With the Fourth Estate under increasing siege by the powers-that-be in America and elsewhere, the public is being entertained by journalists singing paeans to their profession; as secular prophets speaking truth to power; as “the last guardians of our democracy.” While I concur with their appeals for the unhindered right to exist, these minstrels of journalism conveniently omit some rather important verities.
If a cornerstone of the Western political heritage is the right of free expression, the underlying political theory which buttresses that right also conditions it under the rubric “with the consent of the governed.” So if the ambassadors of journalism chronically abuse that privileged right by the selective reporting of the facts and of the news stories published (a.k.a. self-censorship), with hyperbolic predictions of immediate economic disaster which fail to occur (i.e. Brexit), or unsubstantiated and baseless accusations (i.e. BuzzFeed), scandalous slanders (i.e. Rolling Stones, Washington Post), yellow journalism, outright mendacity, and all the other cheap disingenuous tricks of the rhetorician; it should not surprise if the governed, in effect, withdraw their consent, and permit would-be tyrants to trample over this fundamental tenet and bastion of free civic society. Those, who have previously discredited themselves and their moral authority, will find themselves alienated and sociopolitically isolated, as the willingness of the public to come to their defense, even at the cost of life and limb, falls by the wayside.
The moral authority of the Fourth Estate, at least in the United States, has all but collapsed; even before many of its members decided last year to surrender all pretense of journalistic objectivity and intellectual integrity and devolve into rank propagandists. Most of its members continue to fail to recognize and/or acknowledge their unethical estate, let alone change, and who blame their woes upon a civically illiterate public for not buying their sale of damaged goods.
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Many moons ago, I was struck by the ease by which 20th century tyrants and totalitarians steamrolled over real and potential islands of opposition. Be it true, for instance, that Germany had lacked a long tradition of liberal democracy, with brief and aborted attempts in the Revolution of 1848–9 and arguably in the Peasant’s War (1523–4). But it was my conclusion that the ambassadors of the various islands of societal power and influence had so discredited themselves, even prior to the Nazi takeover, they could no longer credibly serve as rallying points of defiance.
Some of the best paeans to the virtue of the Roman Republic were delivered in its last days by Cicero and Cato the Younger. However, the rhetorical flourish resonated little in the minds and hearts of their contemporaries while the optimates of the Republic nakedly pursued private aggrandizement at the expense of the commonweal and their less fortuned compatriots.
If President Trump be a potential tyrant, his inaugural speech echoed and exploits a similar state of affairs in contemporary America.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
It is a historical truism that those individuals, dynasties, sociopolitical institutions, and states who lose moral authority (Latin – auctoritas) find quick loss of power on its coattails.
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The good news, from an internal Canadian perspective, is that our Fourth Estate is largely unlike its American counterparts. I might complain about its superficial, dumb, and provincial coverage and analysis of world events at times. But the deceit and dissembling, lasciviously and shamelessly practiced by the American media and reaching pandemic levels, simply doesn’t exist here to any great extent. In the Jian Ghomeshi trial last year, one could sense some Canadian commentators chomping at the bit. But hyperbolic and irresponsible claims would be found largely in American rags, whose attention to the trial was otherwise fleeting.
Journalistic circumspection and integrity is neither innate in our blood nor a permanent fixture. If the odor of sheep manure emits from the pages and screens of many American media outlets, it is largely because truth and intellectual integrity is the first casualty of war, even if that war be of the multi-faceted cultural kind.
John Ibbitson’s depiction of a continuing Laurentian consensus in this country, of an inclusivistic political center which broadens, incorporates, and co-opts but brooks little tolerance for extremist and unsubstantiated claims, currently differentiates this country from our southern neighbours where the center has collapsed. But we are no less human than they; no more Exceptionalist than they.
Even so; if journalists be the last guardians of democracy, then journalistic and intellectual integrity is the strong fortress, high watchman’s tower, and chief weapon of their defense.