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Political Animal

The Third Estate

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/27/2007

The term "the Fourth Estate" often is used to describe the media. Language guru William Safire says the original coiner of the term, in the 1800s, was an English essayist and rabble-rouser named William Hazlett. The other "estates" were the king, the clergy, and the commoners, "all powers whose agreement was necessary for legislation," Safire wrote.

Right now, with an imperial executive branch writing legal opinions that come off more like orders from a king; a mainstream media so compliant with power that one of the most powerful broadcast journalists in town, Tim Russert of NBC, treats all private calls from administration officials as "off the record;" and a "clergy" that acts in concert with the president in a belief that he was appointed by God, it's a good thing that the Third Estate has an opportunity to have a voice at all.

If the power of the press belongs solely to those who own one, then surely the internet offers anyone with a computer and an online connection the opportunity to be a "publisher of one" (to bastardize the Army marketing slogan). It's a good thing, too, given that under modern theories of marketing, less news constitutes better papers, and TV news asks more questions than it answers-and don't forget relentless shilling of entertainment content and fear marketing during sweeps.

Even worse than the desert that is TV news, talk radio is the fever swamp of bad ideas and misinformation, the enforcer of right-wing orthodoxy. A recent Center for American Progress report noted, "Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and only 9 percent is progressive." This is what comes about with the consolidation of media properties, supposedly authorized in the name of "competition." When the president has 25 percent approval ratings and yet 91 percent of talk radio spouts conservative opinion, you can't tell me that's what the market wants.

If there is a corrective mechanism for political thought, I'd have to say it is the blogosphere. Here, too, you'll find plenty of parroting of right-wing talking points and the same sort of invective popularized by noted intellectuals Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Yet this past week the mainstream media is just catching up to something that a liberal blog with original reporting found out back in February. TPMmuckraker noticed in "the Plum Book," a government-published directory of all political-appointee jobs in Washington, that Dick Cheney has stated, in lieu of listing his political appointees, that he's not part of the executive branch, and the rest of us can go jump:

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

This is another example of citizen journalism catching up to, and occasionally overtaking, the mainstream media, which has shown excessive deference in a town that already was uncomfortably nepotistic in its tendency to coddle those in power.

Bloggers of the liberal persuasion have kept up a steady drumbeat for accountability by the executive branch, created a minute-by-minute record of the "Scooter" Libby trial, and nearly upset Sen. Joseph Lieberman in his re-election attempt last year by helping to fund and sponsor challenger Ned Lamont. In the blogosphere, liberals, shut out of the mainstream process by 10 years of the right wing "working the refs," can point out in clear and decisive language when and how often the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Last week, at the progressive Take Back America conference in Washington, a small blond woman ascended a stage to accept the Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award on behalf of the progressive blogosphere. Until that moment, the woman only known by the nom de plume "Digby" was anonymous except for the powerful and passionate language that came out of her blog, Hullabaloo.

In her acceptance speech, she pointed out how the world has changed. "We talked back to the media, and yes, to our own party," she said. "Some of whom understood that while we were opinionated thorns in their side, we were also opinion makers read by influentials in the everyday world of water coolers and dinner tables. . . . And so, here we are, the famously vituperative, angry bloggers, standing before you today politely accepting this award as proud, full-fledged inheritors of the great American liberal and progressive political traditions." 

The David Broders and the Richard Cohens of the mass media are dinosaurs, and they are starting to realize it. The Third Estate is asleep no more. The commoners have arrived.

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