White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House

White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on January 13

Literal panic among the White House press corps, as the incoming “administration” drops Trump-sized hints that they’re thinking about kicking the lot of them out of the House come inauguration day. “Winter is coming”, tweeted one distraught journo, in a neat Game of Thrones pop culture reference to the obvious inevitability that media pool crucifixions are but a tweet or two away.

In more moderate New York Times terms, “The White House press corps was stunned on Sunday by reports of … a move that, if carried out would uproot decades of established protocol whereby journalists are allowed to work in the White House close to senior officials.”

They still don’t get it. Still, ancien regimes never do.

The best place to begin when reviewing the deconstruction of an obsolescent establishment is with the status quo: that which has existed seemingly forever and defines the way things are. In today’s democratic polities, which support a more or less genuinely free press (largely, the Western democracies), the media has established its position as the fourth estate.

In coining the term to describe the press, philosopher Edmund Burke considered the first three estates to be the parts of the English Parliament: the religious peers, lay peers and Commons. A more modern categorisation are the legislative, executive and judicial arms of government.

The notion of the media as, in effect, an extra limb of the state but one armed with even more independence — and therefore fearlessness — than the courts, has been a distinctly double-edged sword. There’s an attractiveness to the idea of the media as a powerful institution in its own right, able to stand up to government and politicians so that it can hold them properly accountable. Speaking truth to power and all that.

In pursuit of the truth, the key (it may be thought) is access. The media’s ability to get behind the spin doctoring of politics, and the instinct of governments to lie, relies on journalists cultivating sources, knowing who’s who (and who’s sleeping with whom) and being able to physically get into the rooms where shit is going down.

[Donald Trump might have saved The New York Times]

This is ultimately about relationships. Deep Throat, the key source for Woodward and Bernstein’s exposure of the Watergate scandal was, it turned out, an associate director at the FBI who Woodward had been cultivating for years. More importantly, we only find out which journalists in the Canberra press gallery are being backgrounded by which faceless party operatives because other faceless party operatives leak their identities to other journalists so they can breathlessly report something about which nobody outside of Parliament House gives a crap.

The point is that in America, and Australia, the media would hardly be more incestuously intra-connected with the corridors of political power today if they sat in cabinet meetings (which, thanks to smart phones, they now pretty much do). Their access, physical and digital, is at an all-time high.

Assuming more access means more transparency, we should expect that the media’s success in holding governments accountable to the people is greater than it’s ever been. And, because of that success, that the regard and trust in which the free media is held by the people are unprecedentedly strong.

We know the answer to that proposition. The media is considered, by most of the people most of the time, to be an unfunny joke. Handy as a source of memes and gotchas, useful for a sound bite-based Facebook feed of today’s topics for popular judgement, but nothing to be taken seriously or, ahem, trusted.

It might have helped if the media had not comprehensively failed to see any of history’s recent freight trains coming: Brexit, Hanson, Trump — each dismissed reflexively by a media establishment that wasn’t looking outside the four walls of the paradigm in which it has spent hundreds of years comfortably building its nest.

Lately, the media has taken to obsessively analysing its own failure to work out how to handle Trump. After spending six months denying their constitutional right to a press conference and instead inciting his crowds to taunt them with the new rally cry of “Fake news!”, Trump finally gave them said conference and proceeded to do what anyone who’s been concentrating might have expected him to do. He played them off against each other.

Much more introspection followed: should everyone have walked out when he bullied the CNN guy? But the dominant theme was outrage. How dare this President-elect person trample all over the carefully preserved conventions of how you’re supposed to talk to the press?

China is going a bit purple in the face at the moment, because Trump keeps hinting what everyone’s always agreed cannot be said: that there is more than one China. The US media is no different in this respect. The very idea that it should not have residency rights in the White House is, well, blasphemy. Or treason. Or something. As Trump would say: sad!

[Razer: welcome to Planet Disneyland, where even the ‘real’ news is fake]

The reality is harsh. The fourth estate, desperately needed more than ever to be free, fair and dauntless, finds itself in the embarrassing position of being conflated in the uninterested public mind with the other untrusted, disregarded pillars of the establishment to which that public has been giving over the past year a series of very clear fuck-yous.

The problem is not new. Oscar Wilde wrote this in 1891:

“Somebody — was it Burke? – called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism … People are amused by it, or disgusted by it, according to their temperaments. But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated.”

The urgency is now extreme. The White House, epicentre of Western democracy, will, in a few days, be occupied by a child who relishes the perilous mayhem he is going to cause. His party has made it clear that it will cravenly fold, and it controls Congress. He is compiling a crony cabinet and he will seek to stack the judiciary. The media will be our last defence. It will have no chance if it continues to operate from inside the compound.

Rather than spitting chips at the prospect of being excluded from the corridors of power, the media needs to realise that it shouldn’t be there at all.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey