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The death of journalistic responsibility

Melvin B. Miller

Decades ago, Americans often referred to the press as the Fourth Estate. That was an honorific to acknowledge the critical role of the press in monitoring the nation’s democratic system of government, but that term is not heard so frequently these days as the press has joined with other media to become primarily a source of entertainment.

Earlier standards of journalism required that the truth of a statement be verified before it is published. Now the standard has eroded to become no more than that the statement is from a reliable source. The recent assertion by Donald Trump that Hillary Clinton is the “enabler” of her husband’s former infidelity demonstrates the inadequacy of the current standard.

First of all, there has been no satisfactory account of what constitutes “enabling” in such a situation. Secondly, there is no explication of the relevance of such implied deviancy to one’s qualifications to be president. Without greater clarification, the press might just as well have asserted that Hillary refuses to eat her vegetables.

There is a reason for such deterioration in journalistic standards. The 24-hour news cycle that has been created by the electronic media has limited the opportunity to research matters before going on the air or to press. This permits someone with limited concern for the esteemed role of the press in a democracy to breach reasonable standards.

Nonetheless, the press institutions are still primarily responsible for this deviancy. Trump is known by all to be an experienced TV personality, skilled in attracting an audience. The larger the audience, the more that television programs can charge for advertising. So there is a strong financial incentive to depart from prior journalistic standards. The press has voluntarily surrendered its status as the Fourth Estate in exchange for more robust profits.