In this era of the pandemic, it’s even more important than otherwise that the general public has unbiased information at its disposal.
Unhappily, most of the major media is located on the left side of the political spectrum. There’s nothing that can be done about The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and that ilk. They are all private concerns, and, hence, at least quasi-legitimate. However, at least the lack of balance can be addressed, if only in a small marginal way.
Journalists have long and properly been called members of the fourth estate. What are the other three? That’s easy: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. All four are necessary and important, at least according to the democratic theory that undergirds the political economy of most civilized nations on the planet.
But there’s a crucial difference between the first three estates and the fourth. All members of the former are elected either directly or indirectly through the ballot box. No one casts any political vote for journalists. Any writer can stand up on his two hind legs and declare himself a member of this crucially important group.
In days gone by, all that was needed was some paper and ink, and perhaps, in the more modern era, a mimeograph machine (remember those?). Nowadays, the prerequisites are electricity, an internet connection, and perhaps a computer.
The function of the legislature is to pass laws; the executive is to carry them out. The judiciary settles any disputes that may arise between the other two, and interprets the laws and the constitution. What is the function of the fourth estate?
It’s to keep an eye—an eagle eye if you will—on the other three. Yes, this estate is not part of government, but it’s no less indispensable in keeping that institution under strict surveillance.
This leads us to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), which are strongly associated with the government. Their budgets are to a great degree predicated upon tax revenues, so they can’t at all function as an investigative tool for the latter. No dog bites the hand that feeds it, at least not for long.
How, then, can we expect PBS and NPR to “bite” their master? OK, maybe there will be a few slight nips at its ankles from time to time in order to establish “independence,” but there will not be any heavy chomping, at least not to a degree deemed dangerous by the powers that be.
There’s an aphorism in law: You can’t be a judge in your own case. To be sure, this “public” media isn’t a judge in its own case, but is indeed a judge in the case of the entity to which it is beholden. As such, it can’t be expected to fully function in its role as watchdog over the first three estates.
If PBS and NPR don’t bite deeply into government failures and mismanagements—and there are certainly such from time to time—they don’t deserve to be a member of the fourth estate. They aren’t independent media institutions, but akin to an arm of government. What is needed is an arm’s length distance between the fourth and the first three estates.
Let me try again. The media is like a referee in a hockey game. If he picks up a stick and tries to shoot the puck into the net, the “game” is ruined. If the fourth estate is beholden to the state, it can’t function in its proper role.
Then, there’s the minor point of economics. As in the case of the post office and other parts and parcels of government, these organizations need never go broke if they don’t satisfy their paying customers or advertisers. In sharp contrast, this isn’t at all the case for the periodical that brings you this op-ed. It is entirely vulnerable to market forces.
PBS and NPR should be cut off from the public trough, and thereby be better enabled to serve customers. This should also be done if we value our democratic institutions.
Here are some words of wisdom from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” that are pertinent:
“If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became a departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.”
Walter E. Block is the chair in economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.