Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The fourth estate now considers itself to be the first estate, and not without reason. In public affairs at least, the press has aspired to replace not only what used to be the first estate, the clergy, but also the nobility and the commons, the last presumably representing the people. In the American polity, there are not three estates but three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial. Today all three are under the whip of a fourth branch, the press. It is not surprising that young people entering journalism today are not embarrassed to say that they are motivated by a desire for power. The power of the journalists is by no means undisputed. But the “checks and balances” system is not what our civic texts claimed. Such checks and balances are not in the formal polity itself. Rather, the formal polity—legislative, executive, and judicial—is a modest check upon the ambitions of the media. Other checks are exercised by the “independent sector”—churches, voluntary associations, labor unions, foundations, and, to some extent, universities. The most effective check lies in the habits and informed prejudices of ordinary people who, much to the indignation of the media, frequently persist in thinking for themselves.

The power of the press is in its ability to destroy and distort. Its positive power to influence is inseparable from and largely derived from the threat—always implicit, sometimes overt—to destroy and distort. Commentators on the role of the media in our society swing wildly between depicting it as nearly omnipotent and nearly impotent. It is neither. One is struck, however, by the remarkable resistance of the American people to instruction by their betters in the journalistic guild. If the prestige press had had its way, five of the last six presidential elections would have gone the other way, the Equal Rights Amendment would be the law of the land. Roe v. Wade would have remained unchallenged, and the West would have made its peace with Soviet Communism as a permanent feature of world politics. So there is comfort in the evidence that the ambitions of the media to establish a mediacracy do not go unchecked.

Reflection on the imperial press in our public life is prompted by the case of Senator Brock Adams. Readers will recall that the Seattle Times brought Adams down by publishing charges by anonymous sources that he had molested a number of women and raped at least one. Adams flatly denied the charges but, in view of the damage done, withdrew from his race for reelection and at this point it is uncertain whether he will serve out his term. The man is destroyed, and not only politically.

We have never met Adams and have no idea what he did or did not do. We do know that he was destroyed by what was presented to the public as second-hand information allegedly gained from eight women, seven of whom reportedly signed an agreement that they would testify in public if Adams had the temerity to sue the Seattle Times for libel. Consider what happened. Editors, or perhaps an editor, decided that the paper had the “truth” and the public had, wouldn’t you know it, “the right to know.” On the word of the Seattle Times—without evidence, without witnesses, without a hearing—Brock Adams has been driven from public life, his reputation demolished, he and his life work made infamous. A person is presumed innocent until proved guilty, unless the would-be first estate declares him guilty.

Of course Adams can sue the paper. If that is the ordeal through which he is prepared to put his wife, his children, his friends, and himself. If that is how he wants to spend his next few years and probably all the money that he has and would be able to raise. The first estate is big business and the Seattle Times no doubt has all the lawyers it needs. In addition, the publicity surrounding such a suit would sell a lot of papers. If the editors are to be believed, they have several Anita Hills prepared to testify. If the charges were found to be unsubstantiated or false, the paper might be fined a portion of the profits that it made from the case.

In a possible subsequent criminal trial on the charges themselves, Adams might end up being acquitted, as Clarence Thomas ended up being nominated, but with what would Adams be left? The Seattle Times and others in the media guild would almost certainly declare him guilty and blame the miscarriage of justice on a “sexist” system that refuses to credit the testimony of the Anita Hills of the world. And of course the whole protracted thing would be a sensational story for the paper. Whether he won or lost his libel suit and criminal trial(s). Brock Adams is publicly ruined. Heads the would-be first estate wins, tails its victims lose.

In 1988 a woman accused Adams of sexual abuse but the District of Columbia prosecutors found upon investigation that there was no evidence to support the charge. The Seattle Times admits, indeed it boasts, that it dug hard to get dirt on Adams. Some of the incidents to which the eight women are allegedly prepared to testify, if it comes to a libel suit, go back ten and twenty years. It is explained that the women do not want to go public with their charges because it would be inconvenient to their careers, and making such charges publicly is so very “painful to the victims.” Since he is an alleged victimizer, it is not pertinent that Adams may be a victim. This is character assassination on the cheap. At least Anita Hill, albeit under duress, came forward with her charges, risking popular opprobrium and inviting feminist celebritydom, both of which she received.

The feminist organizations evidenced a touch of ambivalence in the Adams case. He has been such a political stalwart of their causes, and is a notably obedient proponent of “abortion rights.” But after the initial hesitation they came down on the side of demanding that he resign rather than finish his term. That, according to the news media, is also the sentiment of the people of Washington State. He should either sue the Times, with all the consequences alluded to above, or resign. We are told that the people subscribe to the maxim that where there’s smoke there’s fire. Another maxim seems at least equally relevant: Sling enough mud and some of it will stick.

To their credit, a few members of the journalistic imperium protested the Seattle Times’ raw use of the power of the press to impose such grave punishment without due process of the law. Even the New York Times had qualms enough to prompt some portentous editorial fretting. “The timing of publication, in an election year, naturally feeds suspicion of a plot by the newspaper or unidentified saboteurs to kill [Adams] off. The paper insists that’s not so.” Camaraderie within the first estate apparently requires that the one Times accept the word of the other Times. The Seattle paper said it is not so, so it is not so. The “more likely explanation” for why the Seattle paper did what it did, says the New York paper, is that “the withering spotlight” on women in sexual harassment cases makes them reluctant to give testimony. So, in the absence of testimony, evidence, hearings, and similar niceties, the Seattle Times really had no choice but to go ahead and destroy Brock Adams on its own. It was a veritable public duty, reluctantly exercised by those who bear the burden of rule, namely, the press.

The New York Times concludes its moral examination thus: “What is a newspaper to do with such damaging information as that on Brock Adams? Verify, verify, verify. Then publish what it believes to be the truth, however painful. The Seattle Times appears to have followed this high standard.” The reference to a “high standard” raises to new heights the definition of smarminess. To whose satisfaction is a paper to verify, verify, verify? To its own of course, the first estate being a law unto itself. In the Brock Adams case, the Seattle Times was prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. Not one piece of evidence is produced. There is only the claim of the Seattle editors that they have such evidence, and their threat to make it public if their victim is so foolish as to challenge them in court.

The behavior of the Seattle Times is morally contemptible. That, with few exceptions, it met with silence or approval from others in the would be first estate is cause for deep concern about the state of democratic governance. The news media, encouraged by the once-respected and still-influential New York Times, is turning “journalistic ethics” into a grotesque oxymoron. For all their moralistic pretensions to being the guardians of the public interest, the print and broadcast media today are very big business, and their business is entertainment. Few things are more entertaining to vulgar and vicious tastes than watching the mighty brought low, and the respected disgraced. The Seattle Times episode advances the moral corrosion of a press that increasingly panders to such tastes, bypassing elementary issues of truth, decency, and fairness, while congratulating itself upon doing its duty, “however painful.” It is self-serving and contemptible. It is the “high standard” of contemporary journalism.