The Sixth Estate

February 25th, 2005

By way of a reader on Kevin Drum’s site, this interesting aspect to a bill before Congress, in reference to making Freedom of Information Act requests:

Section 552(a)(4)(A)(ii) of title 5, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘‘In making a determination of a representative of the news media under subclause (II), an agency may not deny that status solely on the basis of the absence of institutional associations of the requester, but shall consider the prior publication history of the requester. Prior publication history shall include books, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletters, television and radio broadcasts, and Internet publications.

Well, this blog is undeniably an Internet publication. I may soon be legally a member of the news media. Granted, of course, that so might be millions of others. But still, it is a recognition of a new age of communication.

Now, I don’t like people who throw around “age-of” designations like Bush hands out nicknames. But there is something important here to note.

Communication, in terms of reaching a large number of people with a message, has always been key to shaping public opinion, whether it be for politics, advertising, or any other matter. But communication has also always been expensive and involved, and thereby limited to a very few people. For the common man, public communication has always been limited to the reach of one’s personal voice. If one were lucky, one might reach a few hundred people. If extraordinary circumstances prevailed, one could draw thousands to listen to your message.

But to reaching a worldwide, nationwide, or even regional audience, there was a major roadblock. To do it by yourself, you could start a popular movement through the force of your cause, so much so that your message could not be kept down–but that is an extraordinary circumstance. Otherwise, you had to control a business which could produce newspapers, magazines or books, or could broadcast radio or television shows. Since this was far too expensive, you were limited to using other people’s communication tools, and that meant that you had to ask editors and publishers. To have your message appear in a newspaper (even as limited as a letter to the editor), a magazine, in book form or broadcast to people, you had to first beg for the chance to speak before a small class of people who controlled those information channels. For the purposes of this writing, let’s call them the “publishing class.” The publishing class has always held the power to silence you, whether it was because they didn’t like your message, or didn’t think it would profit them–or even just from simple indifference.

This was akin to having a small class of people who control the roads. If you want to travel anywhere, you would have to ask the roadkeepers for access to travel. For whatever reasons they pleased, they could deny you access to the roads. If your business did not bring them money, they could refuse to give you the ability to travel. If they did not approve of your business, they could lock you into your village. They could block your ability to move simply because they didn’t like the way you dressed, they way you walked–or even just for no reason at all. You would have the “freedom” to travel, but not the freedom to travel far without someone else’s permission.

We talk about the vital importance of free speech. What we don’t talk about is the freedom to speak far. And lines of communication to the world are just like roads to take you there physically. Speaking to a wide audience remained a privilege, mostly controlled by the publishing class. And that does not constitute equal speech, another aspect of communication justice which is often overlooked.

If you come to a public park, step up onto a soap box, and start speaking your mind without fear of being arrested, that’s what we call free speech. But if I have a lot more money, and come to the park as well to speak, I can set up a huge stage with enormous speakers, have a rock band open for me, and then blare out my message in such a loud voice that even those who are still interested in your soapbox speech can’t even hear you anymore. That’s an example of unequal speech, and it is about as much of an injustice as taking away your freedom to speak at all. After all, what good is free speech if your message is squelched to insignificance?

Such were the limitations of pre-Internet communications: speech to anything more than a small group of people was limited by the whim of those who had more money and power than you.

The Internet is not the answer to the problem, but it is a giant step forward. There are still limitations: others with money and the control of other popular communication channels can still make more noise than you can, but at least you have now been given a new, free channel all your own, kind of like a personal loudspeaker that can cut through the noise that the publishing class makes.

Of course, you still have to attract the audience–no one is immune from that. Freedom to speak is not a guarantee that you will be listened to. Your message has to be of sufficient interest to make others pay attention. But if your ability to communicate is good enough, if your message is significant enough, then attention can be attracted. Your publication will be linked to, discussed, and advertised by word of mouth through a community far larger than the local one in which you reside. Many have already done it–many bloggers have reached even a huge audience. These are people whose voices might never have been heard otherwise.

So the new law being proposed is not a landmark because of the access or legal status that it would provide bloggers, but rather because it demonstrates the recognition of this new channel of communication–a new “estate” in the sense of post-revolutionary French politics. The “fifth estate” has always been what is beyond the media, the “new” voice of influence. But there have been enough voices beyond the fourth estate of the media to fill that category, and the channel that the Internet provides is revolutionary enough that I would see it as justifying a completely new estate all on its own.

So I say directly to the world. Or at least you people who decide read this blog entry, anyway.

  1. Bruce the Koala
    February 26th, 2005 at 16:19 | #1

    Fascinating news, and long overdue recognition of the importance of the blog universe.

    But I do wonder if it has anything to do with legitimising this sort of dishonest bastardry:
    Christian right mum on Gannon Affair?

  2. Bruce the Koala
    February 26th, 2005 at 16:50 | #2

    Or this:

    There really is no such thing as bad publicity!

  3. February 26th, 2005 at 20:03 | #3

    hi,i love your blog.
    i’m from portugal.
    please go to my blog:

  4. March 7th, 2005 at 04:24 | #4

    Interesting … it just means the government is acknowledging what the internet-based journalists have known for awhile. I’ve been opining on the usenet for years and just recently switched to blogs.

    I personally believe that the 2004 election year in the U.S. will go down in history as the year of the 527s and the year of the bloggers, all of which countered what I believe was a lot of one-sided coverage from the “establishment” media — which is controlled by an unelected few.

    As they said in ’60s — “Power to the people!” man.

  5. March 7th, 2005 at 05:22 | #5

    Oh yeah, btw, broadcasting refers to itself as the 5th Estate to differentiate itself from the 4th Estate, i.e. print media like magazines, newspapers, newsletters. A lot of folk confuse that. Hence, if one accepts the claim of broadcasters, the true 6th Estate of power naturally follows as internet news gathering and reporting.

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