I have been reading Breaking The News and consequently thinking about the role of the media in disseminating information and the effects of that process in the political arena. I don’t know that my thoughts are fully formed here, but I had to get something down.
The media has been called the Fourth Branch of Government because of how important an informed electorate is in a system of popular government. There is certainlya lot of truth to that idea. I looked for some other perspectives on this issue and found a 2006 article that was very much opposed to the differences between members of the media and elected members of the official branches of government. I also found a 2007 article suggesting that cash is the fourth branch of government and a 2008 article that claims that the military is the fourth branch. These claims got me thinking about what it meant to have a fourth branch, and why we are so fascinated with identifying it.
Personally I would argue that cash has no will of its own and thus cannot act as a governing force. (It is simply a resource to be used in influencing people.) On the other hand, the idea of the military as a fourth branch of government is plausible. The more I have thought about it, the more I believe that there is always a hidden branch of government (meaning a tool that influences the government and the culture of a nation without being an official governing force). That tool is either religion (cultural morality), media (information), or military (force). In fact, it may be that religion may be a replacement for government (tied to the hidden branches of media or military) when it is a governing force, but not a hidden branch.
There are definitely countries where the military is that fourth branch and I am convinced that military and media both play a role in virtually every society – the fourth branch in any country being whichever of the two holds the most dominant controling position. Thankfully the media is the more dominant cultural tool in our nation (presently). So while I believe that our fourth branch has been compromised, just as each of the other three branches have also been compromised, we are still free from the tyrany that coincides with the military as the fourth branch.
I believe that the problems in our media have the same roots as the problems in our government – we the people have distanced ourselves from the source of our information and become less critical and demanding.
I’d love to hear other thoughts on this issue, but for the time being I’ll go back to ruminating.