Plaque in the lobby of the iconic Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Plaque in the lobby of the iconic Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Standing in the lobby of the gloriously ornate Chicago Tribune Tower, gazing  at this James Madison quote, I am filled with pride. And fear. The pride stems not only from being a long-time member of the Fourth Estate but also from being the beneficiary of the work done by other members of the Fourth Estate. So much of the progress we have made has been the result of extraordinary journalism, from 19th century investigations of mental institutions and sweat shops, to 20th century exposés of political abuse and environmental degradation, to 21st century disclosures about the Catholic Church and foreign interference in U.S. elections. The press – our press – has proven, as Madison said, that we are all deeply indebted. (Should you want to further stoke your Fourth Estate pride, go here:

But what about the “checkered with abuses” part? Yes, like any institution, like any enterprise, like any individual, the press is flawed. Sometimes deeply. Throughout our history (and probably today, right now), the press has been the source of inflated, useless, incomplete, distorted, confusing, manufactured information. During the years of “yellow journalism” (now, apparently come back to haunt us in a different Internet- and hyper-partisan-fueled form), the media has exaggerated (or fabricated) events, faked interviews, given weight to fiction masquerading as fact. Some of the abuses have been subtler: an omission, the choosing of one quote over another, the editorial submission to powerful advertisers.

Does this rob of our pride? No. We balance the great good against the abuses. And it makes us more vigilant.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Citings of Madison’s original quote often use the more dated spelling: “chequered.” We chose to use the more modern spelling as it appears on the plaque, but to insert commas in the modifying phrase (not embedded in the plaque) for clarity and ease of read.

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