Thursday, February 01, 2007

How Does A Fifth Estate Stand Up, Exactly?

Nielsen Buzzmetrics exec Pete Blackshaw says bloggers are the Fifth Estate of journalism. Spontaneous, unedited "first takes" on new products by bloggers are substantially impacting business, and because of that, he says, they've earned their own estate.

According to that bastion of truth Wikipedia, the Fourth Estate is defined as follows: "The term Fourth Estate refers to the press, both in its explicit capacity of advocacy and in its implicit ability to frame political issues."

But since the term's origins lie somewhere between Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero Worship and Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France - that is, as a balance to the other three estates (church, nobility and bourgeosie; in this day and age, executive, legislative and judicial) - maybe bloggers aren't really a fifth estate at all.

At the very least, wouldn't that throw off the balance?

Do we need two estates of opposition to keep the others in check? And doesn't that posit the fourth and fifth estates against each other?

To me, bloggers are more in line with the commoners protesting outside the parliament building - not quite privileged enough to be in the Reporter's Gallery. If they are good enough to obtain the right information, well, maybe they're actually part of the fourth estate, and bloggers are just using a different means of "standing up."

Again, this is assuming bloggers even qualify as journalism. Some of the most watchdog-like blogs have they themselves admitted that they're far from journalists.

So what really makes bloggers different from a semi-educated portion of the masses?

I'm one of the first people to stand up and support citizen journalism, if done right and done well. I also support the evolution of definitions. But there's little that indicates to me that bloggers today are uniformly in opposition to the other estates. Or, for that matter, anything other than opinionated advocates.

Some blogs hate journalists. Some blogs hate the government. Others support either, and occasionally are even extensions of the other estates.

There's no denying that bloggers have proven that they can have political power. Just ask George Allen. Or Joe Biden. But what qualifies as "the public press"? NYT exec Nicholas Ascheim says journalists are "expensive," and "that's why user-generated content is interesting."

So maybe bloggers are a pro bono part of the Fourth Estate. Does that make them better?

I'm almost certain that what drives a good blogger (again, impossible to be certain because you can't lump all 'bloggers' together) is the same as what drives a good reporter. The old adage goes, "if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." I'm not so sure bloggers are at the point where they'll investigate something that contradicts their own views.

(Don't get me wrong: newspapers have the same problem, but no sane, educated person depends on FOX or the New York Post for neutral news).

So maybe we need to evaluate what consitutes a Fourth Estate. Redefine. Must they be sitting in 'Parliament' to 'stand up'? Or can they do it, as I often say, in their basements in their underwear?

Is the Fourth Estate a neutral press? Or a powerful political advocacy group?

In that case, we should make Altria or Wal-Mart or every lobbyist in Washington a part of the Fourth Estate, too.

Either way, something tells me there isn't enough room in 'Parliament' for another estate.

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