The Fourth and Fifth Estates

The United Estates of America
The United Estates of America

A couple weeks back, a Sonoma Index-Tribune reader opined about the press in a letter to the editor in which he errantly referred to us as the “third estate.” We in the press are actually the fourth estate, so named because the first three were already the clergy, the nobility and the commoners – in that order.

I don’t believe the reader meant to call us commoners, though commoners we be – last I checked I wasn’t Lord Howell, to my eternal chagrin. The error did get me thinking about the various estates of the realm, the first three of which Wikipedia informs me were first formalized in France during the Middle Ages. Years after the French Revolution, the Fourth Estate was apparently first acknowledged by Brit statesman Edmund Burke, who, upon gendering at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, averred, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.” So there.

Of course, I had mistakenly assumed that the Fourth Estate was an American contrivance, an officially unofficial counterpart to the checks and balances of our executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. But alas, that would make journalists the “Fourth Branch,” which sounds more like a quartet of arborists than ink-stained seekers of truth.

In his review of media critic Stephen Cooper’s “Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers and the Fifth Estate,” academic Mark Prendergast recounts Cooper’s observation “that blogs and bloggers constitute ‘a legitimate social institution,’ a spontaneously arising, self-organizing, self-regulating Fifth Estate – in effect a watchdog for our traditional watchdog, the press, or Fourth Estate.”

Cooper forgot to mention “self-aggrandizing,” a characteristic endemic among many bloggers (guilty), which is generally the result of an overactive survival instinct.
Like most writers trying to keep a crumbling foothold atop an ever-changing media landscape, I’ve had to hybridize my career to include an online element, then endeavor to be interesting to the trickle of traffic that clicks my way.

When I can neural map the contents of my mind and upload it to my Web site I will (though I fear that the system would constantly crash due to deficiencies in my personality).

Now, if journalists are the Fourth Estate and bloggers are the Fifth Estate, to what estate do we media cyborgs belong? Do we average the latter two estates and belong to the Fourth-and-Half Estate?

Is there a burgeoning Sixth Estate that serves as a catch-all? Who’s watching the watchdogs that are watching the watchdogs? For that matter who’s watching the Watchmen?

And who trusts a dude who has an inkblot for a face when he says “An attack on one is an attack on all of us…”? Okay, I do, but then superheroes and journalists tend to pal around (think: Clark Kent and Superman, Peter Parker and Spiderman, David Bolling and The Editor).

Confusing matters (more than the above “Watchman” qua superhero digression), or at least me, is the notion of the Fifth Column or “a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group, such as a nation, to which it is regarded as being loyal” (thus spake Wikipedia).

The column that you are presently reading is, in fact, my fifth column for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Clearly, there is no agenda here beyond making my deadline and a few points about the state of my trade whilst safely contained in the opinion pages (they don’t trust me with facts). Compound all of this with the fact that I penned this little missive over pizza and pinot at Sonoma’s restaurant, Estate, and one can see how the trade can hasten one’s demise. Perhaps I should look into some estate planning.