Dear Dr K,
Why is the media known as the fourth arm or pillar of democracy?
First of all, to whomever it is ‘known’ that the media are the fourth arm or pillar of democracy, let me say: make up your minds. Are they an arm or a pillar? Or a branch? Because I have heard people call them that too. If the media are an arm, then our democracy is a strange four-armed creature (or even more than that, since ‘media’ is a plural). What being has four arms? Only gods have multiple arms and democracy is not a god. Democracy is not something to be worshipped; it is a social and political machine whose gears are turned through the collective effort of its citizens. And very often collective effort can grind its gears to a halt.
Democracy is a machine, and it has neither branches nor pillars, since it is neither a tree nor a building. The media then, are not an arm, branch, or pillar of democracy, although I understand the spirit behind these misguided metaphors. You might therefore conclude that media must be a gear of democracy, since democracy has gears.
Unfortunately, this too is a misconception. Democracy has three interlocking gears that allow it to function: the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive, and like any set of gears in an oiled, working machine, these gears rotate one another while each one keeps the other two from spinning out of control.
The media have no room to fit in this mechanism, although they often try to squeeze themselves into it, with noble intentions. In the process they become a spanner in the works, an interference to the proper functioning of democracy.
The proper function of the media is simply to entertain, not to inform. We are mostly aware of this when we watch movies or soap operas or listen to dappankoothu on the radio, but not so aware of it when we read or watch the news. This is because the news is a form of entertainment that is disguised as information, that strives to turn current affairs into a source of amusement. Many maintain the illusion that news keeps them better informed, as this is part of what makes it entertaining.
There are of course, certain media outlets that do their best to educate and inform the public and try to present complex, nuanced, inclusive views of reality. What they fail to realise is that the public has no patience for complexity or nuance and would much rather watch a group of people from across the political spectrum shout their heads off at one another for an hour on TV without coming to any sort of meaningful conclusion as this is more entertaining.
But Dr K, if the media are only for our entertainment, where should we get our information from?
You are not supposed to get your information from anywhere. You are supposed to remain completely entertained and uninformed and that’s the only way the gears of this democracy can drive us to shocking new depths that will make for even more entertaining news.