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Sunday, August 14, 2016

One Man's Trash--My take on the critical importance of Freedom of the Press to the political process

Editor's note: "One Man's Trash" is the name I used for the columns I wrote from time to time in the Chronicle.  The second line of the quote is "is another man's treasure."  I always let the readers decide which it was for them.  I'll pull one out and dust it off from time to time here on the blog.  After hearing presidential candidate Donald Trump tear into the news media, I thought this was a good time to revisit this piece.  This is Trump, the guy who was thrilled with all the headlines and publicity until reporters and the media started to look under the hair he coifs so carefully and find problems with his statements and his organization.  Read on for a word about why the media is called "The Fourth Estate" and why you can not separate media from politics.  This is technically an editorial.  Read on if you want.

(Every so often I read about people who think that there is too much freedom of the press. One of those surveys led to this column. As a reporter, my right to look at public records or attend public meetings is no more or no less then any US citizen reading this! I find it difficult to understand those who feel freedom of the press should be curtailed in any way.)

I've been a reporter covering local news here in Cumberland County since July 1985, first on radio, a time with Lyle Lipke's Citizen Press Box, 20 years writing for the Crossville Chronicle and now on the this blog and Facebook. I enjoy the work that I do and I enjoy sharing what I've learned with the public. I've reported both good and bad news over the years and I try to be as objective as I can when reporting no matter what my personal feelings may be about a subject.

While objectivity is usually the goal for most reporters, it is impossible to be absolutely and totally objective because when you approach any subject, you do so based on all the past experiences you've had, all the way back to childhood.

As I mentioned in a previous column, I ran for city council once, back in the early 1980's before I did any local reporting. While I received a credible number of votes, out-polling all the incumbents, I didn't get elected (Whew--that WAS close!). For many years after that, people came to me and encouraged me to put my name back on the ballot for city council. I always turned them down, even though I did think about it for, maybe a second or two.

It always came back to the fact that if I served on the council I couldn't report even slightly objectively on the council's actions. I also thought then as I do now, that I have as much or maybe more influence on the local political process as a reporter then as a councilman with only one out of five votes.

Which finally brings me to the topic of my column. Every so often you will hear people refer to the media as the "Fourth Estate." This phrase originally came from England way back in the mid 1700's when the power of the press first started to be felt by those who held political power.

Around this time, the first newspapers had begun to flourish and people became informed about things that were happening in the halls of power. Those who held the power began to recognize the power of the press, which is really the power of the people. Nothing changes just because a reporter writes it. The changes come because citizens demand them.

Early on, the government officials tried to slow down the growing influence of press. For a time it was illegal to write down any notes while attending a session of the British Parliament. Reporters had to have good memories to report details of the debates of the day. Some reporters could recall entire portions of the debate and write it down after leaving the visitors' gallery.

The English government of the time was made up of the Three estates that held the political power. The First Estate was the Lords Spiritual or the Clergy, a political force to be reckoned with in those days for their power over their flock and influence with those in power. The Lords Temporal was the Second Estate, made up of the landed gentry, Lords and Earls, whose titles handed down from the father to eldest son. The first two Estates made up the House of Lords, the upper body of Parliament. The House of Commons was the Third Estate, made up of members who were elected to office by those who were allowed to vote.

The term Fourth Estate generally is attributed to Edmund Burke, a British politician of the middle and late 1700's. He was quoted in an 1841 book written by Thomas Carlyle called "Heroes and Hero Worship in History."

In his book, Carlyle wrote, "Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the reporter's gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all."

Something else was going on about this same time in history. A small colony of England was beginning to govern its self and breaking away from one of the most powerful countries in the world at that time. It seems that the Forefathers of the United States of America had seen how those in power in England manipulated information about the political process and apparently felt that it was wrong.

I come to that conclusion because one of the first rights ratified in the Bill of Rights concerns the freedom of the press. That freedom is there to make sure that every citizen who wants to know what is going on in the halls of power can know. Freedom of the press is really one of the most important freedoms granted to individual citizens by the Constitution, the freedom to be informed about what your government is doing. Such an important freedom needs to be protected and respected by everyone who benefits from it.

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