The tie between journalism and democracy is longstanding, profound, complex, and confounding. If people are to have the right to vote, they must have sufficient knowledge on the issues that concern them in order to have a viewpoint. They must equally have sufficient knowledge of the politicians vying for office to know which of these represent those viewpoints and thus their interests as citizens.
Recognizing the power of the media, those who are able try to harness that power to their own ends. Recognizing the power of the media, those on all sides and all levels of power distrust it with a level of cynicism that waxes and wanes but has always been present.
In December 2013, a representative opinion poll on trust in the media was conducted with 1200 adult citizens and showed that only 14 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of the media. 60 percent doubt that the media in Bulgaria are free. In the Bulgarian capital Sofia this trust is even lower – only 7 percent think the media are independent.—Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2013 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media
In 1790, Edmund Burke (no democrat, but a brilliant thinker) wrote about decidedly undemocratic pre-revolution France in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He noted the organization of society into three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. A half-century later, Thomas Carlyle famously wrote:
“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
“A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.”
The representative survey among 1100 Bulgarians revealed that only every sixth Bulgarian (17 percent) believes in the independence of media in the country.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2014 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media
Since then, we have referred to the necessity of that fourth estate—media or journalism—to the functioning of a healthy democracy. The media reports on the government and those aspiring to be in government so that the citizenry can be informed. Just as important, the media reports on the issues that concern the citizenry so that their government can be informed.
Only 12 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of media. According to a representative survey commissioned by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, trust in the media has further decreased.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2015 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media
Gallup has for decades surveyed Americans’ trust in the media. Understanding that Bulgarians were surveyed on the independence of their media while Gallup has surveyed Americans on their trust in the media, Americans have here little to crow about. The U.S. has had a democratic system and free media since 1776 while Bulgaria has been dipping its toes in these waters since 1989. The United States’ nearly 2½ centuries at fostering both a democracy and a critical, independent and investigative press should have the healthy support of the American public.
In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly—a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?
In 2014, there was a substantial gap between negative (60%) and positive views (40%). In the 1970s, the percentage of those with positive views was high as 72%.—Gallup September 17, 2014
“What is it we all seek for in an election?” asked Edmund Burke. “To answer its real purposes, you must first possess the means of knowing the fitness of your man…”
Elections, of course, are not necessarily a sign of democracy. After all, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria regularly held elections. Everyone who was not comatose voted and the Communist Party candidates (and those closely allied with them) won virtually 100% of the vote. The newspaper Rabotnichesko Delo (Worker’s Cause)—with “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” just above the masthead—was the “organ of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.” Rabotnichesko Delo, of course, did not at all serve the “worker’s cause,” but only the cause of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It was the essence of propaganda, disseminating information and ideas to reinforce the institution that was at one the Party, the government, and the nation.
It’s not surprising that the recent polls in Bulgaria asked participants about the independence of their media. It’s neither surprising that the powerful are reluctant to give up their control of various media outlets nor that citizens are cynical about that control. It’s not surprising that media dependent on or fearful of the powerful is not media that can play its role as the Fourth Estate. And if Bulgarian media does not cultivate “Able Editors,” is not “irrepressible, incalculable,” Bulgaria cannot hope to have the informed civil society necessary to know the fitness of their leaders, their institutions, and the policies and programs appropriate to address their most pressing concerns.