The Fifth Estate

December 12, 2007

A growing problem in America is the polarization of the press - as is
especially evident in the current election campaign.

The press has long held a cherished role in our democracy: ideally,
journalists are the ultimate truth tellers who hold politicians accountable.
The press, in conjunction with the separate branches of the government and
the judiciary, acts as yet another vital check and balance on political

Journalists have an invaluable calling: to stand above the political fray in
order to protect the interests of the people; to serve as the bold and
courageous whistleblowers of corruption and deceit.

There is an increasing tendency, however, among news people to forsake this
noble role as the "Fourth Estate," or the guardians of public virtue.
Instead they become wings of a specific party or political campaign. Thus,
the press is becoming less of a watchdog for politics and more of a direct
political partisan.

Hence, if news organizations become political actors, we need a "Fifth
Estate" - that is, another group of writers and thinkers who police the
press. Internet news has gained tremendous power and influence in recent
years precisely because Americans distrust many television and print press

With lightning speed, the incessant bloggers on the Internet call attention
to distortions in the mainstream press. Furthermore, there is a body of
original information available on the Internet that does not appear
elsewhere. In short, the New Media is becoming the "Fifth Estate."

A recent example is the CNN Republican debate held in Nevada. Retired army
Brigadier General Keith Kerr, who asked the candidates a question about gays
in the military, was exposed by as an individual with links to
Senator Clinton's campaign. It then was revealed on the Internet that many
of the other questions asked to Republican candidates came from liberal or
Democratic voters. Was the CNN debate therefore deliberately crafted to
embarrass Republican candidates rather than to present an honest and
straightforward forum for their views? How closely was CNN working with the
Clinton campaign?

The same questions can be raised about CNN's lopsided report regarding
Barack Obama's Muslim background. In January 2007, Insight on the News, an
online conservative news site of which I am the editor, reported that Mrs.
Clinton's camp had private investigators conduct "opposition research" into
Mr. Obama's alleged Muslim background during his childhood years in
Indonesia, where he attended - in Mr. Obama's words - a "predominantly
Muslim school."

We reported that Mrs. Clintons's camp would use the Muslim angle during the
campaign, in an attempt to discredit Mr. Obama. CNN quickly sent a reporter
to Indonesia and declared that Mr. Obama was raised in a "secular" school.
Moreover, CNN announced they had "debunked" Insight's story.

But what had the network actually done? They did not examine whether Mrs.
Clinton used private investigators nor whether she conducted opposition
research. CNN spun the tale according to an agenda - it did not conduct an
inquiry based on all the information presented in the Insight report.

The same pattern was repeated by a New York Times reporter, David
Kirkpatrick, who wrote an article about Insight that was full of egregious
factual errors and distortions, such as to ponder whether Insight actually
exists. Mr. Kirkpatrick expended much energy in attacking a fellow news
outlet but did not bother to examine the role of Mrs. Clinton's campaign in
conducting "opposition research."

Last week, at a key juncture when Mr. Obama's fortunes were beginning to
rise and was a threat to Senator Clinton for the Democratic Party's
nomination, the Washington Post featured a front page news story on the
"rumors" regarding Mr. Obama's Muslim background - that he is secretly a
Muslim and that he was educated in Indonesia in a madrassa.

According to, the Post's article was so alarming, even several
of the newspaper's editors dissented. They were concerned that the article
might be circulating the Obama rumors without verifying the truth.

The Post was attacked for presenting information that could harm Mr. Obama
without a real cause. The assistant managing editor, Bill Hamilton, later
apologized for the story being "misunderstood" and for his editing.

But why, after all, had the article suddenly been published? Why did the
Washington Post not conduct an investigation into the original source of the
rumors? Did Mrs. Clinton's camp plant the story? Why has the Post not yet
examined Mrs. Clinton's use of private investigators to derail Mr. Obama?

Such incomplete reports continue to fuel the public's distrust of the
mainstream press. In reaction to perceived liberal bias in the press, there
has been an explosion of equally blatant conservative news organs that also
take an often strong partisan slant: one polarization begets another.

Voters are increasingly turning to the New Media for relief. But there is no
relief in sight. To compound the tug of war among candidates, the electorate
must now decipher the war among news organizations. And the Internet too has
become a source and battleground of press warfare.

So, who indeed watches the watchmen? And, in the long run, how can we
prevent our revered American democracy from sliding into demagoguery and

If we want to safeguard our republic from decay, we must return to its first
principles: the press must report the truth, the whole truth, and nothing
but the truth. And journalists must fiercely protect their independence and
objectivity regardless of the fickle fortunes of specific parties or

Mr. Kuhner is the editor of Insight on the News.


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