Upheaving the Fourth Estate

“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

— Oscar Wilde

In his contribution to The Nation’s special issue, The Obama Years, Christopher Hayes contrasts Obama “The Institutionalist,” or strong advocate of bolstering our faith in the authority of our public institutions,” with The Insurrectionists who “see the plummeting of trust in public institutions as a good thing if it can act as a spur for needed upheaval and change.”

The presidential election showed us no unambiguous victory for either side though those who have been served well by “the authority of public institutions” were astonished by the result. They were so astonished by the many who had nothing to lose by upheaving the resident order of things, and also by the sudden positioning of these many to an electoral dominance. It is rare in any severely economically lop-sided regime for the voices at the bottom to out shout the voices at the top.

Now the spurs will be put to a great deal, change and upheaval looming on the horizon, which of course is no longer a horizon in which many have faith in the authority of anything, especially anything bearing the word “public.” My focus here is on the authority of mainstream media, not cyberspace’s social media that covers the world after, according to Genesis, 11, God, in an act of punishing the presumptuous “confused the language of all the earth.” This confusion is not now called confusion and chaos but “democratization,” a total popularizing of language and meaning, representation and reality. What this upheaval will lead to may turn out best covered in Revelation/ Apocalypse.

A usable distinction here is to think of, say, our longstanding “newspaper of record,” The New York Times as representing what is going on without subjectivity attached. A pretentious and inherently impossible mission but yet commendable. Then think of social media, from any anonymous tweeting voice to videos and podcasts gone viral, as representing what is going on through the lens of personal subjectivity, a countless number of personal subjectivities, each liberated from the authority of everything but the authority of his or her own opinion. And in the game of change and upheaval, the old media has lost its position of outside authority and either must come into Babel as one voice among the millions or face extinction. Note that any position of outside authority in our post-truth clime is no more than a cultural authorizing. Now our changing is from a societal/public sense of cultural to an individual/personal sense of cultural, which is meaningless and absurd but the new normal.

What we know is that any authority external to our own perceptions has been spurred, upheaved and changed forever. Those living in that world cut loose from any assertion of authority, especially governmental, scientific, or Fourth Estate, found their unmoored leader in Donald Trump. The mainstream media has to either admit defeat and give the mission of the Fourth Estate to social media and its cyber discourse or try to represent as if we could report the world beyond our own individual subjectivities.

The voices of all those who voted for Donald Trump were and continue to remain difficult to represent by those in positions, via meritocratic success, paid to represent them. A great deal of voicing by those who felt cheated was to be found in social media by those unpaid and without agents as well as in the “Comments” section of every published article written by and expressing the reasoning of the meritocratically successful. The power of opinions expressed in 140 characters tweets did not lie in a discursive coherence but rather displayed a degeneracy of discourse, including lies and bullshit as equally authorized as any other tweet. Nevertheless, Trump found a following in a moshpit of voices, found a channel of transmission that worked and turned every argument against him into static.

The cultural fall of communication from voices of authority to just everybody’s voice was not created by Trump but he did and does make clever use of it. The authority of a traditional print media was weakened by a cultural assault on any authority beyond one’s own opinion. Trump’s ridiculing of such authority during the campaign plugged into a current that was already running hot. There is no reason to expect that he will cease mocking the Fourth Estate and turn from his twitter chats with the public, especially as the deterioration of interpretation and understanding we witness in social media enabled his victory and will continue to protect his inevitable incompetencies from incisive critique. This is a kind of reversal of Joseph Goebbels’ suppression of dissenting voices designed to protect the regime. A never ending tsunami of angry voices in cyberspace, the designated go-to place for news, seems to offer the same regime protection.

In the aftermath of the election, we can see that traditional media shared the comfortable womb of meritocratic success with the Democratic Party. Both seemed unable to see outside that space in which it was assumed that conditions had not solidified beyond an individual’s determination to succeed. For those successful by inheritance, merit or chance, the American Dream is always working. A great deal of the surprise of this election lies here, in this failure to recognize the inequitable conditions now shaping both a dream fulfilled and a dream denied. How is it possible to recognize and represent walls that you yourself have not run into or were able to jump over? Empathy requires, at the very least, some association, some affiliation with those who lie beyond your conceivable borders. Unfortunately, the nature of what success is now demands an un-affiliation with those who do not share our success.

What both the press and Liberals have offered in the place of empathy and affiliation, of a common good, is a blind extension of welcoming what is nonsense alongside what is rationally the case. This is a kind of appeasement that some Liberal moral sense requires but it has only transferred the clash and chaos of social media “discourse” to a critically discriminating discourse grounded on more than the criterion of “Like.”

The Fourth Estate’s response to an awareness that “the system was rigged” by those who had representing power was to “de-rig” it by disingenuously democratizing its critique, which itself has no mission to establish equivalency. The Fourth Estate’s role of bringing into the public gaze the workings of power has been replaced with a need to give equal amplification to all voices, ignoring the always unequal vulnerability of arguments to reason. In a similar fashion, the Democratic Party has long stood down from the power that FDR proposed with an Economic Bill of Rights, preferring to cast its gaze on those at the margins as if it was not the conditions at the center that shaped the margins. And Trump’s victory tells us that the condition with those at the center who had not been propelled in our meritocracy upward was one of high anxiety and an urge for change.

We are all at fault in assuming our lens of seeing is shared by others but our expectation of the Fourth Estate is that the lens is never narrowly focused, although FOX News has narrowed the focus to great success. Narrowness of view and thought is the upstart of a severely wealth divided society. In a society in which ways of being in the world are drastically divided so that it is almost impossible to represent what spans that divide, a middle ground of mutual understanding disappears. Every new story is received in divided camps, or sometimes reported in one and not in another.

If Donald Trump is about to launch an  illiberal regime — something more easily recognized by any other country in the world  — efforts to defame and discount critical reportage are already aided by a ready to hand incredulity regarding authority. We are at the end of a time when everyone was on “the same page,” at the end of a time when “fake” news could be exposed as fake in a courthouse of Reason. It is that this Reason has also been diminished as “your” reason as opposed to “my” reason, that an analog, back in the day authority has lost its credentializing power.

I do not know how that part of the media that has not been “democratized,” by which I mean everyone reports what they see and feel, can begin to represent this “democratized” reportage of their truths. Investigative reporting gathering facts which lead to explanation or present evidence supporting interpretation, all of which clarify an understanding cannot bring into any of this what ignores or denies all of this. A failure to represent the irrational alongside the rational as if there were no long standing consensus on how to distinguish what is the case from what is not the case can only be judged a failure when a Court of Irrationality prevails. It seems that court is now in session.

A market determination would eventually solve the problem by simple bankruptcy of all tribunals of reportage that did not allow a free range of blathering tweets to go on uncontested. It is undecided whether long respected members of the Fourth Estate can maintain their authorized voice, authorized because it adheres to a Western tradition of reason and reality, among the “democratized” voices in cyberspace. The transmission of such a voice would not itself be magnetically attracting but rather magnetically repelling among those who have little patience for what challenges or refutes their own “takes.”

However, a counter-upheaval may be inherent in the present upheaval, rather like the way a Trump presidency of less than two year duration may re-start the engines of change and upheaval. Think of a version of this: “E-books slip, Print is Far From Dead.” The rush to Twitter and Facebook to get the news may subside when it becomes quite clear that listening to your friends and the Anonymous online is like listening to La Comédie Humaine at the local bar — you get tired of the endless harangue of mis- and uninformed bullshit as well as the lines of spite and vitriol coming from dark holes in human nature.

We may settle down to respecting authorities beyond Donald Trump and our own opinions and at that time seek reliable representation in a liberal democracy while recognizing the difficulties of all that in a society already plutocratized long before Trump. It is difficult to conceive that there will be neither a legacy to be honored and followed after a Trump presidency nor an equal legacy after we fully immerse ourselves in the cacophony and chaos of our own cyberspace voices.

As Trump pushes the institutions of a liberal democracy and the functions of the Federal government toward a corporate concern for profit, we may get a chance to see whether Trump’s followers will find reliable representations of the workings of plutocracy. Whether a critical Fourth Estate can survive long enough to present this view is a future matter.

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .