Mainstream media is on its way out, but don’t expect it to go quietly. We live in a time where the press, which has for centuries served as the “fourth estate” is being threatened by an emerging and evolving “fifth estate” made up of alternative media sources and content producers.
For a while this body of independent outlets and individuals was ignored and even ridiculed by the press, but now we are seeing a shifting in tactics towards the offensive.
The real issue at hand here is the fact that the fourth estate, which was once romantically seen as a renegade institution willing to expose the powers that be has now become too comfortable, too familiar with, and too reliant on the very establishment it was tasked with policing.
Once journalism was not a very respectable undertaking, it was largely seen as a nonintellectual and almost criminal enterprise by members of the political and intellectual establishment.
For example, 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that journalists are “like dogs, when ever anything moves they begin to bark,” and 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine claimed that “every journalist owes tribute to the evil one.”
The political upheavals that came out of the Revolutionary Era and further developments in printing technology ensured that media and journalism would become a staple institution of every democratic and liberal country, but the path forward was not a stable or secure one.
Journalists should be the first to know that this sort of illiberal behaviour is not conducive to an environment where freedom of the press is cherished and upheld. Yet we live in a strange world.
Now it is the press themselves who have taken up the mantle of censorship, calls to violence and attempts to discredit a new class of truth seekers.
After all, when existentially threatened, the dying animal lashes out at even those coming to its aid.
Today the mainstream media is a reactionary force much like the opponents of the printing press. Instead of trashing political pamphleteers and publishers, today they trash bloggers and Youtubers, however the arguments against an alternative medium for disseminating information remain largely the same.
Upon the proliferation of the Gutenberg press, people had all sorts of reactions, some were positive while others were nearing the apocalyptic. One common claim was that the new medium would put scribes (read: mainstream journalists) out of business.
The 15th century abbot Johannes Trithemius, took it upon himself to handwrite a tract called “In Defence of Scribes” in which he lamented that the invention of the printing press would ultimately reduce the quality and meaning of the work.
“Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence,” said Trithemius.
Another 17th century critic of the printing press, Adrien Baillet wrote in “Jugemens des savans sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs” that the quantity and spread of new sources of information would lead to a dramatic breakdown in society.
“We have reason to fear that the multitude of books that is increasing every day in a prodigious manner will put the centuries to come into as difficult a state as that in which barbarity had put the earlier ones after the fall of the Roman Empire,” wrote Baillet.
Similar claims are being echoed by the establishment with regard to the rise of the fifth estate, or alternative media sources.
Like Trithemius, policy makers and mainstream journalists alike are responding to the emerging threat by saying “alternative news will never equal mainstream reporting “, or “due process and fact-checking is often neglected”. Of course, these claims are rarely ever supported by evidence and are applied as blanket insults to a vast number of outlets varying in quality and diligence.
Similarly, the Baillet argument that the proliferation in sources of information will lead to some catastrophic outcome seems to be a favourite justification for those whose grasp on the truth is threatened by the appearance of new media outlets. The overblown paranoia around “fake news” and “election interference” are merely a reiteration of this irrational and reactionary fear.
According to detractors, if we don’t curb the rise of competing media narratives, our democratic system will collapse, or we will be invaded by Russians, or god forbid perhaps Donald Trump will be elected. I suspect we have all heard some variation of these doomsday sayings.
Ultimately though this is all a distraction. The relationship between the fifth estate and the fourth estate doesn’t have to be antagonistic. Realistically both serve the same function: speaking truth to power. The only difference however is that the mainstream media has now become a servant of that very same power.
Of course, there has always been internecine conflict between competing publishers and news organizations but there has never before been the kind of scrutiny which alternative media organizations pay to mainstream outlets.
I think we have now come to a point where we must ask ourselves, as a people, who will investigate the investigators?