Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You Tube is the Fifth Estate

There have been a number of clever spins on the term but this one will stick. It will stick because each of the "estates" derives from a common purpose. Let's review...

Historically, the first three estates were the state, the clergy and the common people. Each of these had different and often conflicting interests, so that taxonomy was easy to grasp. In modern times the distinction between the original three has dimmed with the advent of global economics, fragmented and conflicted ideas of faith and religion, a large and growing number of institutions both public and private and the notion of a First, Second and Third World. But the idea of a "Fourth Estate" endures.

The "Fourth Estate" is what we call the press, printed and broadcast media, whose mission is to keep tabs on the other three. The press presumably has no hidden agenda other than truth-seeking, uncovering manipulative or subversive activities on the part of the other three groups that might stink in the court of public opinion. The press has for years been the guardian of freedom, the bright light of truth shining in the dark corners of big institutions to reveal whether their inner workings correspond with their public images.

In our lifetime we have seen the fourth estate evolve into just another institution which merits watching and criticizing. Gone are the days when old-fashioned muckraking and hell-raising were the order of the day. Now, thanks to the emergence of a few global giants in what can correctly be called the news industry, what passes for "news" has become a commodity, very much like crude oil, soy beans or orange juice. Unlike other commodities sold by the pound, ton or barrel, news is a wasting asset for which time is not only "of the essence" it is the only essence. Nothing is as worthless as "yesterday's news."

Because it takes money, and lots of it, to send reporters and crews around the world to harvest, package and market ever-more sophisticated stories, the organizations that manage the news have become just another corporate echo of the industrial giants they once kept an eye on. In the same way that agri-business is eating up family-owned small farms, and state capitalism in China is eating up a global marketplace put together by private capitalism's efforts over the last fifty or one hundred years, the news industry is producing a slick, quick, heat-and-eat, homogenized product that resembles the truth about as much as Velveeta Cheese resembles English farmhouse cheddar.

That is why I say that You Tube and its cousins are becoming a real Fifth Estate, a flock of little watchbirds watching the big watchbirds if you will. I won't follow the metaphor any further. Readers are smart enough to work out the rest for themselves. Instead I offer two examples of what I mean.

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