The Fourth Estate
Our government has three official branchesthe executive, legislative, and judicial. But some say there is a fourth unofficial branch that is just as important. Thomas Jefferson once described what the fourth branch was. He wrote: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
The fourth branch of our government is its free press. If we are to govern ourselves, as we do in our democracy, we need to be informed. That's the role of the media.
The first amendment to the Constitution protects that institution. It says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, America sometimes seemed out of control. Immigrants seemed to be flooding the land, transforming the population. Cities were overflowing, even the new ones, and factories and trains and new technologies were changing the way people lived. To add to the confusion, government corruption was making many fearful that democracy wasn't working. To deal with all these complexities, people needed to understand them. And, at just the right time, a remarkable group of writers and editors appeared. They were good at explaining and showing. President Theodore Roosevelt called them muckrakers. He once wrote, "Men with the muck-rake are often indispensable to the well-being of society."