I am a First Amendment absolutist. Well, sort of, but especially thanks to my years in the news business, a free press purist. But, the free press is getting clobbered by social media, thanks to the smarmy, fearful toadies in the Congress, which has carved out an undeserved protection for the wealthy and politically generous socials. And that heedless indulgence has successively turned the press into smarmy, fearful social media disciples, intimidated by the online mob and competing with it in the tastelessness sweepstakes.
Over time, the Supreme Court and the voters have allowed sensible abridgments to the Bill of Rights, which are the cornerstones of our liberty. The First Amendment is particularly dear because it protects the press; along with the right to say what you think; the right to worship (or not, as you chose); the right to peaceably assemble (though not to loot, assault, or torch); and to petition government leaders. Whether those leaders are paying attention to you, or to anything but themselves, is a question too deep for me.
The Constitution, which differs from the First Amendment in that it is a human, political conceit that may be modified or amended by law or popular decision, adjusted, and even abused by Congress, the President, and the courts.
But, not the Bill of Rights and not the First Amendment. Its enumerated rights, we believe, inhere in each and every American at birth, indeed every human, American or not, although sadly the grasping tyrants ruling other societies elsewhere would insist otherwise. The First Amendment particularly, and the rest of the Bill of Rights protect for us these human rights by prohibiting government from messing with them.
They are not, in the first place, the government’s to give or take away, they are simply ours, from birth. Of course, voters may choose to modify, add, or even relinquish these cherished rights, but to do so is a daunting task, so difficult that efforts to make changes focus on politically susceptible lawmakers so as to chip, chip, chip away at, when they may not utterly do away with, our natural inheritance.
Now, I’m afraid, we’ve arrived at a national moment when we may have lost the guiding star of the historically unique political idea that binds us. Or perhaps we have given up on it. We derive from an idea that consecrates the variety of us and our views, distributes government authority widely and stingily, guards against majoritarianism, and fuels a determined skepticism of government and its prideful practitioners.
H.L. Mencken, a most recalcitrant but highly regarded journalist in his mid-20th Century moment, described the American politician as “a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot polish … He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed his inferiors in sense.” We must diligently keep that sort at bay, back-footed, Mencken advises. His view was that “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy …” against us.
Over the top, you say. Well, maybe.
Still, he does remind us of the responsibility each one has to ourselves and to others, one by one, to be what Orwell called “a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
Today those “smelly little orthodoxies” propagate themselves in social media, in the political class, and in the craven journalism that genuflects to them.
Today the breadth and variety of newspapers, magazines, and niche publications of every sort, so cherished by the Founders who named them first in the list of our inborn rights, hopelessly dwindles, impoverished by the Twitters, Facebooks, YouTubes, Googles, et al. Thanks to their rapacious, bloodless intrusion, less odd and original music, fewer free swinging disharmonies and unorthodox opinions will catch our interest and attention, and prod us to say, “Just wait a minute. I have another thought.” The “cancel culture” will execute that variant, that fresh idea and see to it that the tune we will all find ourselves humming will require of us only one note.
Social media platforms now enjoy unwarranted protection from responsibility and liability for the solicited but unpaid contributions of their constituents. So, not only do they suck up, also unpaid, every scrap of commercially valuable information about you and me and everyone else, but the content they post that attracts users also comes to them free of charge, a bottomless inventory that costs the platform nothing.
Whether the witless, uncouth, raging poster is paid for his participation or not, the social media platform collects the post and publishes it. And really, every newspaper, news site, and social platform is a publisher and should be treated as one. That means each is free to cover, discuss, and host what appeals to its owners and followers. Each may host opinions and comments that may please me but irritate you. It’s up to each of us – the citizens, never the government – to decide what information is useful, truthful, inspiring for good or evil, or tasteful (if taste matters any more), and what is not. Each outlet’s long lived business success depends on the choices the readers or listeners or Tweeters, or Facebookers or Insta users make.
Thankfully, the government cannot pick and choose by regulation what is freely posted, aired or written. But, consumers, by their deliberate patronage or disregard, can.
And, whether the news, information, or social exchanges hire writers or analysts or gather all of their content from volunteers, foreign interlopers, political interest groups (even hateful ones), politicians, even presidents, legacy news organizations, or algorithms, they are publishers. They can and they must be sued for libel, defamation, invasions of privacy, violations of anti-discrimination laws, or even disgraceful and coarsening vulgarity when they misbehave. They may shelter under the First Amendment, that’s what it’s there for, but to flower, multiply, and enrich the variety of us and what we think, none should be protected, as if some special class, from your disfavor or disregard.