Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Fifth Estate

Writing for the New York Times, Helene Cooper complains of what she calls the "The Skip-the-Press Maneuver" in both the Internet pitches to the public of the new Obama administration and the prior use of YouTube, blogs, and other social media tools by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, the father of "Briefing 2.0" a staged media event in which the videos of pre-selected YouTube viewers asking softball questions are played while reporters silently observe the distributed online media show.

Cooper argues that Obama's advisors are planning a "host of YouTube and other efforts aimed at bypassing the media and communicating directly with voters." She claims that not only "John Q. Public may have as difficult a time getting answers out of government officials as representatives of the mainstream media do," but also this represents a potentially serious setback for fact-finding and public communication through a "bypass-the-press" strategy. I think Cooper gives McCormack too much credit as a propaganda mastermind, since remarkable few Internet users paid any efforts to the State Department's canned rhetoric on its blog Dipnote and its YouTube channel. (For context, when it comes to the numbers, my blog and YouTube channel generally receive more views.)

In Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History credits British politician Edmund Burke with coining the term "fourth estate" to describe the role of the press in government. Given Cooper's criticism of these social media outlets, it is interesting to see the full quotation in context and the absence of language that indicates that journalism would be seen as a profession with institutional privilege or initiated membership in a select knowledge community.

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a _Fourth Estate_ more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,--very momentous to us in these times. Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Writing brings Printing; brings universal everyday extempore Printing, as we see at present. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures. The requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Of course, I basically agree with Cooper that this is a troubling trend for the investment of resources for public communication, as I argue in my essay about state-sanctioned YouTube channels in the Video Vortex Reader. It is interesting that Cooper also observes that Obama's aides "intend to make full use of the millions of email address that they have collected over the course of the campaign." Obviously this process of stockpiling e-mail addresses continues, as I can attest, since I have received many mass e-mails since applying to work for the new administration at the site.

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