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Who watches the Watchmen?: The Democratic Debates, CNN and The Fifth Estate

Written by David Porter.

In the aftermath of the First Democratic Debate, CNN gave a resounding endorsement of Hilary Clinton – despite their own evidence to the contrary. And the Berners didn’t let them forget. What does this mean for the future of news?


The Roman poet Juvenal, when he penned his Satires, probably didn’t expect it to still be referenced over 18 centuries later. But oneline in particular has permeated western thought upon the nature of political authority ever since: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Literally translated, it reads ‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’ More popularly, it is reduced to one simple phrase – 

Who watches the Watchmen?

For decades, the popular discourse has been that a free and open press broadens the scope of debate, helps voters make informed decisions and ‘hold their governments to account’. In liberal democracies, the Fourth Estate are the Watchmen of the both the government and society; informing viewers of important events and offering expert opinion and analysis. But what happens when this position is seen to be mishandled, or indeed, abused?

After the First Democratic Debate, CNN  found out.

After months of speculation, the American public – and the wider world – finally got to see the candidates face off. Commentators and the public eagerly awaited to see who could attract and convince Democrats to hand them the party’s nomination. CNN got to broadcast it.

This is where things get interesting. Sanders, officially an Independent in the Senate, seemed to dominate. True to his anti-politician brand, he defended Clinton – his main rival – over the private server scandal, exclaiming that “the American public is sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails!” Cue a standing ovation from the audience.


In a poll on CNN’s Facebook page, Sanders stormed the competition, fluctuating between 75 and 83 percent of the vote. Sanders also took the vote in CNN’s live focus group, when asked who had ‘won’ the debate, though far more narrowly.

CNN, however, seemed to call the debate for Clinton – releasing an op-ed entitled “Democratic debate: Clinton brings it”, stating simply that she had “re-emerged as presidential.” At the same time, claims emerged that CNN had deleted its online poll – and was actively deleting comments from Sanders supporters on its Facebook page. The reaction began to kick in.

Through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Imgur and other social sites, Sanders’ backers took to their laptops and phones to spread the word about CNN. This was a cross-network  spontaneous campaign, that pushed posts from one platform to the other. Some showed it as a demonstration of the failings of a wider system; a minority called for the boycotting of CNN completely; others wanted to show the silencing of majority opinion by traditional news media; and  many accused CNN of direct collusion when they shared evidence that Time Warner Cable – which owns CNN – had donated over $500,000 dollars to Clinton over her career, and was her 7th largest donor overall in that time.

These opinions were not unanimous by any stretch – other users argued against the scientific benefits of an online poll, or whether the poll had been deleted (it wasn’t, you can find it here) – but they shaped a national, even international, conversation about media influence in democratic societies.

This moment is a great example of an important function for which we are seeing social media increasingly used: to both bypass and criticize the perceived distortion and collusion of the traditional media. If the press exists to hold government to account, then social media provides the platform to hold the press to account – if the press is the Fourth Estate, then social media is becoming the Fifth.bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb

Let me say now, this is not a panacea. The argument of the unwillingness for the media to portray the “Real News” is used by extremists and moderates alike. The clues are there, just below the surface. An examination of any Facebook political pages – particularly those such as Britain First – will include mentions of “the things the mainstream press don’t want you to know”, and hundreds of other formulations of the same. Some are more careful, encouraging a more critical reading of the media, and opening up to new sources of opinion and information – to “become our own editors” in order to form our own ideas.

These tactics can be used in varying degrees and for differing purposes, but the trend is clear. The new, ‘social’ media is one that seeks to highlight the faults of traditional sources, and at the same time allow new voices to challenge their opinions.

As we wind up to the next Democratic Debate – and in the light of the anti-media tone set amongst the Republican contenders most recently – it is advisable to keep a weathered eye on the digital horizon.

The rise of new media has created a new type of forum for political communication, that is  at once both more horizontal and more fluid. The political and journalist elite – unfortunately for them – are outnumbered and often outmaneuvered in this new environment; one that rejects their legitimacy and easily establishes freer, peer-to-peer political conversations.

These voices and challenges are unlikely to go away. The question now is: what will be done about it?

David Porter is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inPoliticsUSA

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