The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Morphed Estate


The Fourth Estate has abdicated its responsibilities. Citizens can no longer rely upon the MainStream Media to provide the news they need to participate in a democratic polity and market economy.


For more than two decades, SYNERGY/Planning has documented that human settlement pattern dysfunctions are caused by, and/or exacerbated by, the MainStream Media’s ignorance, misrepresentation and distortion of land use, transport and conservation issues. (See End Note One.)

This ignorance, misrepresentation and distortion is an indication of a more complex phenomenon than is summarized by this oft heard observation: “The Fourth Estate has abdicated its responsibility.”

As documented below, concern for the health of MainStream Media is widespread and so is condemnation for what is seen as the abandonment of its responsibility.  Here is an example concerning governance reform:


“Meanwhile, the Fourth Estate is inert, serving up an increasing diet of cotton candy in a desperate bid to retain readers, and abandoning any pretense of investigative journalism.” (See End Note Two.)


Such views are common, not just a theme of blog postings, online fora and “the alternative press.” The harshest assessments are by seasoned journalists with experience in the MainStream Media. (See End Note Three.)


What is going on here? Are things as bleak as the critics and the financial instability of the flagships of MainStream Media would lead one to believe? These are questions worthy of careful consideration by all citizens, not just journalists.


Accepting Full Responsibility


To this point MainStream Media (aka, The Fourth Estate) has accepted, embraced, and still fiercely defends its capacity to identify, articulate and disseminate “news.” Hardly a day goes by that a journalist does not pontificate on Journalism’s (with a Capital “J”) moral and ethical obligations. The pages, page views and television screens of MainStream Media are papered with these pronouncements. Most observers understand “news” to mean the information citizens need to make intelligent decisions in the marketplace and in the voting booth.

Accurate “news” -– facts and intelligent articulation of the full range of perceptions concerning reality -– is an absolute necessity for citizens to create and maintain a democracy with a market economy.

Assuming responsible for “news” is an enormous burden in a technology-driven society with educated, urban citizens and their Organizations competing for every advantage. It is nice that MainStream Media has “accepted” responsibility to provide “news” but most outside observers agree that they are not delivering on their promise.


A Fundamental Conflict


The reality is that MainStream Media has become hobbled by a profound conflict in its effort to provide “news.”


On the one hand there is the moral obligation to provide “news,” but on the other hand there are the contemporary economic facts of life.

The Enterprises that control MainStream Media have a legal obligation to maximize profits for owners and stockholders.

What is good for stockholders is not necessarily good for citizens (individuals and Households). The obligation to maximize profits means MainStream Media must support, and in fact has become the major contributor to, maximizing consumer consumption (aka, Mass OverConsumption).


First, there is advertising that drives Mass OverConsumption.

MainStream Media supports Mass OverConsumption overtly through dissemination of advertising and covertly by not questioning the validity or impact of advertising.

This is especially true in the case of mobility and shelter advertising, both of which are critical to understanding human settlement patterns.


The MainStream Media conflict-based disability concerning advertising is compounded by declining revenue for traditional operations. Economic necessity causes media Enterprises to avoid reporting on -– or even acknowledging -– issues that might upset advertisers or challenge the “consumption-equals-happiness” myths that drive Mass OverConsumption.


Both advertising and “news” coverage have a dramatic impact on the evolution of dysfunctional human settlement patterns, making MainStream Media activities a prime cause of the Mobility and Access Crisis, the Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis and the Helter Skelter Crisis.


MainStream Media coverage of the Mobility and Access Crisis, the Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis, the Helter Skelter Crisis and other aspects of economic, social and physical reality negatively impact not just settlement patterns but also resource conservation, food, health and territory security, balance of payments and international trade, Climate Change and many other critical issues. These issues are examined at length in the sources listed in End Note One.

The bottom line is that MainStream Media does not provide the information necessary for citizens to make intelligent choices in the voting booth or in the market place.

MainStream Media coverage of issues that impact governance and human settlement patterns at best meet only narrow, technical interpretations of “balanced journalism” (aka, “He Said, She Said Journalism” that is explored in Part III of this Backgrounder). MainStream Media reportage and editorials do not meet the moral and ethical challenges of providing citizens with the information they need to make intelligent decisions. The reason for this is clear:

The MainStream Media has morphed to become the mouthpiece of Business-As-Usual and Mass OverConsumption. (See End Note Four.)

Credit Where Credit Is Due


Before launching into the bad and the ugly of contemporary media, let us make sure that everyone is on the same page: Let us acknowledge that MainStream Media still plays an important beneficial role in citizens lives. Award-winning “journalism” makes significant contributions to citizens safety and happiness.


There is general agreement that major Regional daily, papers which constitute the “flagships” of MainStream Media, do some things well:

  • They put a spotlight on individual malfeasance and corruption of both public and private Organizations whether first identified by a whistle blower, an alert prosecutor or a journalist.  Culprits range from the Presidents (Nixon) to the water commissioner.

  • They ferret out evil doers that are the pet peeves of publishers. A good example is Donald E. Graham’s (The Washington Post Co., aka, WaPo.) crusade against excessive tax deductions for actions intended to promote “conservation.”

  • They harp on oft-maligned but Teflon-coated, old- line subsidies and pork barrels such as agricultural subsides, Corps of Engineers waterway projects, union featherbedding, defense contracting, bridges-to-nowhere, etc.

What is not to love about the current WaPo series “Harvesting Cash” on the gross excesses and inequities of the federal agricultural subsidy program – unless you are ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, et. al.?  Who but the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover is not a winner when WaPo teams up with CBS’s 60 Minutes to skewer the FBI for its ballistic lab crimes?


It is notable that only the most blatant excesses have been successfully addressed. Many, like sugar, cotton and corn subsidies, federal facility earmarks for West Virginia and Corps of Engineers waterway projects (a veto of the most recent appropriation bill was recently overridden), have more lives than a cat despite the best efforts to terminate unfair and unethical practices.


While they win awards in all these categories, MainStream Media has failed to address the more fundamental, systemic problems such as:

  • Dysfunctional human settlement patterns

  • Self-serving and self-perpetuating political processes

  • Gross waste of natural resources

  • Mass OverConsumption

This is particularly frustrating because efforts by individual reporters and editors in business sections, health sections (and even sports sections) of MainStream Media unearth the information necessary to address the root cause of core problems such as dysfunctional human settlement patterns. (See "Where the Jobs Are," 24 May 2004.)


Something deep within the structure of MainStream Media keeps them from connecting the dots.  As we shall see, the core problem is that the context of journalism has changed and the primary interest of the owners/stockholders of MainStream Media limit the scope of inquiry, the level of detail and the thus the function of what was The Fourth Estate.


These comments upon the things journalism still does right applies primarily to the print outlets of the flagships of Journalism. The electronic media, including the television and online outlets owned by print media Enterprises, are almost completely compromised by their focus on entertainment and advertising. (This topic is examined in PART III. For a further exploration of this issue see the section titled “The Sources of Information” starting on page 41 of Chapter 2, The Shape of the Future and in End Note One. Also see End Note Five.)


The Scope of Mainstream Media Dysfunction


As the lead for blog postings and columns about yet another milestone on the path to the demise of “journalism as we knew it,” Jim Bacon often asks “Who will gather the news?” That is a good question: Who will gather the news when traditional “journalism” disappears? (See End Note Six.)


However, is “Who will gather the news?” the right question to ask? Should the question be: “Who will provide citizens with the information (facts about reality) they need to decide what course of action is in their best interest – today and in the long term?”

Citizens need facts -– and, as we document, a Comprehensive Conceptual Framework and a functional Vocabulary -- before they can understand their best interests and make intelligent decisions in the market place and in the voting booth. Democracy and free markets depend on citizens coming to an intelligent “public judgment” as outlined in The Shape of the Future.

In a clear indication of the depth of MainStream Media’s predicament is this statement on 14 October 2007 by Deborah Howell, the ombudsperson of The Washington Post (aka, WaPo):

“The Post, like most big-city newspapers, is suffering from decreasing revenue and so is doing less...”

Howell is correct about the finances but is not correct about what WaPo is and where it is located. WaPo is the major daily newspaper in the fourth largest Region in the US of A, one of the most important New Urban Regions on the planet. It is not in a “big city” and the focus of its news coverage is not the “city.” This may seem like semantics but it is much, much more, as any reader of The Shape of the Future and the columns of the same title at Bacon’s Rebellion understands.


The flagship Regional (they like to promote themselves as “national”) newspapers that were the standard bearers of Journalism with a capital “J,” are on the decline as Ms. Howell acknowledges. Almost without exception, the revenue from readership and newspaper operations is dropping quarter by quarter. There are entire Institutions set up just to document and dissect the decent. (See End Note Seven.)


A profound change has swept over Journalism in the past 50 years. Without exception, the major aggregators of “news” are now Enterprises. Among the First Families of Journalism – the Bancrofts, the Chandlers, the Gannetts, the Grahams, the Knights, the McClatchys, the McCormicks, the Ochs-Sulzbergers, the Ridders, the Scripps – those who still control the Boards of Directors of the media corporations have lost control of the trajectory of these corporations and of Journalism. The corporations that bear the names of the Gannetts, the Scripps and the McClatchys (or of flagship Regional newspapers formally controlled by First Families) have no ability to give more than lip service to the ideals of Journalism.


It is time to recognize that Journalism as we knew it is an artifact of the past. Likewise, it is important to understand that much of the regret that is expressed about the demise of Journalism, such as that noted in End Note Three, is really angst concerning the demise of the context in which Journalism flourished.


The Fourth Estate was identified in 1837 and peaked in influence between 1870 and 1950. The context and what was the Fourth Estate no longer exists. However, there is a new context and a new Four Estates that has not yet been recognized. This is one of the important realities that emerges from an examination of The Estates Matrix.


No Villains Here


In The Shape of the Future, we note that the growing dysfunction of human settlement patterns is not the result of individuals or groups intent upon making things worse.   Before we examine the context of MainStream Media, it is important to understand that the dysfunctions caused by, and contributed to by, MainStream Media are not deliberate  acts to confound or hobble the process of Civilization. As we shall see, the actions of MainStream Media are the result of forces beyond the control of those who own and manage MainStream Media. They are far beyond the control of those trained in Journalism.

There is no shortage of attacks on MainStream Media from both the self-styled “right” and from the “left.”

Many of the attacks from the “right” –- by those who like to call themselves “conservative” –- are focused on the perception that the MainStream Media has a “liberal” bias. Reporters, editors and publishers are said to be mindlessly supporting “tax and spend” policies. It is more likely that these MainStream Media employees and owners believe that government should “do more” and that doing more will require resources. In fact they are right. (See “It Will Take More Than Lint.” 21 August 2007.)


From the left comes the charge that reporters, editors and owners are un-caring shills of “Big Business” and that they support "tax cuts for the rich.” It is more likely that these MainStream Media owners and employees, like their readers and advertisers, that government is interfering with their right to make money. They are also right.


Reporters, editors and publishers are not “bad people.”  They are doing what they believe is the right thing to do.  Those trained as journalists who work for MainStream Media are getting older. They are digging in their heels in a fruitless attempt to delay the departure of a train that is already long gone. They think that within the context as they see it, they are doing the best they can. That is the question:

What can those concerned with the trajectory of MainStream Media do within the context they now find themselves? The first step is to understand the context.

The Need for an Overarching Comprehensive Framework


The central problem with intelligently articulating “The Problem With MainStream Media” is that there has been no overarching Conceptual Framework with which to articulate the complex set of evolving circumstances in which MainStream Media/Journalism has recently evolved.  (For examples of Conceptual Frameworks see End Note Eight.)


Peter Galuszka, quoted in End Note Three, is absolutely right on every point, except for his “solution.” Without a context – a Conceptual Framework – his “solution,” accepting a lower rate of return in order to meet the historic, glorious goals of “journalism,” seems plausible.


The threshold question on a complex topic like MainStream Media is: Where do you start to construct such a framework? One possible starting point is exploring the concept that Journalism is/was “The Fourth Estate.”


Why was Journalism (or, rather ,those who practiced what became Journalism) declared to be the “Fourth Estate”? What were the other three “Estates”? What is the current status of those Estates?


It turns out these questions can be answered and the answers provide a key to constructing a useful Conceptual Framework for considering the question:

“Who will provide citizens with the information they need to make intelligent decisions?” (See End Note Nine.)


The Great Bonus


Our intent in creating The Estate Matrix was to explore the rise and fall of the MainStream Media (aka, The Fourth Estate). It turns out that this two-dimensional array provides much more than insight into the abandonment of MainStream Media’s responsibility.

What started out as an attempt to provide a Conceptual Framework for consideration of Main Stream Media evolved into a framework that appears to be useful for broad explorations of the past and future trajectory of civilization.

Over the time frame examined in The Estates Matrix there have been profound, society-wide “Transformations” as well as fundamental “Conversions” within the Estates. After sketching out an introduction to The Estates Matrix in Part II, this Backgrounder will examine:

  • Four Profound Transformations, and

  • Five Estate Conversions

These Transformations and Conversions establish the context – past, present and future – of MainStream Media first in, and more recently out of, the Fourth Estate, which is the subject of Part III. The Transformations and Conversions also frame a “Big Picture” rendered intelligible by The Estates Matrix and explored in PART II and PART IV of this Backgrounder.


Wait Just a Minute!


Many readers facing another 40 pages of a 50-page Backgrounder plus APPENDICES will be looking for an escape hatch. Here is one that will be tried with some frequency:

“This is all speculation! There may have been three “Estates” until 1775 but then the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the turmoil in Russia, the Revolt in Haiti and other events between 1775 and 1815 wiped out those old systems. This is a New World...”


Sorry, there is still the generic hardwiring within every human. If the events between 1775 and 1815 could have wiped out the need for humans to rely on a multi-legged ordering structure then the same would have been true when Emperors were in power between 400 B.C. and 400 A.D. or when “The Church” achieved control over much of what is now the European Union from 600 until 1300 A.D.

To survive, humans rely on a Balance of powers in the Household, in the clan, in the city state, in the Kingdom and in nation-states.

Tne-legged and two-legged stools do not stand for long. Humans have not evolved to the point that a single perspective can be trusted to sustain the species. That is what democracy and a market economy are all about.

The more complex civilization becomes, the more a Balance of perspectives is required to manage society for the benefit of all citizens.

It was very appropriate, if tardy, to identify the Fourth Estate in 1837. The problem is that in the ensuing years citizens and their leaders did not recognize and accommodate Conversions within the Estates as the contemporay urban society emerged.


For example, Thomas Jefferson’s coining of the phrase “separation of church and state” assumed that a third Estate existed and that this Estate was made up of well-to-do/landed gentry. It also assumed that “the church” would remain an Estate that recognized and represented the interests of all citizens. In fact, the five Estate Conversions resulted in a fundamentally different society with Estates dominated by Agencies, Enterprises, Institutions and – if they choose to take advantage of the opportunity – citizens (individuals and Households). This issue will be revisited in PART IV.


Oh yes, if the First, Second and Third Estate disappeared at some point, why are those who purport to be the Fourth Estate still getting away with talking about it?


-- November 26, 2007



End Notes


(1). For a summary of this issue see the 30 April 2007 Bacon’s Rebellion column, “Recent Clippings." Also see columns “A Second Stroll with Katrina,” 4 Sept 2007; “How About Sustainable Logic,” 16 July 2007; “All Aboard,” 16 April 2007; and “Solving the Commuter Problem,” 5 Feb 2007. Most of the 97 columns and Backgrounders prior to 2007 listed on EMR’s profile page highlight the impact of MainStream Media on the Crises involving Mobility and Access, Affordable and Accessible Housing and the Helter Skelter scatteration of urban land uses.


In addition, see Chapter 2 pages 41 to 50 in The Shape of the Future for a further exploration of the anatomy of MainStream Media including the electronic media.  For specific recent examples of malfeasance of MainStream Media, see Blog postings “0 For 6," 29 August 2007, and “Connecting the Dots,” 17 September 007. On the other hand “Credit Where Credit is Due” 24 October 2007, points out where MainStream Media gets at least part of the message.


(2). The Ruling Party” a chapter of Economy 4.0, by James A. Bacon is being published at Bacon’s Rebellion .com.


(3). Mort Rosenblum’s “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” St Martian’s Press 2007 was recently reviewed in a column titled “Plato’s Cave” by Peter Galuszka.  


(4). In this context we argue that Organizations that claim to support conservation and functional human settlement patterns -- both sustainable Urbansides and functional, viable Countrysides -- must find ways to express reality without relying on, much less parroting, MainStream Media. A recent exchange with the staff of an Institution that has a stated mission of conservation and preservation of Countryside provided the incentive to seek a comprehensive exploration of the role of MainStream Media.  See Postscript and APPENDIX TWO (an element of Part IV). 


(5). Katz, Howard, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television New War, Free Press 2007. McChesney, Robert W., “Rich Media, Poor Democracy:  Communication Politics in Dubious Times.” University of Illinois Press, 1999 and the volumes cited in Chapter 2 of The Shape of the Future from End Note 33 to End Note 39.


(6). At S/P we have outlined a new strategy for “gathering the news” but no one wants to listen, yet. When Jim Bacon asks the question “Who will gather the news?”, We are tempted to say: One thing at a time! Right now we have to focus on other critical issues. The trajectory of civilization driven by:

  • Dysfunctional human settlement patterns and

  • Dysfunctional governance structures

However, it is important to consider “Who will gather the news?” and thus this Backgrounder. The results have illuminated far more that was originally anticipated.


(7). See “The State of the News Media 2007,” the Annual Report on American Journalism by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Google “newspaper revenue” for an avalanche of evidence of the financial state of news media. Profiles of the worst cases – like the San Jose Mercury News – are the subject of story after story. To add insult to injury, The Wall Street Journal is now controlled by the tabloid king who is dropping the subscription requirement for the Journal web site.  


(8). What is a Conceptual Framework?  Here are some simple examples:


It was impossible to intelligently discuss chemical compounds that make up the natural world until the Periodic Table of Elements was developed and refined.


It was impossible to articulate the parameters of physical matter – mechanics, electronics, etc. – until there was a clear articulation of the Natural Laws of Mathematics and Physics that provide a range of Conceptual Frameworks upon which scientists rely.


At the other end of the scale of physical reality, it was impossible to intelligently discuss celestial mechanics or solar system navigation without a diagram of the Solar System depicting the relationship between the planets and the Sun. These tools evolved from the Conceptual Framework sketched out by Nicolaus Copernicus but first articulated by Greek astronomers.


The context of the important Conceptual Frameworks provided by Nicolaus Copernicus, Andreas Vesalius, Adam Smith and Henry Hess are spelled out in Chapter 10 Box 2 of The Shape of the Future.


In The Shape of the Future, we argue that at the center of the spectrum of physical scale – between the subatomic scale and the multi-galactic scale – one must have a new Conceptual Framework to discuss human settlement patterns. The Shape of the Future articulates the New Urban Region Conceptual Framework and a Vocabulary with which to discuss this Framework. The Shape of the Future provides tools such as Regional Metrics to analyze settlement patterns. See GLOSSARY for definitions of all the Capitalized words in the prior sentence. Taken together, the Conceptual Framework, the Vocabulary and these tools have been called a unified field theory of human settlement patterns.


In this context, The Estates Matrix attempts to establish a Conceptual Framework in which to examine MainStream Media, Journalism and The Fourth Estate.  


(9). If citizens are to be well informed, it is necessary to make the facts about reality available via an “education system.” As noted in The Shape of the Future (Chapters 30, 31 and 32), the current education system is in need of Fundamental Change. However, until facts and information exist, changing the education system will be of marginal value and may even be counter productive.














The Estates Matrix: 700 Years of Profound Transformations and Estate Conversions


On the road to contemporary civilization, morphing estates have fundamentally changed the management of society. One recent conversion is the MainStream Media's abandoning of its fourth estate responsibilities.


This Backgrounder is presented in four Parts:


I. The Morphed Estate


II. The Estates Matrix


III.  The Rise and Fall of Journalism


IV. The Road Ahead



Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.