Foreclosing on the Fourth Estate

Posted: Oct 12, 2013 12:01 AM

Journalism is traditionally known as the “fourth estate,” because journalists sat apart from the three estates that made up parliament. They weren’t simply scribes, writing down everything that happened there. They would also report on whether the lawmakers were following through on their promises. That would allow voters to decide whether lawmakers were making sensible policy decisions.

Of course, it also meant that journalists often ended up opposed to the lawmakers, because they would be reporting that the lawmakers were not following through on their promises, or that the programs the lawmakers implemented didn’t work. They would “speak truth to power.”

They don’t seem quite so opposed to policymakers anymore.

Consider the big ObamaCare rollout. On Oct. 1, everyone across the country was supposed to be able to go to and begin enrolling in a government-approved insurance plan. Oh, and by the way: the law now says everyone must have insurance within three months. So many people no doubt felt the need for speed.

It didn’t happen. “Visitors to the site have endured long wait times, error messages and glitches impeding registration, which is necessary to see available insurance plans and prices,” TIME magazine admitted. The federal government won’t, or can’t, say how many people have actually managed to enroll.

Needless to say, many journalists seem taken aback. As recently as June, The Atlantic offered a breezy account of the excellent work being done to set up the site. “The new will fill a yawning gap in the technology infrastructure deployed to support the mammoth law,” Alex Howard wrote, “providing a federal choice engine for the more than 30 different states that did not develop their own health-insurance exchanges.” Instead, the site has become a yawning gap, swallowing the valuable time of countless users. National Review’s Charles Cooke provides a nice wrap up of journalists who were happy to go along with the Administration’s claim that things would be just fine.

It isn’t simply ObamaCare.

At his most recent news conference, President Obama faced reporters for more than an hour. But as Andrew Malcolm notes, he wasn’t asked any difficult questions about the Park Service going out of its way to close the World War II Memorial. He wasn’t asked why he opposed raising the debt ceiling when he was a senator, but favors raising it now (after his administration has added roughly $10 trillion in debt).

The reporters know “he wants to talk about the shutdown and the evil Republicans' refusal, so far, to cave to his demands,” Malcolm writes. “And so, to a person, they ask him about that and the process.”

And that’s become the big problem with reporters in Washington: They’re focused on the “process.” Return to ObamaCare for a moment. When the bill was being debated in 2009, any reporter could have read it and reported what it said.

The president was making specific claims: That Americans could keep their insurance if they liked it, that the bill would save families $2,500. These claims should have been checkable. Compare them with what’s in the bill and find out.

But that sort of journalism is time-consuming. It was far easier in 2009 to commission a poll. After all, all the major news organizations have polling directors; might as well give them something to do. Then report the poll results. Presto. There’s your story.

Such poll results would be meaningless, of course, because the people being asked “Do you approve or disapprove of ObamaCare” have no idea what it is they’re approving or disapproving of. It’s a popularity contest, at a time when President Obama was somewhat popular.

There are more sources of information than ever. So Reuters columnist Jack Schafer blames Americans for not taking it all in. “Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection,” he writes while reviewing the book Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin.

But that’s the classic sign of a failing operation: If customers aren’t buying what you’re selling, blame the customers.

Maybe people aren’t paying attention because they’ve realized that the majority of information being delivered through the major outlets is biased. Those who care enough about a particular issue seek out another viewpoint, while everyone else focuses on living their daily lives.

Americans aren’t dumb. They just recognize they aren’t being served by the current fourth estate. When it improves, they’ll start paying attention again.

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