Thomas Jefferson, a better president than we’ ve had in a very long time, penned a line back in 1787: “ Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. By 1807, in his seventh year as president and after seven years of being subjected to severe press criticism, he wrote: “ I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write them.
[However], [t]he presses, ” Jefferson concluded, “ is an evil for which there is no remedy. Liberty depends upon freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost. With the benefit of hindsight, the lessons of history and the words from a Supreme Court Justice and from an American President ringing in our ears, how do we assess media’ s influence in the way that politics and government are carried out in America? How effective is the media in keeping us informed while keeping our government in check?
We can answer these questions by looking at the power structure of American society and the media’ s role in it. “ Power” is the ability to compel another to do something that s/he would otherwise not do (Dahl 201-15; Lukes 19-24). Preservation of democracy in America depends on the balance of power at all levels: in government, business, the people, and media, which can be seen as the Four Estates of modern American society. Creating that balance of power within and among these four components of our nation is the challenge of democracy.
By dividing the powers to legislate, administer, and enforce laws, our government rulers are divided and set against each other based on the principle that the people and their businesses can remain free to pursue progress and prosperity if their rulers are divided. This complex structure of government serves to limit the power of its leaders and was designed to serve not one but many and conflicting purposes (Ranney 85-86).
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