughts alone) cannot afford to distance themselves from the mediatic alternative reality: in spite of everything, the media has managed to preserve a semblance of prestigiousness and being a journalist is regarded as a cool profession, for some it can even come close to feeling like being a famous star on some days.
Of course the media, in general, hardly produces anything. Powerful ideas are rarely born in editorial offices (my theory is that these people are too busy trying to catch up with the frenetical news cycle to have a genuine thought), but rather in academia, at party congresses, in the mind of entrepreneurs, in the workhouse or in front of a computer screen. The media receives and amplifies ideas from somewhere else. This is its function. Who reads academic journals anyway? Who reads the latest communiques coming out of the European Union or the Chinese government? Who decides what is important and news worthy and what is not? The media is, as a rule, a catalyst for ideas and concepts produced elsewhere, but without this catalyst these grand ideas would be dead letter and these events would remain unknown.
Today the media has the power to create heroes and to destroy careers, characters and reputations. It does not need to prove or justify its behavior. Because we live in a free society and “freedom of the press” is one of the sacred professed dogmas of our societal organization, the press does not have to respond of its actions. Any criticism of the media is turned into an attack on this sacred “freedom of the press”. It does not even need to lie outright, because if they lied, they certainly would be caught (although it would be difficult for the public to spread the news, because even in the age of social media, the presence and the reach of mainstream media is simply much larger and the “respectability” factor all play in favor of the established giant outlets against alternative news sources). By pushing the “fake news” hysteria the media showed that it cannot tolerate any uninvited intrusions in the monopoly of information.
People in the media like to talk about the sacredness of democracy like nobody else and they never seem to tire of their odes to the virtues of our endangered democratic society. For these journalists with an stable career who are paid 1 dollar a word for expressing their opinions, the media aristocracy, we surely must live in the best of all possible universal orders: democratic, liberal, open, tolerant, just, global, generous, industrious, intelligent and funny. Their freelance colleagues, however, who would be happy if they managed to pay the bills at the end of the month, are certainly living in a very different world, driven by ambition and work, absorb every word and identify themselves with their newspaper, hoping to make it someday. They all aspire to the near celebrity status many influencial journalists seem to enjoy today.