The Fifth Estate, by Arthur Hayes

It might not occur to the average citizen that media critics are essential to our democracy. We tend to think of constitutions, laws, and elections as the main tools that get the job done. But journalism is essential to an open society (whatever one may think of the screaming headlines and sound bites of the day), and so is media criticism: news about the news. And not just any journalism or any media criticism; quality counts.

The reasoning is not complicated. Our system of self-government is based not just on laws but on informed and active citizens; and such citizens need timely, relevant, clear information – facts and their explanatory contexts – in order to reason, to debate, and to make intelligent decisions. (We also need watchdogs, investigators, the stimulus of informed opinions, and places in the media to argue and converse.) Democracy, therefore, does not simply demand journalism; it demands journalistic excellence. And that in turn demands – along with education, to sustain both the supply of and the demand for excellence – a culture of criticism.

Such criticism is a rare and undervalued civic commodity. And like journalism – like democracy itself – it requires continual re-examination and redefinition. That is what democracies do, after all: they continually redefine themselves, shaping their founding principles to the times. Like the peer review process in the scholarly world, a critical news culture maintains standards for the brokering of information that ultimately secure democracy itself, as a system of government based on information rather than force.

Moreover, we need at least two kinds of criticism: professional critics, reviewing the work of their peers; and citizens with critical skills for consuming media intelligently, including reviewing the work of those professionals. Democracy demands, in short, widespread media literacy. It behooves us as citizens to be attentive to the media, and to how the media cover and criticize themselves: we should care how journalists (as much as our elected representatives) do their job and how they might do it better.

Addressing the state of media criticism in America, Arthur Hayes, a scholar with both a legal and journalistic background, writes in a rich and important tradition, and one that fits squarely with this series on Democracy and the News. It is a tradition of social criticism aimed at – and often by – the press; external and internal critics are equally important. Hayes’s broad-based approach will be useful to both journalists and ordinary citizens. Like any good book about the media it is also, in its own way, a handbook of media literacy.

As democratic citizens we are by definition equal in our rights. But some of us are – in Orwell’s words out of “Animal Farm” – “more equal than others,” in terms of our level of information and engagement. We can only wish for and work toward a society of information elitists, in which every citizen is a member of that elite. Meanwhile, the true guardians of our democracy are not (just) the lawyers or politicians but the teachers and journalists and critics. To discover how complex and important their function is, read on.  

Series Foreword by Jeffrey Scheuer, Series Editor, Democracy and the News