The Death of the Fourth Estate


Rodolfo F. Acuna - Reader Supported News

The press, in theory, is supposed to safeguard democratic principles. During a parliamentary debate in 1787, Edmund Burke supposedly referred to the press corps reporting the activities of the House of Commons as the Fourth Estate. Hypothetically, the press was the champion of the public.

According to its supporters, the Fourth Estate acted as a mediator between the public and the elite. Journalists listened to and recorded the activities of those with power. An enthusiastic John Dewey believed that the public was capable of understanding and discussing policies and should be part of the public vetting process. Thus, the press would provide a forum where the people could weigh the consequences of policies being considered by those who governed.

Hence, the journalist’s foremost duty was to tell the truth. But, over the years there has been an erosion of the public trust in the Fourth Estate, as the media has been monopolized by those President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 called “economic royalists” that control the country.

President Roosevelt summed up this process of the monopolization of society saying, “New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital – all undreamed of by the Fathers – the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.”

The Arizona media is the worst example of an institution abandoning its mission to educate the public. On the current immigration crisis, the media’s coverage of SB 1070 has been spotty both inside and outside the state. Regarding HB 2281 that outlaws ethnic studies, the media has been mute, with the news either distorted or not reported.

I learned recently from two reporters that new editors around the state had directed their staffs not to cover opposition to the laws. For example, coverage of civil disobedience by students has gone unreported.

In order to shine a bright light on what is happening, I contacted several Chicano journalists. A respected journalism professor wrote of Arizona: “As you well document and others have also, in recent years Latinos have been unfairly targeted, scapegoated and vilified by much of the general audience media, not just the usual right wing targets. This isn’t the first time, as we both know from our long work in this area. But at a time when the ‘mainstream’ media are steadily losing audiences, they seem to think they can build a more credible news report by either ignoring or misrepresenting the largest and fastest growing segment of the population….”

The problem in Arizona, and indeed in most of the country, is nothing new – it is systemic. As the traffic of undocumented Mexicans and others increased through southern Arizona in the 1980s and 1990s due to federal policy changes, the issue of immigration was politicized. Border Patrol sweeps in El Paso and San Diego channeled the traffic of undocumented Mexicans through southern Arizona, forcing many to brave the hazardous desert of southern Arizona. In this atmosphere, many of the ranchers took the law into their own hands: hunting down Mexicans and entreating others to join them in the hunt.

Beside herself, Professor Guadalupe Castillo of Pima College asked a New York Times reporter in 1980 why the national media was so silent. He responded, “The border is a Third World country, and people just don’t give a damn.”

The silence of the press encouraged Patrick Hanigan, his brother Thomas, and their father George, in August of 1976 to round up three undocumented workers who crossed their ranch, which fronted the Mexican border west of Douglas, Arizona. The Hanigans tortured them, using hot pokers, cigarettes and knives, and fired a shotgun filled with bird shot at them. The ordeal lasted several hours before the Hanigans sent the three workers naked and bleeding back across the border.

An all-white jury acquitted Patrick and Thomas Hanigan in 1977 of fourteen counts of assault, kidnapping and other felonies. Their father died before the trial. A public outcry led by Chicano organizations forced the Jimmy Carter administration to try the Hanigans on civil rights violations in 1981. A federal jury found Patrick guilty. Thomas, because of his young age, was acquitted. At least fifteen killings and more than 150 incidents of alleged brutality occurred against Mexicans in Arizona alone during the 1970s.

In 1981, another all-white jury in Arizona state court found a former rancher, W.M. Burris Jr., 28, guilty of the unlawful imprisonment and aggravated assault of a Mexican farm worker. Burris suspected his employee of stealing, so he chained the worker around the neck. The jury, however, found him not guilty of the more serious charge of unlawful imprisonment and kidnapping.

The most obnoxious wanna-be ranger was Roger Barnett, who boasted that he made thousands of arrests of Mexican migrants on “his ranch.” Barnett and his followers sent out a racist flyer inviting white supremacist groups to come help them “hunt” Mexican “aliens.”

During these three decades a reasonable person would have expected the Arizona media to inform Arizonans about civil behavior. Instead, they had been intimidated by those who shouted the loudest. They had betrayed their public trust and not had the courage of their convictions.

Edward R. Murrow must be turning over in his grave. The media has abrogated any duty to objectively inform the public. For instance, Arizona just passed a law allowing almost any adult to carry a concealed or unconcealed weapon for any reason – with or without a permit. The media has refused to take a position.

However, I wonder what the position of the media would be if Mexicans, Latinos and African-Americans started showing up at rallies with guns strapped to their waists?

Occasionally the media gets it right. Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch advocated the securing of the border, but also called for providing a path to legal status for all undocumented immigrants. Neither is a liberal, but they recognized good economic policy. The news conference was mentioned by the press and then dropped; the electronic medic was even less probative.

Clearly the Fourth Estate is no longer a factor in American life. It does not want to offend the Burrises and Barnetts of Arizona. Hence, as Roosevelt foresaw, “… the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service,” with the media serving clients and investors.



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