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Commentary :: Media
The Fourth Estate
08 Dec 2009
Freedom of the press is a constitutional right Americans hold dear. For many it is perceived as a liberty every person should have the freedom to express and is a facet and symbol of our culture itself. Often referred to as the fourth branch of government or the fourth estate most people believe journalists rights to go on the record with what they know to be protected by law. Most Americans simply take for granted journalists are sources of independent information and believe they express the first amendment when many of us feel we can't.
In 2004 allegations former President George W. Bush, then running for re-election, skipped out on military duties while serving in the Texas Air National Guard surfaced in the media. These allegations were backed up by more than just here-say or undisclosed inside sources there were documents substantiating the charges. Among the institutions to report were the New York Times and CBS News. CBS quickly recanted the allegations claiming the authenticity of the documents could not be verified.
The day after the election in which George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were declared the winners Dan Rather, who reported the story, was fired by CBS. Rather, then filed a law suit against CBS on September 19, 2007 alleging breach of contract for scapegoating him in the controversy. The lawsuit may continue to shed light on the Bush administrations and its less than civil stances on civil liberties. It also stirs and re-ignites the decades old fire beneath the murky pot of the government's handling of the first amendment and freedom of the press.
After retiring from the Washington Post in 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Bernstein did an investigation on the connection between the CIA and the American media during the Cold War era. The story described how the CIA used journalists at times to provide basic logistical information on observations they made while overseas from the amount of planes noticed flying overhead to probing further for any other information a journalist may or may not wish to divulge.
Bernstein showed certain journalists had been paid for those services. This in and of itself may seem innocuous and perhaps even helpful depending on your views on journalistic integrity and national security. But, Bernstein also revealed high level CIA officials had long standing close relations with many owners of prominent media institutions. Thus, many of the institutions themselves were tied to the government at the highest levels and cooperated with the agency beyond the scope of simple information for cash.
Many noted journalists were fed stories and information and reported biased stories favorable to agency agendas all for money. As a result there were stories that went out which were not partial to but bought and paid for by the CIA. The story related how agents were even trained to work as journalists by the agency. It also discussed how freelance journalists employed by the agency and actual full time employees of media institutions were paid for information and other favorable services sometimes on a regular basis.
The story was based not on conjecture but on a congressional investigation's findings with regards to the link between the CIA and the mainstream media and Bernstein's own independent CIA and media sources. The government has and does more than rely on journalists for information but has proven itself to have infiltrated some mainstream news sources. The relationship usually goes unnoticed for most of us, but in instances like the Rather firing it surfaces. Because the subject is never broached facts are not usually reported on and the relationship is kept quiet or brushed off as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories although there is actual documentation proving the relationship.
As such it forces one to ponder how much of what we read, hear or watch is based on independent investigation or is a product of watered down facts or worse. The heavy handed Bush Administration helped to highlight much of these relationships and further raise concerns. This as the blows of blunt instruments are often easier to discern that those of more subtle ones.
In 2006 ten journalists from the Miami herald were fired after it was discovered they had been paid for favorable reporting paid for by the US government. The journalists were paid sometimes six figures in taxpayer dollars for anti-Castro reporting by the Bush Administration. It was not the first of such revelations under the former administration.
When the institution we rely on most for information about the world is pressured to give slanted, watered down or false stories we find ourselves moving towards the very kinds of encroachments on our liberties we usually accuse other governments and countries of. When journalists, freelance writers, columnists, reporters and other members of the press are threatened or pressured, with regards to what they print for political purposes, it undermines the trust we place in the government to protect our freedom to stay informed and to make decisions based on facts. Perhaps the new administration will provide an outlet for journalists to be able to report to when they feel they have been unduly pressured to give biased reports or to hold back a story by any government entity.
Of course we trust the majority of journalists do right by the public and if not for them how else would we know much of what we do about the Bush administration's failures and falsehoods? We want our journalists to be able to tell us what they know and as a free society we expect a free media and press. Hopefully part of the changes we get with our new administration will include protections for members of the press, and guaranteed provisions they will not be adversely pressured with regards to giving it to us straight.
To read about my inspiration for this article go to
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