The Fourth Branch of Government: An Essential Institution to American Democracy

This article was originally published in Extra Newsfeed.

Among the maelstrom of news alerts this past week that could easily be mistaken for headlines from the popular satirical online newspaper The Onion, the one that struck me as the most outrageous was this article, featured in the New York Times: “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’ ”.

Bannon, President Trump’s Chief Strategist, claimed that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”, adding that “the media here is the opposition party”.

Specifically calling out both the New York Times and the Washington Post for their reporting is the height of hypocrisy for a man who has spent the past five years as the head of the alt-right news website, which has featured headlines such as “Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber, It’s Time to Get Back in the Closet”, “Science Proves It: Fat Shaming Works”, and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews”. It’s impossible to know what kind of editorial oversight Bannon had over these pieces — likely none — but it does give some insight into the caliber of the media outlet he oversaw.

Regardless of how Steve Bannon views the media responsible for covering current events, the fact remains that the press serves an essential function in our democracy: that of the fourth branch of government.

Our country was founded upon a system of checks and balances — should the president overreach his authority via, say, an unpopular executive action, it could be challenged in the Supreme Court, which would decide whether or not this action is legal. The same is true for an act of Congress — the President has the power to veto any bill that comes across his desk.

This very system exists so that power isn’t concentrated in the hands of a select few. Checks and balances are essential to a functional democracy, and one of the most important checks on our governing bodies is the very group that one of the most senior level advisors in the White House now decries as “the opposition”.

While the press corps has been known to take sides — the most oft-cited divide being CNN’s liberal lean vs. the conservative angle of Fox News — its essential function is to inform the public as to what our government is doing. Should the actions of the government be particularly alarming, or break with a previous administration’s policy, well, these are things worth reporting about so that if the government’s actions don’t coincide with the will of the American people, the people can act.

President Trump has taken drastic action over the past ten days, issuing executive orders that diametrically oppose the policies of President Obama. These must be reported, especially when they result in massive demonstrations across the country, specifically in opposition to the policies which Trump has now enacted.

If Trump engages in activities that could be considered unconstitutional — well, that is also the job of the media to report upon these acts, and to examine whether or not his actions are in accordance with that of a president who represents the will of the American people. Should any of his policies be challenged in court, it will be years before they are resolved. The press allows the public to debate these issues in real time.

In November, Donald Trump won an election. On the same day he was elected president, there were 435 members of the House of Representatives and 34 members of the Senate who were also chosen for elected office. There are eight Supreme Court Justices currently sitting on the bench, working on behalf of the American people to decide on the most important, divisive issues of our times — based on the laws set forth by the Founding Fathers.

These three branches of government are tasked with governing us, the people. We are a representative democracy, where the individuals holding office in these three branches of government make decisions on our behalf — let me say that again, just to be clear: The President, Congress, and the Supreme Court are supposed to make decisions on our behalf, based upon the wills of their constituencies.

We all have a say, however minor, in who runs our government, but the press is perhaps the most important branch of the government: while your information might be a bit biased depending on where you get your news from, the media, at its core, serves to inform us as to what our government is doing.

If the senior-most advisor to the president sees the media as the opposition, there is cause for concern. The Trump Administration does not have blanket authority to issue executive orders that are at odds with the will of the majority of Americans; the extent and direction of his power must be checked. The first line of defense is the press — particularly journalists at such storied publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The fourth branch of government is under attack. Should further action be taken to silence the very institution tasked with educating the public about how the Trump Administration is governing, it will be an affront to the democratic ideals our country holds in such high esteem — and a danger to American citizens everywhere, because we will be next.