The Fourth Branch Of Government
By: Bob Parks
As citizens of the United States, we understand that our government is made up of three branches: the Executive (or the President), the Legislative (Congress and Senate), and the Judicial (the Supreme Court). However, there is one branch that is not accountable to the people like the others: the Media.
Sure, the Media isn’t a formal branch as understood and acknowledged by our Constitution. The members of this branch aren’t truly elected by the people. Of course, they can be removed due to a lack of popularity, but within this branch, the adored carries as much weight as the ignored or despised, and unlike elected officials, they can take legal action if they deem their removal improper.
Like the other branches, incompetence is tolerated, yet there are no consequences to faulty dissemination of information even though such dissemination is the one and only task the Media is mandated to do.
The President of the United States is elected to no more than two consecutive four-year terms. United States Senators are elected to six-year terms. United States Congresspersons are elected to two-year terms. The elected President appoints the Supreme Court judges for life. Members of the Media branch are hired and fired at the convenience of unelected conglomerate chieftains. These appointments are performed with little input from the citizenry-at-large.
The salaries of our elected officials in the mandated three branches are preset. The salaries of the Media branch are market-driven. Depending on the popularity of Media members, their pay can increase at the whim of their unelected bosses. Obviously, the degree of compensation dictates the importance of that Media member, regardless of the track record of that member. Instead of knowledge and experience being the determining factors in the degree of compensation and importance, issues such as their “likability”, physical appearance, and the ability to “relate” to the masses that receive the news they distribute dictate their importance and compensation.
When an elected politician performs an error in judgment, he or she must face the voters and justify to them why they should be returned to office or not, and will also have to compete against an individual (candidate) who lobbies the people to replace that official. When a member of the Media makes an error, there is no such obligation to face the electorate and/or issue a timely retraction or correction. While the other branches contain their own systems of checks and balances, the Media branch polices itself, which can be problematic at best, depending on the subject matter in question.
The wisdom of our Founding Fathers is in full display in the way we pick our representatives. The very core values embraced by the governed determine who will represent them. For the sake of this thesis, I will use two of the present value systems in American prominence: Democrat and Republican, or liberal and conservative.
Voters decide within these two ideologies who they will send to the two branches of government (statewide, and national). The Media branch, while at times appearing to side with one of the two ideologies, has no obligation (outside of common courtesy) to disclose the party affiliation of its members. The commonly held opinion is that the Media has no agenda or ideology. However, that public impression is a Media creation. If such were the case, one would think that disclosure of the individual Media member’s ideological preference would be a public service.
The Media branch attempts to keep this information close-to-the-vest and create the impression of objectivity. This “objectivity” concept can be argued on a case-by-case or story-by-story basis. Investigative tenacity or restraint is purely at the discretion of the Media member and/or his or her superior. Depending on the topic, the impression given by the media member may be a direct reflection of that member’s belief system, and without the proper disclosure (disguised as objectivity), that impression may be improperly issued without the checks and balances guaranteed by the Constitution and enforced on the other branches.
The Power To Disseminate
The vast majority of elected members of the two branches are only given access to mass media when they may be the subjects of the news, or request that access through the Media branch. The comments given by elected officials are mostly edited at the convenience of the Media to fit the particular formats of such Media presentations. As editing can alter impressions of those comments techniques used by the Media, it is assumed great care is taken with such selective use of what the Media calls
“sound bites” or “video clips”.
The First Amendment guarantees the Media Branch “freedom”. It is assumed therefore, that the other branches in their everyday duties cannot regulate them. That is a luxury not afforded to any other branch. Should the Supreme Court issue a ruling that the other branches and the people disagree with, the Legislative branch can alter or remove any of the building blocks of a law or regulation that made that court decision possible.
The Media has the power to present it’s product in any format it sees fit, and those that disseminate the media’s product have the freedom to interpret that news by using whatever information (or “bites”) it alone deems relevant. It is assumed that information will be issued in a “fair and balanced” method. However, should biased information be presented as fact, there is no direct means of challenge while that information is being put out there.
As the Media is a branch that has no formal rules of governance or ideological oversight, an interesting development has occurred. A new party has emerged within the last two decades that has taken it upon themselves to police the actions of the Media. Private citizens have become a bloc and frequently offer, through various means, alternative points of view to that of what they call the “Mainstream Media.” These private citizens survive or fail on the popularity and accuracy of their
presentations, unlike the Media today. Some of these citizens, known as “bloggers”, have been instrumental in challenging the Media branch on numerous topics, and information that may not have gotten out to the public, has.
As the popularity of these bloggers has grown, they have become a direct competition to the Media when it comes to the subject of accuracy. As checks and balances are a tool the Founding Fathers thought necessary to prevent unbridled power, bloggers and another entity called “talk radio” have inadvertently made the Media more responsible in their presentations to the public, as they now know that someone is always looking over their shoulder.
Because of the “freedom” guaranteed the Media branch within our Constitution, there are few of the ramifications on inaccuracy on the part of the Media that everyday citizens need be wary of.
A private citizen has the “freedom” to say whatever they want about another person. But if that information is incorrect or intentionally misleading, that citizen can be held accountable in a variety of ways, including punitive damages issued by a court, or even imprisonment.
The Media has no such impediment. If they, for example, make a claim about an individual or company, the Media is protected by the First Amendment and seldom are lawsuits successful unless malicious intent can be proved. Most of the time, a simple apology can quell legal obligations, regardless of the damage done by an erroneous report.
Again, because of a lack of ideological disclosure on the part of individual Media members, they can offer an incorrect assessment of an issue, and while a later investigation may result in a retraction or correction, the damage from the initial reporting may cause irreparable harm on the subject of that issue, and the retraction of correction may have little effect on the public at large. One would hope, for that reason, that the utmost in care be given to how stories are investigated and
In any of the other branches, all requests for investigations are voted on and approved or not by the elected body. The Media makes most of their determinations on the subjects of investigations in partial secrecy. Mostly unelected news directors and editors determine the degree and time limits of such investigations. Again, without knowing the ideologies of those who decide who will be investigating and to what degree, there is a danger that such investigations may smell of partisanship to
Also, the modern rules of information gathering used by law enforcement and the legal system do not apply to the Media. In a court of law, a defendant has the right to face his or her accuser. A Media member can level a public accusation against anyone, and do so corroborated by “anonymous” sources. We must take the Media at their word such a source even exists, but even if challenged, that Media member is under no obligation to reveal that source. Their reasoning is sound: if “anonymous”
sources are revealed, fewer people will make themselves available to the Media. Some in the Media branch defy judges in disclosing the identity of a source and are sent to prison for relatively short terms. But once that time is served, the source’s identity cannot be asked again of that Media member.
And while the subject of an investigation can have his or her own personal information displayed to the world depending on the medium used, because of First Amendment privileges, the investigator’s own information and motives are protected. This can result in a news gathering atmosphere that may be deemed highly unfair and weighted on the side of the Media branch. No person of any political power, race, gender, or socioeconomic class is immune from the power of the Media investigative arm,
except for Media members themselves.
The Media can also publicly pressure individuals to make statements without the issuance of a subpoena or legal representation. While the subject of such questioning can decline by using the phrase “no comment”, a skillful Media person can present that answer to the public in a way that may be positive or negative; again, all depending on the ideology and goals of the Media person and subject.
Trust is the very backbone of the Media branch’s ability to investigate at will. This power must not be abused.
Unlike elected or appointed branches of government, the Media branch can obtain and publish almost instantaneous samples of public opinion on any topic chosen by them. One would hope the wording used to obtain such sampling would be fair and not incite that public opinion to a desired result.
One would hopefully assume that the Media branch that is tasked with reporting news as it happens would not create the news it reports. That is slippery slope created by self-implemented public opinion “polls.” Again, trust is all that stands between a media that reports news, not news it creates.
Writers Note: While the distinction between the news and entertainment divisions of Media conglomerates may at times be considered blurred, those in entertainment interject their opinions into the public fray because of easy access to such mass Media. While their opinions may or not be valid on certain topics, the fact that they “play” informed parties does not make them so. It is suggested that entertainment figures legitimately enter the Legislative or Media branches so their opinions on topics will be considered relevant.
Since the other branches of government are put in place by the American people, for the most part, they are accountable to those who put them in office. The Media branch, by their very nature, should be accountable to no one but should be governed by common sense, ethics, and self-restraint. The outcry from an attempt to regulate the Media branch and impose the same checks and balances on them that exist in the other branches would be justified.
Let’s hope for the sake of the Republic, that the Media adheres to the time-honored traditions of fairness, good taste, and editorial excellence that’s given us the information awareness we have today.
Bob Parks is a member/writer for the National Advisory Council of Project 21, and is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc.