What is the Fourth Estate and Fifth Column?
I've been talking to my Dad about how he got started in the journalism business and he keeps talking about being part of the 'fifth column" as a rebellious reporter and how important the "fourth estate" is in a free and democratic society. What the heck is he talking about?
Let me get this straight, you're talking to your Dad but you don't feel like you can ask him what the words he's saying actually mean? That's just a little bit kinda sorta weird, y'know?
Fortunately you have me to answer all of your questions without embarrassing you or otherwise causing trouble (other than this rather dry beginning to a blog entry here, but at least I don't mention your name, so only you'll know who I'm talking to right now!)
Okay, let's be serious. Just for a minute.
The fourth estate refers to journalists and the business of journalism. Here's the classic explanation:
"In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles a full meeting of the 'Estates General'. The First Estate consisted of three hundred clergy. The Second Estate, three hundred nobles. The Third Estate, six hundred commoners. Some years later, after the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, looking up at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, said, 'Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.'" [ref]This tells us that the first estate was religious officials, second was royalty, third was common folk. No fifth estate, though.
Instead, the fifth column refers to revolutionaries, rabble-rousers that work secretly or in a clandestine fashion within an organization or country.
Again, here's the standard explanation:
The term originated with a 1936 radio address by Emilio Mola, an insurgent general during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. As his army approached Madrid, he broadcast a message that the four columns of his forces outside the city would be supported by a "fifth column" of his supporters inside the city, intent on undermining the Republican government from within. [ref]Hopefully those two explanations help you have a better handle on what your Dad's talking about.
For what it's worth, I agree with him that a healthy news media, with its strong but well-thought-out editorials and investigative reporting is indeed critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy and I find it alarming to watch so many newspapers fold and so many casual untrained writers put themselves forward as journalists when in fact they have no formal training or desire to fact-check, find multiple sources for anything mentioned, and so on. It is one of the greatest threats to the government of the United States of America in a long time, and too few people are conscious of the danger.
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