Journalists take heed: The Internet is the fifth estate (more powerful than them all)

By Alan Bass

In the summer of 2006, engineer Michael De Kort was ready to blow the whistle on his employer, Lockheed Martin.

He placed call after call to journalists at television stations and newspapers, trying to persuade them to report his allegations of serious problems with $24 billion worth of patrol boats refurbished for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Not one reporter seemed interested.

So De Kort videotaped himself reading his allegations and posted the 10-minute clip to YouTube, a social-networking website launched in 2005 that allows users to post videos for anyone to watch.

Today, millions post and watch videos on YouTube. The site software sorts and presents videos according to number of views, so the most-watched videos rise quickly to the top of the site’s pages.

A few years ago, the lack of media interest in De Kort’s story would have killed it.

Today, things are different. De Kort’s video (no longer available) — entitled “Homeland Security – Coast Guard Issues” — attracted almost 100,000 views in just one month — not as many as “Robot Dance” to be sure, but enough to create a buzz that forced even some mainstream media organizations to pay attention.

De Kort’s successful end run around the gatekeepers of the press is part of a wider and significant phenomenon, a major redistribution of one of the most important powers in our society, the power to control information, from the traditional mass media to the Internet.

As a result, reporters, editors and media owners today are being publicly scrutinized and held to account for their decisions in a way that was unimaginable just two decades ago.

At the most basic level, it’s harder than ever for news organizations to ignore or cover up mistakes, distortions and plagiarism in their reports. An army of bloggers and other web-based writers and publishers have made outing bad journalism part of their mission — a prominent recent example was the disclosure that a Reuters-employed photographer altered a photo of an Israeli bombing in Lebanon so it looked more dramatic.

But the Internet also enables people to draw attention to what the news media is NOT reporting. This is a far more subtle and important form of accountability that strikes at the heart of traditional media power — its ability as a gatekeeper to control the flow of news and information.

One of the first and most dramatic examples came in 1998, when Internet gadfly Matt Drudge reported Newsweek magazine had spiked a story about then U.S. President Bill Clinton trying to cover up an affair with a White House intern. Another powerful example came in 2002, when bloggers buzzed with accusations that most of the news media was ignoring pro-segregation comments made by former U.S. senator Trent Lott.

This new accountability can work to protect journalists too. An example is the reversal this summer of a Victoria Times-Colonist editor’s decision to fire columnist Vivian Smith after one of her columns angered some advertisers. Political blogger Sean Holman broke the news on his website Public Eye. Other bloggers expressed their dismay and a number of people in the journalism field, including the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, publicly criticized the decision. Eventually, the newspaper reinstated Smith and publisher Bob McKenzie issued a statement to newsroom staff apologizing for the firing and proclaiming “we do not allow advertisers to influence the content of this newspaper.”

Of course, the Internet is changing and challenging other traditional powers, processes and relationships in our society, including the most dominant of all — the relationship between buyers and sellers. This is also affecting journalism because it is wreaking havoc on the advertising and marketing organizations that employ journalists.

I’m not sure many of us have grasped how extensive the impact of the Internet will ultimately be.

Perhaps we need a modern-day Edmund Burke to spell it out for us.

It’s said that back in the early days of parliamentary democracy in Britain, during a debate about the nature of government, Member of Parliament Burke stood up, pointed to a small group of reporters who were recently granted the right to record and report the proceedings and pronounced: “There are three estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more powerful than they all.”

With those few words, Burke bequeathed to the fledgling news media a legitimate role in the governing structure of democracy that has nourished it (and justified its existence) ever since.

Burke foresaw that the mass media’s powers of scrutiny and mass distribution would bring a powerful new dynamic into the process of government and the maintenance of social order. He hit the nail on the head in his prediction of the power and influence of the institutions that would evolve from the few — and probably startled — ink-stained wretches who were listening to Burke that day.

I’m no Edmund Burke. But I can steal his rhetoric. So here it is: The Internet is the Fifth Estate.

The Internet — a medium characterized by the unique powers of mass access in terms of publishing and an unpredictable but powerful distribution system based on network dynamics — is going to thoroughly alter the relationship between individuals and the dominant powers in our society, the old powers of church and state and the younger powers of business and mass media.

Of all those powers, the mass media may be the most challenged of all.

Since the days of Edmund Burke, the power to control information has resided almost exclusively in the hands of the professional press.

For the most part, it’s been a good ride. In the western democracies, the role of the press as envisaged by Burke was entrenched in a variety of legal and constitutional protections. The press has served as a watchdog over government and has provided a forum for public debates.

But the “Fourth Estate” has also evolved and changed. Technology expanded its reach and penetration. It became more powerful and more profitable and is now most often called “The Media,” a gigantic polyglot business of news, information, advertising and entertainment operated by multinational corporations driven by share prices and profits and a constant quest for larger market share.

Today, many refer to the traditional press as the MSM — mainstream media. While “the Fourth Estate” was a term that conveyed notions of democratic empowerment, MSM is a term that usually carries with it a sense of opprobrium and oppression. The MSM is seen by many as a power unto itself, secretive, complacent, biased and untrustworthy. Many intelligent people — from the left, right and middle parts of the political spectrum — have come to believe the MSM is more interested in protecting profits than in protecting the people’s right to know.

Part of what enabled the Fourth Estate to become so powerful and, in some people’s eyes, so neglectful and careless in the use of that power was that it was also the Final Estate. The press held society’s other powers to public account while largely escaping the kind of transparency and accountability to outsiders it forced on others.

No more.

There’s no doubt that many journalists are going to have trouble adapting to this new scrutiny. But in the long run, the existence of a Fifth Estate and the imposition of true external accountability on journalists and the organizations that employ them holds the promise of a two-way relationship between journalists and the public that should make journalism better.

Journalists have always claimed to work for the people. Now they really do.

Alan Bass is an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University’s School of Journalism in Kamloops, British Columbia