It was Thomas Carlyle who told us that Edmund Burke, in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening of press coverage of the House of Commons, declared, “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
In the context of Parliament, the other three estates would have been the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.
Burke's phrase stuck. More than two centuries later, the Fourth Estate is preserved, but is it powerful?
Here in Washington, it is losing respect rapidly. Today Burke, who was praising the independence of the reporters in ushering over two centuries of media standing up to authority, might wonder if he had overstated their zeal. Three and a Half Estates he might have decided.
The crisis in the media, as some of us believe, is not in the decline of newspapers, the shrinking of viewership for traditional television news, or the growth of partisan cable news, but rather in two other unrelated but dangerously coincidental trends.
The first of these is that the establishment in Washington now believes it doesn't need the media in the way that the media was believed to be needed traditionally. No longer do those hoping to influence Congress begin by selling their point of view to the media by lunching reporters, persuading editorial boards and courting columnists. Instead lobbyists go straight to Congress, where the game is to buy the votes they need with campaign contributions. Who needs the media to stir up popular support when the deed can be done with silver?
Gerald Cassidy, maybe the most successful K Street lobbyist of them all, lamented this change to me at lunch about 10 years ago. It has simply gotten worse.
Cassidy worried about the lack of public support for major legislation passed under lobby pressure. He also lamented how little time a lobbyist got with a member — how little time to dwell on the merits of a course of action.
Cassidy became a very wealthy man lobbying, but he yearned for a fair fight. The old-fashioned way, if you will.
This new state of affairs can be felt in the decline of interest in the general media by public relations firms who used to court every reporter in Washington. Now they “counsel” their clients; offer “strategic planning” and — oddly, as they take little notice of the media — a strange hybrid called “media training.” What media? Their other big new product is to keep reporters away from influential people: the people reporters need to talk to.
In case you think this is peculiarly a Washington phenomenon, it is not. At a recent meeting of the Association of European journalists in Maastricht, the Netherlands, speaker after speaker from country after country complained about those who allegedly are paid to facilitate press access in business and in government and instead wall off their masters.
The second downward trend is a pervasive pusillanimity that has gripped the media in the last several years. We allow ourselves to be segregated, corralled and de facto licensed.
At the White House, the press briefings are like feeding time for the dolphins at Sea World. We, the correspondents, sit around waiting for the keeper, press secretary Jay Carney, to bring in the dead fish. He throws most of it to the network correspondents, sitting grandly in the first two rows where they engage him in long conversations. Finally, Carney tosses some squid to the print reporters in the back of the room and an occasional minnow to the foreign press.
The problem is not that Carney does that but that we take it.
Likewise we can't walk without an escort to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, as we used to and a minder sits in on our interviews. And we take it.
The press conferences are rigged. Regular correspondents don't get to ask questions, just a predictable few — yes, those with the fishy breath from the front row.
Some old timers spoke up and lambasted the press at a meeting in Washington this week. Former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson said, “It's all very stale, very structured, very pale.” Sid Davis, a former NBC bureau chief, said the press conferences look as though the correspondents are watching a funeral service.
And longtime NBC and ABC correspondent Sander Vanocur said, “You want to know what's wrong with the press? The press is what's wrong with the press.” — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate