Sunday, September 29, 2019

What Used to be 4E

As a senior in high school, I had to come up with my future occupation. The word chosen would appear under the name placed under the picture in the Year book. The word I chose then was Journalist. I’d enjoyed very much both writing for our school paper, the Lillistrator. My work there also earned me a trip to Chicago to take part in a national conference for high school journalists. As fortune had it, I fell in love for the first time with one of the girls from across the country. The romance reached its highpoint when we walked along the Loop on a sunny day and actually held hands. (Those were the days.) Furthermore, as if all this were not enough, I enjoyed writing more than any other occupation, So Journalist in the Year Book. For a while in college, indeed, I aimed for a degree in journalism; but that did not last long. And though I worked in several of the great sectors in American life, journalism was never one of them—not even peripherally.

Despite this, I’d been exposed to journalism in some classes, and what with Lillistrator in the background, I had (and continue to have) a kind of proprietary view of the profession. I think I know what journalists have to do—and have to avoid. Early on I’d heard and approved of the idea that journalism was The Fourth Estate. The First is the Clergy, the Second is the Nobility, and the Third is the Commoners. The Fourth received its name in 1787; Edmund Burke used it, and Thomas Carlyle told us so in a book titled On Heroes and Hero Worship (source). The phrase spread to many other countries in Europe and perhaps beyond. The notion of “estates” has virtually disappeared in ordinary language, but it did provide a useful way of at least initially viewing social reality. Today’s keywords, like Tech and Media and Middle Class—and places like Below the Poverty Line—lack the organic rooting that “estates” once sank into the soil.

Long ago, down at the working level, different rules applied to the News Story, the Feature, and the Editorial. The first two pertained to news reporting; the news story, above all, was intended to be straight and factual; the feature could have color and did not need to begin with a summary sentence. Opinion and advocacy were restricted to the editorial; it was not only permitted but expected that the editorial writing, including opinion columns, would take a more human view of unfolding events than the value-free camera of a news account or the artistically lively feature.

This morning, by chance, I woke at 4 am and wandered out of the bedroom to my usual armchair before the TV set. Groping in the dark I found the remote and turned on the TV, muting the sound. There was CNN, Fourth Estate, in modernese 4E. To my amazement CNN had actual news stories running—and such as one no longer sees on cable these days—unless one has access to CGTN (for those who don’t know, that’s China Global Television Network (which we watch a lot)). Here came stories from Europe, Africa, China (Hong Kong), India, Afghanistan and even the USA in which neither whistleblower, impeachment, nor Donald Trump were even mentioned. Amazing. Fascinating stuff; had quite forgotten.

Traces of 4E still remain—more in the print than in the chatter media. But even in print, the thinned out remnants have been more and more replaced by what has become just another (if still somewhat unruly) new slice of what in the Old Days we’d called Entertainment but which the New York Times is trying, very hard, to rename Style.

Reach for the wand. Off button. Push. Faint light in the grey sky. Nights getting shorter. Equinox is over.  Everything changes. All the time.

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