The fourth estate ideal in journalism history

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According to Thomas Carlyle (1840), Edmund Burke first applied the term "Fourth Estate" to the press gallery in the late eighteenth century, contrasting it with the three Estates of the Realm in France (Clergy, Aristocracy, and Commoners). In a British context, the first three estates might be regarded, instead, as King, Lords, and Commons. In either case, the idea of the Fourth Estate signifies that, whatever the formal constitution, genuine political power resides in the informal role of the press, which in turn derives from the relationship between the press and its readers. In Burke's usage the press's ability to mediate between formal political and the "mob" beyond parliament did not recommend it, but as Britain subsequently democratized, the idea of the press as a "Fourth Estate" would become an important source of legitimization for an increasingly prominent and self-confident institution. Although in the United States the concept of "three Estates" had less relevance, the term "Fourth Estate" - and, more importantly, the underlying concept identified above - has enjoyed similar currency.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge companion to news and journalism
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9780415669535
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010


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