The affliction that is social media is a Trojan horse of shameful behaviors. It debases the nation’s culture, inviting scalawags of all stripes to anonymously or pseudonymously air their idiocy and nastiness. It finances its devilishly masked intrusion into the personal lives of Americans by marketing what it learns about each of us and peddling this information inventory of habits and interests to businesses. It overruns and impoverishes the legacy press, whose rights and responsibilities were enshrined by the nation’s founders as crucial to our individual liberty. And, it does all this by assuming the protected costume of the publisher, while dispensing with the foundational obligations that come with the title.
Early in my life in newspapers, when ink, not electric impulses, delivered the news and features, when typewriters and linotype machines were the technology, and before comments from readers became inflamed fixtures appended to each news or feature column, folks wrote letters to admire or complain. They signed their names, and we checked to see if they were who they said they were. We published most of the letters, but not all. We ruled out the unruly, the sneering, the nonsensical, and the merely provocative because it was, after all, the publisher’s paper and the editor’s pages, and it was run according to their lights.
In those long gone days, most reactions, from friends, strangers, and acquaintances met over the lamb chops at the market or at the post office were warmly encouraging. But not always. A reporter or editor might have noticed someone glaring from the vicinity of the organic kale and scuttled away. Or a reader might march into the editor’s office to deliver a strenuous criticism face to face. When newspapers began inviting and hosting comments on all the material they published, a whole new set of readers showed up to knock the gilt off the rose. And they did it with boots on. What seemed like a good idea at the time has come to be not a good idea at all.
Then, reporters and editors, like their readers, were more similar than different. In small towns and cities the newspaper folk lived with, and naturally enough, knew the people they reported on and to. The best of them were modest, driven, sympathetic, and even jolly a lot of the time. Today, the reporters and editors are one with the big-wheel politicians, the fundraisers, the celebrities, the Hollywood stars, and the apparatchiks who serve in the federal bureaucracy. That is, they graduate from the same colleges, they intermarry with the politicians or cable news network anchors, and they enroll their young children to the same private grammar schools as the exalted pols. Consequently unconcerned at the companionable hand-in-glove coverage of the neighbors, these members of the governing class sail miles high back and forth across the nation, offering money for this federal benefit or that one, as if the money were theirs. It’s a racket, and the racketeers and their watchdogs are too often in cahoots.
Or, these journalists admire and report on the self-made, astoundingly inventive and now astonishingly wealthy masters and mistresses of Alphabet, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Lyft, et al, who touch down in Silicon Valley or Manhattan or Washington to be feted, courted, or occasionally bedeviled, but only timidly and mostly for the theater of it.
What’s an everyday you and me to do about it?
It’s up to us.
The constant news and information artillery will ravage anyone exposed to it, and of course everyone is. But taken indiscriminately the assault is a goulash of smart, dumb, thoughtful, informed, merely informational, calculating, meretricious, promotional, and appalling, certainly a challenge to the reasonable person looking for something worth thinking about.
So, we targets must be cautious and discriminating. Most important, none of it is as important as what your neighbor told you this morning when you chatted, what the checkout person at the grocery store told you about the house fire last night, what your daughter told you last evening on the phone about her new boyfriend. Some perspective and serenity will help. We need to sample widely, spurn most of what we come across, and always read more, from varied sources. After all, the decisions one makes will value some news and some opinions and disdain others. It’s up to us, and if we read carefully, the smartest thinking will leave a mark.
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 to host opinions and comments that may please me but irritate you, It’s up to 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 business success and financial lifespan depends on the choices the readers or listeners or Facebookers or Insta users make.
Thankfully, the government cannot pick and choose by regulation what is freely what is posted, aired or written. But, consumers, by their deliberate patronage or disregard, can.
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, and they can and must be sued for libel, defamation, invasions of privacy, or violations of anti-discrimination laws when they misbehave. They may shelter under the First Amendment, that’s what it’s there for, but they are not protected from your disregard.