The fourth estate Ruthless Criticism
[Translated and adapted from Contradictio]

The Fourth Estate:
The Power of the Media

There is a reason why the free press has the status of the “fourth estate,” alongside the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. This is reflected in recent power struggles over TV or radio stations (for example, in the Czech Republic or in Chechnya). And usually after a military coup in “Third World” countries, the first thing the new leaders do is replace the editorial staffs. In the civilized western world, the grip of state power and political parties is a bit more relaxed, but it exists here as well: public broadcasters have television and radio boards with proportionate party representation; television and radio are required to broadcast election advertisements; and the media as a whole is scolded when it exceeds an acceptable level of “critical reporting,” with the hint that such a thing only causes frustration for the state, and so on.

Obviously, the state agencies and party organizations are very aware that the media gives them an instrument with which they can rule over heads and that the media is an extended arm of state power. That’s on the one hand. On the other, the free press is considered to be terribly “critical” and therefore enjoys a good reputation; it is constantly exposing “scandals”; nothing is left uncovered – not food contamination, not politicians cavorting with interns, not party fund raising scandals. It does all this so that there will be no abnormalities in the mode by which rule and economics are exercised.

In other words, there are two opposing positions taken on the press: On the one hand, it comes in handy as a tool of the state; on the other, it is supposed to offer protection from the state by controlling it. How does this fit together? What is the free press really, what do readers and viewers get out of it, and how is it used by the state as a tool of its power?

A. The free press

Every honorable journalist would vehemently deny that he wants to manipulate people or be an extended arm of the state. In his opinion, he merely wants to help people form their own opinion by providing more or less detailed information, investigative journalism, or research; even the tabloids say this. To do this, they adhere to a strict code of ethics which consists of keeping news and editorials seperate.

1. News

To put it in a nutshell: What is printed or broadcast in this category has nothing to do with news. In the vast majority of cases, it is not about transparently relating the facts about a bit of nature or society. Rather, the facts on which the news is based are “rehashed” in such a way that they immediately provide a standard by which a “thing” is to be judged. “Facts, facts, facts” – bullshit! Everything that passes as “reporting” is merely treated as factual. The reader might think at this point: well, anyone can say that. So here’s a few examples.

The news story “yesterday: rain” reports a fact. It is different with reports such as “bottlenecks in social security,” “the costs of fringe benefits are rising dramatically,” “personal responsibility in health care should be optimized,” “unemployment is up due to seasonal factors,” or “peace mission in Afghanistan.”

The standards are always provided free of charge, whether you ask for them or not – and always include the guideline on how an issue is supposed to be judged, thus functioning, on the one hand, by being stated in a strange way and, on the other, by providing attributes that have nothing to do with objectivity. So the joke is not the existence of a big lie or reports being freely invented or massively falsified; that might happen sometimes, and probably more in some news outlets than in others. But the vast majority of news is based on facts, it’s just that they are presented in a way that makes them barely recognizable, and this is how the press makes its contribution to public opinion being formed in the desired way.

The bourgeois media does not consider it to be a violation of objectivity when the first 5 minutes of a news program or the first 3 pages of a magazine are filled with nothing but quotes from party chairs, secretary generals, or otherwise important people! So every politician can be sure that his commands are reproduced on the next day unaltered and therefore able to have an effect. The journalistic trade gives the impression of objectivity by taking the trouble to put quotation marks around these statements (the simple variant) or by using indirect speech (for the more discerning audience). That is not just comical.

And finally with phrases like “our reporters learned at the scene …” or “well informed insiders say … ,” which are supposed to be taken as a distinction of conscientious journalism, the ladies and gentlemen of the media actually show that nothing is as important to them as intellectual proximity to the centers of power, which is something completely different than intellectual quality and apparently matters less.

B. What do readers get out of the free press?

1. Tips for getting along

One thing is for sure: people have to know what to get used to! It is stated openly and directly whenever laws are changed and new rules and other political measures come into effect. Everyone is informed that wages and salaries can’t rise this year because anything else would violate economic reason; that in the future you will have to take care of your pension by yourself; that you better save in order to be able to afford the next visit to the dentist; what should you actually think of the anti-terror war, of the deployment of troops? What are you to think of the security programs? And so on and so on. The suitable answers to all these questions is found in the free press. The readership becomes morally and also practically prepared for whatever will be required or expected of them.

Secondly, the free press provides something like a general gathering place for every form of discontent on the part of its readership. It knows a false escape route for every criticism and every protest – namely, because it provides a false explanation of the thing causing the discontent – and that is to replace the perpetrators by voting or demanding a resignation instead of judging the acts themselves.

In summary, it can be said: the theoretical inadequacies with regard to the correct evaluation of an issue on the part of the readers and their practical incompetence is reproduced by the press on a daily basis!

But the readership and the TV audience are compensated for this: just as they are and should remain excluded in practice from all decisions, the citizens are allowed to participate ideally in the debates, to intellectually concern themselves with the problems of the people in power (and sometimes even with the problems that the people in power have with the citizens) – you are virtually in the President’s office and are allowed to imagine that you, admittedly a private person, are actually much better at this than the President …

The government and opposition parties love these platforms which are provided to them free of charge, and they make extensive use of them as a substitute parliament. They do not miss the many opportunities to agitate the people.

2. The nation as an intellectual home

The citizen can be intellectually at home via the many other sections in the newspapers, magazines, or TV shows. There are two categories in particular: a) one’s fellow citizens and their wrongdoings and b) the fortunes of the rich and famous.

Category a) is dedicated to forming the desired morality, or strengthening or renewing the morality that is already found among the readers; the press actually only provides colorful material for this, but does not create it in the first place. It meets the readers’ point of view from the start: I want to behave according to the rules by which this wonderful society is organized, the existing state order is the measure of my success too. That’s why readers are interested in exceptions to the rules: law breaking, crimes. They provide (imaginary) reasons why one always comes up short – “nice guys finish last”! The wrong thought is that the grievances, annoyances, and difficulties which one has to deal with in everyday life are never ever caused by the nation’s political-economic system, but are always only because of those who violate or transgress the rules or who take more liberties than others, making life tougher with their asocial behavior.

Of course, any detected deviation calls the state on the scene, which restores justice by imposing punishment and satisfying both its own and the people’s need for revenge. The level of punishment can hardly be high enough for the readers – so morale becomes productive again because a decent person may finally see himself vindicated since: “Honesty is the best policy!”

This type of subordinate mind is on the look out even when no crime has been committed. And generally in the sector of morality which is measured by the behavior of the stars. This brings us to category b). The denunciation of the “bad behavior” and “blunders” of the rich and famouse strengthens one’s own morality, that of the “little guy,” because it is praised ideally. Such stories promote the moral-nationalistic conviction that the leaders and the led, the rulers and the ruled, are somehow cut from the same cloth …

C. The media as a tool for the rulers to get hold of the minds of the ruled

The facts described in the headline are best reflected by White House press conferences where nothing happens other than that the assembled journalists are dictated what they have to write and transcribe it into their shorthand pads or tape recorders. Stupid as they are (one could also add unprincipled), they do this effortlessly. So this is how the opinions of the rulers end up in the heads of the ruled. But why is this actually necessary? Because otherwise the ruled would have no criterion by which to judge the issues! Should China be allowed into the WTO? Should Turkey join the EU? Because most readers are neither economists nor political scientists, it must be “explained” to them! The yardstick by which the appropriate answer to this kind of question is determined is clear from the outset: it is the yardstick of the success of one’s own nation. If it benefits the USA, China must be admitted to the WTO; if it harms the EU, Turkey must stay out... In this way, the decisive politicians of the country exert a steering effect on the readers through the press. However, this does not work on the basis of any manipulation mechanisms, as leftists like to claim again and again, but is based on the fact that the readers bring with them the nationalist point of view which they are already dedicated to.

No placating final words

However, it’s also not true that the free press plays no role of its own in the struggle for the sinecures of power. It interferes forcefully, intensifies moods, stirs up antipathies, and so on. The only question is how it does this: it dedicates itself with all its energy to matters of taste in the exercise of power and thus takes care of the party competition. It pays attention, for example, to the hair style and hair color of the two candidates for president, invents the “applaus-o-meter” for party conventions, and argues at length about the greatness of a speach, etc. The media reproduces the mode of democracy by encouraging the desire to be ruled, by promoting the voter’s desire to delegate his will to a character mask of power.

By applying its taste standards to these questions of style in democratic procedures for exercising power and to the insufferable self-portrayals of potential as well as real ruling figures, it makes itself quite decisive for power... To the extent that one lets it.

“Censorship does not take place” – why not?!