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May the Fourth be with you

Of late, we’ve noticed a number of folks referring to members of the press as ‘the Fifth Estate.’ Being picky by nature, we point out that the correct term is ‘Fourth Estate’ (since the term‘ink-stained wretches’ pretty much doesn’t apply in this digital age.) The Fifth Estate, we point out, is a CBC television program, or more recently a rather mediocre movie about WikiLeaks; the term to refer to bloggers and online journalists operating out of the mainstream.

Referring to the press as the Fourth Estate dates back to 1787, coined by Edmund Burke – that guy with all the great lines. In 1837, Thomas Carlyle referred to “A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, irrepressible, incalculable.”

What a wonderful thought. What a wonderful tradition. What, we wonder, has happened?

For the fourth estate is shrinking, decreasing, and appears to be slowly disappearing as daily newspapers, and many weekly community newspapers, cease publication. The tradition of a press that records and disseminates the news of the day more or less accurately, and offers opinion on the foibles of society and government, is becoming endangered.

Recently we watched a thread of discussion develop on Facebook – a favoured tool of faceless Fifth Estate bloggers – which took issue with the editorial pages of the Coast’s newspapers becoming increasingly ‘political.’ This implies that at some point, they weren’t. And now, by returning to their traditional roots, the Coast’s Fourth Estate somehow betrayed a community trust, instead of resuming one.

A newspaper’s opinion pages, properly, should act as a sounding board for the community, questioning behaviour, policy, procedure, and just about anything else questionable. That is its traditional function. But recently we see a celebrity-journalism quality creeping in, with columnists examining their navels and holding forth on their personal travails. It’s so Oprah. And it sidesteps the hard work a newspaper should be doing in favour of soft journalism. Easy to read, easy to forget, no thinking required.

About a year ago, The Local Weekly began wading into the political waters, much to the surprise of some of our readers, who accused us of using our columns as a ‘bully pulpit.’ Now, this term is not as it sounds; coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, he referred to the White House and its relationship with the media as “such a bully pulpit” from which to sermonize about social reforms. In that context, ‘bully’ meant ‘superb’ or ‘wonderful.’ And you know, even as the Fourth Estate becomes more and more endangered, the editorial columns still have the potential to be such a bully pulpit.

We should hold on to this tradition, and this pulpit, with both hands.

Heather Jeal

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