“The Fourth Estate,” as a nickname for the press, is anecdotally attributed to Edmund Burke, when the House of Commons was opened up to press reporting in the 18th century. The idea is that the press is another branch of government without official recognition, representing the interests of civil society as a whole, and acting as a sort of check or limit on the others. The Fourth Estate’s job, in Anderson Cooper’s words, is “keeping ‘em honest.”
But then the original Three Estates themselves — the Crown, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual, and the bourgeoisie — were in theory supposed to be rivalrous interests that kept each other in check. But by the 19th century, after a limited insurgency by upstart industrial interests against the privileges of the landed classes, they had coalesced into a de facto class alliance: The monarchy, landed interests, Church and industrial capitalists against everybody else.
And in the United States the Fourth Estate, likewise, has ceased to be a check on the official branches of power and instead become part of the same interlocking establishment. We live in a world where the late Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, told a room full of intelligence officers that “there are some things the American people don’t need to know.” What the establishment press calls “journalism” consists mainly of stenography, studiously writing down exactly what the public spokespersons for “both sides” on any issue have to say about it. “Both sides” are actually the center-left and center-right wing (center and center-right, really) of the same establishment, with 80% of their assumptions in common. Indeed, some 40% of column inches in newspapers consist of material generated by public spokespersons, press releases and PR departments.
Establishment journalism, as often as not, shares the perspective of the political and corporate establishments it’s supposed to report on. We regularly see talking heads like David Gregory denouncing those, like Edward Snowden, with the temerity to actually expose the activities of those in power. We see the New York Times’ Judith Miller, who acted as Cheney’s mouthpiece in feeding pro-Iraq war propaganda to the American people, chiding Wikileaks for inadequate fact-checking.
But then, it’s hard to take a critical attitude toward people you schmooze with on a daily basis. The above-mentioned Katherine Graham, for example, socialized with JFK, Jackie Onassis, RFK, LBJ, Bob McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and the Reagans. This collusion between the Fourth Estate and the other three is a lot like what happened between the original Three Estates in 19th century Britain: the Whig landed aristocracy and old-money mercantilists were silent partners who financed much of the industrial revolution, and the new upstart industrial capitalists were cemented into the old ruling class establishment with titles of nobility.
The one unforgivable sin, for a respectable professional journalist in the so-called “Fourth Estate,” is to supplement one’s careful stenography of what “both sides” said with an independent factual investigation as to whether it’s true or not. What “both sides” say must speak for itself. If one side lies, and the other side doesn’t challenge it, it’s not the reporter’s job to tell readers what the truth is. If “both sides” actually agree on many of the structural assumptions of the current system, the existing structure of power will not be called into question by respectable journalism.
James Moore’s idea of the “Second Superpower,” in comparison, stands up pretty well. The Second Superpower, juxtaposed to the United States and the global system of power it enforces, is networked global civil society: essentially all networked citizen activist organizations that challenge the institutional power of the corporate-state establishment. The Second Superpower’s more visible manifestations have included the Zapatista uprising, the anti-globalization movement, The Pirate Bay, Anonymous, Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, Syntagma and M15, and Occupy. It also includes untold thousands of more staid advocacy organizations like Amnesty International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and big to-dos like the World Social Forum. It includes the Keystone XL blockade and the Israeli divestment boycott.
The Third Estate, in European politics, originally purported to represent “everybody else” besides the King, Church and Nobles. In practice, it represented the ruling elite, or top one percent or so, of townspeople. In England, that meant the owners of the Dark Satanic Mills. The early 19th century working class, while theoretically included in the Third Estate, were in fact subjected to a totalitarian police state.
The Second Superpower, on the other hand, really does represent “everybody else” — in Moore’s words, “planetary society.” Its genuinely democratic nature rests on the essentially non-existent coordination costs and marginal costs of transferring information associated with network technologies.
Among other things, the collapsing entry barriers to recording events in real-time and distributing them on the Web enable the Second Superpower (i.e., you and me) to do something the Fourth Estate refuses to do: Expose the inner workings of the rich and powerful.
The viral spread of UC Davis police Lt. John Pike pepper spraying calmly seated students in the faces was a shot heard round the world. Cops now routinely complain about the “chilling effect” of being unable to beat anyone up, without the dead certainty that some bystander is capturing it on their cell phone.
Cue in Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster of a bill to severely tighten government restrictions on abortion. The Republican majority, after three challenges on points of order that seem fishy at best (one such point of order was a pause to adjust her back brace), managed to shut her filibuster down several minutes before midnight. But the yelling crowd of Davis supporters managed to delay a final vote until perilously close to the special session’s expiration time at 12 sharp. Nevertheless, the body took a vote and declared the bill passed just before midnight. But wait: Somebody got a screen capture of the original time-stamp on the bill showing it was passed after midnight! And somebody else saved the official video of Senate proceedings that showed the vote concluding after midnight! And the Republicans were caught altering the time-stamp! And so, it wound up being watched by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube who deluged the Texas government with outraged complaints.
The morning after, a friend of mine on Twitter (@ami_angelwings) observed that if this had been ten years ago, they probably would have said the bill passed before midnight. The news would have just reported that there was a “controversy,” that “one side said this and one side said that,” and that would be it. But with so many people watching and knowing the truth they couldn’t. And regular people watching on the internet kept them from being able to pretend something else happened and hide the truth.
It’s interesting that in sports, they’re willing to say “Let’s go to the video” to verify the truth. But in the “serious” news, judging the comparative truth claims of “both sides” by appealing to the factual realm is regarded as “bias.”
But if “serious” journalists aren’t willing to do anything so unprofessional as go to the video, our new Fourth Estate — the Second Superpower — has no such qualms. This illustrates the fundamental game change that networked communications technology has introduced in the age-old struggle between the privileged and non-privileged.
For centuries, the transaction costs and capital outlays for coordinating action have meant that we have been oppressed largely through hierarchical, institutional actors. It also meant that the main challengers to corporate-state rule tend to take the form of other large, hierarchical institutions (labor parties, establishment unions, racial and gender justice organizations dominated by the economically powerful, etc.), and to degenerate into the same kind of internal authoritarianism as the institutions they were fighting. It meant, further, that these countervailing institutions were more likely than not to coalesce into interlocking systems of power with the institutions they were ostensibly fighting.
The new technologies of free communication and association mean, for the first time, we can take on powerful institutions — on a more than equal basis — without becoming powerful institutions. And that means the days of powerful institutions are numbered.