When You’re in a Fourth Estate Situation

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When You’re in a Fourth Estate Situation

As things stand today, the Fourth Estate is a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some don’t. Some who have it are part of the institutional press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

“I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.”

"The Fourth Estate is really a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some don’t. Some who have it are part of the press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not."

Those are the poignant words of Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, a secure email service that he voluntarily shut down when faced with some sort of demand from the U.S. government to reveal user information. The precise nature of that demand he cannot talk about for fear of being thrown in jail, perhaps the best example we now have for how the surveillance state undoes the First Amendment. But we know that Lavabit was used by Edward Snowden to communicate with the outside world when he was stuck in the Moscow airport. So use your imagination!

If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore… is a perfect description of a “Fourth Estate situation.” That’s when we need a journalist to put hidden facts to light and bring public opinion into play, which then changes the equation for people in power operating behind the veil. If it doesn’t happen, an illegitimate state action will persist. “My hope is that, you know, the media can uncover what’s going on, without my assistance,” Levison said. He’s like a whistleblower who will go to jail if he actually uses his whistle. All he can do is give truncated interviews that stop short of describing the pressure he is under.

At least one thing is clear: Snowden’s determination “to embolden others to step forward,” which I wrote about in my last post, is starting to work. Ladar Levison is proof.

This week the New York Times magazine published an amazing account of the Fourth Estate situation that Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald found themselves in, once they were contacted by Edward Snowden. The author, Peter Maass, included this:

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

The idea of the press as the “fourth estate” is usually traced to English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881.) Here he is, writing at a time when journalists were newly arrived on the political stage:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. 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.

Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. It used to be that the only way to “speak to the whole nation” was through the major media channels that reached everyone. The Fourth Estate became the editors and reporters who worked in Big Media newsrooms. But as Peter Maass pointed out, Poitras and Greenwald don’t operate that way. They make alliances with the press establishment to get their stories out. If necessary, they will go it alone. Greenwald raises his own money from readers who support what he does, as he explained in a June 4th column in The Guardian:

Ever since I began political writing, I’ve relied on annual reader donations to enable me to do the journalism I want to do: first when I wrote at my own Blogspot page and then at Salon. Far and away, that has been the primary factor enabling me to remain independent – to be unconstrained in what I can say and do – because it means I’m ultimately accountable to my readers, who don’t have an agenda other than demanding that I write what I actually think, that the work I produce be unconstrained by institutional orthodoxies and without fear of negative reaction from anyone. It is also reader support that has directly funded much of the work I do, from being able to have research assistants and other needed resources to avoiding having to do the kind of inconsequential work that distracts from that which I think is most necessary and valuable.

For that reason, when I moved my blog from Salon to the Guardian, the Guardian and I agreed that I would continue to rely in part on reader support. Having this be part of the arrangement, rather than exclusively relying on the Guardian paying to publish the column, was vital to me. It’s the model I really believe in.

This was the last thing he wrote for the Guardian before the Snowden story took over his life, but he dropped a hint of what was coming. “I’ve spent all of this week extensively traveling and working continuously on what will be a huge story: something made possible by being at the Guardian but also by my ability to devote all of my time and efforts to projects like this one.”

The point I’m driving at is not that the institutionalized press is no longer needed, or no longer powerful. Greenwald clearly benefits from being a Guardian journalist. The Guardian has other reporters it can put on the story. It has editors to save writers from errors and misjudgments. It pays for plane tickets and lawyers. It has global reach. These are huge advantages.

But people who find themselves in a Fourth Estate situation — “If the public knew what power was doing, power would not be allowed to do it anymore” — have power themselves now. If they have the goods, if they have the will, if they have “a tongue which others will listen to,” they can speak to the nation. And some will! The Fourth Estate is really a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some don’t. Some who have it are part of the press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

A Fourth Estate situation has its own strange and radiating power. People caught up in one will take enormous risks. They will sacrifice their freedom. They will crash the company they spent years building. They will defy the state. They will do a lot to bring the hidden facts to light. Working together, sources, journalists and readers may soon publish a blockbuster story without the institutional press being involved at all.

Again, I’m not saying we don’t need The Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, El País, O Globo, the BBC, the CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. We definitely do. But they are not the Fourth Estate. If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore. Everyone who tries to act on that tense situation: they, together, are the Fourth Estate. (Senator Ron Wyden, for example.)

Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, where he has been on the faculty since 1986. He is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism's ordeals in the age of the web. He tweets @jayrosen_nyu

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