The Fourth Estate As The Final Check

The election brings a major shift in power. Not only did the presidency shift from the Democratic Party to the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, but Republicans retained control of Congress, and judicial vacancies indicate that the courts will fall under the sway of the same party. No matter your political persuasion, the political alignment of all three branches of government raises concern about our system of checks and balances.

But beyond the three traditional branches of government, there is another that has often been described as a fourth branch: the free press. Edmund Burke reportedly said that “there were three Estates … but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

A free press has been a staple of our nation’s liberties and history. During the American Revolution, the press provided a key source of information. In fact, it was so important that Congress provided the Continental Army with a printer so that Americans could maintain access to a newspaper during the war. After independence, the press was pivotal in publishing the Federalist and Antifederalist Papers, which provided a staging ground for the ideas that would form this country’s Constitution.

Since then, the press has continued to play an active role in keeping the government accountable. In the 1950s, the press monitored Senator McCarthy’s Communist investigations, revealing all of McCarthy’s charges against the army to be false, and putting an end to McCarthy’s witch hunt. In 1971, the press investigated the Watergate break-in, exposing the Nixon scandal, leading to the indictments of forty administration officials and the eventual resignation of President Nixon.

More recently, in 2013, the press played a vital role in unveiling the NSA mass surveillance programs of American citizens, leading to significant reforms to ensure the protection of American citizens and their civil liberties. In other words, if you ask: “who watches the watchmen?” We answer: the press.

The press has always had its eyes on the government, and has always served as the voice of the people, speaking truth to power. And the Media Freedom and Information (MFIA) Clinic stands by their side, ready to protect their role in our democracy.

No matter the administration, the MFIA Clinic will continue the work it’s been doing: promoting transparency, challenging abuses of government power, and protecting the press and this country’s fundamental civil liberties. In prior and current cases, the Clinic has brought suits against the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and Attorney General, among others, to ensure the protection of First Amendment rights and the public’s access to essential information. The Clinic will continue its efforts to ensure that the press and the people can keep our government accountable. 

—Delbert Tran ’18