the impossibility of the fourth estate

One of the things I hate about The West Wing is its transparent fiction. It’s like listening to Michael Douglas’s character, the President of the United States defend his slandered leadership in The American President; you wish there were really this type of leadership. Anywhere.

But, that’s Hollywood, or rather, that’s Aaron Sorkin, who’s penned the quick and biting prose from A Few Good Men to now, the HBO series, The Newsroom with Jeff Daniels. It’s astonishing, and at the risk of being a sucker, I think should be required viewing for any wide-eyed journalism student wishing to contribute to the Fourth Estate.

I missed the pilot when the series began and just caught it over the weekend, and cried.  It’s pissed me off, it inspired me, it made me want to write, to investigate, to teach, to work with a team, to make a difference, all from a collection of characters lead by an anchor on the cusp of giving in.

Like CNN. That is, they’ve given in. The anaphylactic audience that has any reaction to substance appears to steer editorials of assertion and agendas instead of investigative fact-finding, at least something a little deeper than the latest boyfriend-killer.

I’m not saying anything new here by declaring the death of objectivity across the broadcast spectrum and superhighway bandwidth. The burden of the Fourth Estate has shifted from the Murrows and Cronkites through the lenses and frames of thousands of producers, scribblers and shooters to rest squarely on the shoulders of the most frightening, assuming, biased, shallow and non-critical perpetuators of misinformation, the general public, for whom social media has done no favors.

I want MacKenzie McHale and Will McAvoy to be real. I want to be able to go to a source and listen and become informed and inspired to find out more for myself. I want someone to ask the questions I have burning in my head like Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Now that program is coming to an end, announced Friday last.

It’s called the Fourth estate for a reason. And for reason. It is a constitutionally amended premise, an idea that someone should be trusted to keep an eye and ear on things governing the People; an institution immune to capitalism, an institution of provision and examination, civil, just and true in both their acquisition and distribution of information.

This stewardship demands skill, scholarship, tenacity, morals, ethics, language and meaning; professionals who live and die by by-lines and deadlines in a 24-hour news stream as unrelenting as any timepiece. It demands a persona by which a country can, at the very least, be united in believing, in trusting.

The irony is that its very system, the cycle of news and its distribution, has made that impossible.

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