America’s Media Watchdogs

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from abridging Americans’ right to speak freely.  By guaranteeing a broadly protected – and uniquely American – freedom of speech, the Constitution provides an essential base upon which America’s democratic society has thrived through the unrestricted flow of information.  In America, a person can say whatever he wants without fear of government reprisal [as long as what is said is not criminal – that is, it doesn’t cause physical injury to others (such as shouting “fire” in a theater)].  The American government doesn’t regulate speech.  It doesn’t referee truthfulness or parse fact-from-fantasy.  That policing function is left to civil society.  The U.S. government isn’t China/Xi Jinping Russia/Vladimir Putin Turkey/Recep Tayyip Erdogan Big Brother.  It doesn’t employ Thought Police.  Not America.

If any Russian-agent-posing-as-an-American person can assert as true whatever he wants, how is an American supposed to distinguish fact from falsehood?  How is “Truth” to be discerned?

As Philip K. Dick famously wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  Facts are, indeed, real.  They are ascertainable.  In the final analysis, they’re impossible to escape.  They have consequences.  Relying on fantasy is dangerous, dangerous for the believer, dangerous for the non-believers, dangerous for Americans, and dangerous for America.  The attraction that all-too-many 21st Century Americans have for relative Truth is an historical aberration.  It can be traced to any number of causes, whether social media and the resulting fragmentation-of-beliefs and separation-of-realities/tribalism it engenders (discussed in “The Widening Divide,” and “What is a Fact,” …, or on Bill Clinton’s misleading attempt to define what is “is” (discussed in “Does Truth Matter?,” …, or on Donald Trump’s denigration of government and media as sources of “fake news.”  Blame it on whomever or whatever you please, but playing the blame game ignores the problem … and the damage to today’s and tomorrow’s generations.  That damage matters.  Greatly.  Ignorance of reality has a price.  There cannot be democracy without consensus, a common understanding of what is real and what is fictitious.  Without consensus about Truth, motion is directionless, increasingly randomized, internally conflictual, and counterproductive.  The lack of consensus on what is real has led Americans to fight among themselves and ignore their enemies – and yes, Virginia, America has real enemies (as discussed, in part, in “Axis of the Sanctioned, Part 2,”  People can disagree about many things, but it becomes impossible a challenge to bridge those disagreements unless people have a common understanding of reality … and of the meaning of Truth.

Because the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from policing Truth, how are Americans to be protected from those seeking to take advantage, from those who lie, cheat and steal, from those who purvey and thrive off of falsehoods?  Who is to keep government officials, extremists, inflamers, and crooks honest?

In addition to guaranteeing free speech, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press.  Freedom of speech and of the press are complementary.  They together encourage the free exchange of information and ideas, no matter how trivial, outlandish, or fantastic, and the policing of Truth.  An oft-cited example of the breadth of free speech is the Supreme Court’s decision in National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie, where members of the American Nazi Party sought a permit to march through a Jewish neighborhood and prominently display swastikas.  The Supreme Court upheld their First Amendment right to do so.  However, the media highlighted the facts – the history of Nazi-ism, of the American Nazi Party, and of Nazi beliefs.  In doing so, the media kept the American Nazi Party, and Americans, honest.  It didn’t confuse the American Nazi Party’s right to speak with Truth.  It didn’t validate Nazi-ism.

Skokie was decided in 1977 when there was no internet.  The media consisted only of newspapers, radio and television.  Today, “the media” includes whoever … and whatever … attracts an audience.  This is a difference in degree, not in responsibility.

For example, contrast the Nazis in the Skokie case, who expressed their opinions of Jews, with today’s Holocaust Deniers, who assert their own, factually-fictitious version of history – that Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” did not include the extermination of Jews, that there were no extermination camps or gas chambers, and that the actual number of Jews murdered was a small fraction of those actually killed.  Those claims are fiction and yet continue to be “published” on the web and represented as fact.  The U.S. government is powerless to ban Denier fictions or to confront them as liars (in contrast to the laws in a number of European countries where Holocaust Denial is a crime).  Doing so would infringe on their Constitutional free speech right. The responsibility for monitoring – and censoring – purveyors of lies necessarily falls on those media through which untruths are disseminated, interactive computer-mediated technologies – social media – that facilitate the sharing of information (including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Instagram).

The same is true for Climate Change Deniers.  The Earth’s climate is changing.  That is scientific fact, an inescapable reality.  What the cause of those changes are or may be is open to debate, discussion and editorial opinion-writing.  Once again, the U.S. government is powerless to prevent people from expressing disparate views and, once again, the media have both the Constitutional right and the democratic responsibility to report what is the Truth and censor those who promote fictional explanations …, including from those who assert that the climate is not changing.

Regrettably, the media have been cowed.  Globally, the beginning of the emasculation of democratically-driven media reporting can be traced to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for what extremist Islamists deemed to be the blasphemous publication of The Satanic Verses.  That led to a successful effort by religious, political, and social extremists to instill fear that whittled away media criticism issue-by-issue and country-by-country as media shied away from publishing offensive opinions and perspectives.  It has not been in the interest of media – financially, physically or otherwise – to resist extremist threats of violence or to argue against cultural correctness (see “Freedom of Speech and the Correctness Culture,”  This has led, almost imperceptibly, to the media’s surrender of its necessary democratic role of monitoring Truth and exposing fiction … without fear of retribution.  Media now have much to fear and are disinclined to become involved in contentious fact-finding …, which has had a corrosive impact on the democratic process.  Although the most flagrant enforcers of media muzzling have been religious extremists who murder their detractors (as in the Charlie Hebdo attack and, most recently, the beheading of Samuel Paty), media self-muzzling is now common.  Media are cautious to NOT censor blatantly fictitious stories because doing so would offend one constituency or another, perhaps even government legislators or regulators who have cautioned that no one has the right to label their statements as false or misleading.  In attempting to polarize the valid functions of media, politicians argue that any attempt by media to censor content must be prejudiced (naturally by the other side’s liberal or conservative bias).  Take the example of QAnon, a conspiracy theory whose adherents believe that Donald Trump, Robert Mueller, and an intelligence agent known as “Q” are secretly working together to foil a global crime ring involving Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Tom Hanks and others, all of whom are pedophiles who kidnap children and harvest their adrenal glands for occult rituals.  Until recently, social media refused to take down blatantly false QAnon statements.  Only after being pressured to do so did Facebook begin deleting QAnon (and Holocaust Denial) content as well as other clearly false information … for which it has been accused of both liberal and conservative prejudice by persons on both sides of the political spectrum.  Media self-censorship undoubtedly can be destructive, as China’s and Russia’s and Turkey’s governments have demonstrated.  In America, however, having strong, independent media watchdogs is how democracy works best.

While government censorship is undemocratic, a self-censoring media operating under Constitutional protection has both the right and the responsibility to censor content, pursuing Truth and doing so by distinguishing between “opinion” and “news.”  QAnon’s version of reality is fiction, neither news nor opinion.  Climate Change is fact, not opinion.  The Holocaust is fact, not opinion.  Media have the Constitutional responsibility to say so.  Editorial determinations of what is and what is not “fact” – what is and what is not “fake news” – have been made throughout American history, for example by Ben Bradlee during the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation.  Some labeled Bradlee’s editorial decisions “fake news,” politically-motivated.  The Washington Post became a target.  That’s media’s lot in America’s democracy.  The Post accepted its role then.  Media need to embrace that role today.

Media at times are captured by governments or political movements or political parties or philosophies.  The goal of media capture is to pursue an agenda by reporting, and spinning, only partisan positives and focusing on opponents’ negatives, undermining Truth, and presenting a self-contained version of reality.  The role of the media is to pull away the curtain and reveal the realities.  Media capture has been one of the more successful tactics employed by autocrats the world over (as discussed in “The Autocrats’ Playbook,”

The 21st Century’s technological, political and social pressures have blunted the sharp edge of critical thought that formerly characterized America’s media.  One consequence is that editors have become submissive to economic and political pressures that water down analysis and deflect coverage.  As a group, media-gradually have been forsaking their role as democracy’s watchdog, abandoning their responsibility to fully and accurately report reality … and to highlight untruths.  As media have bent to the wishes of special interests and politicians, the public has become a slowly cooking frog, ever-so-gradually becoming accustomed to half-baked news and selective versions of “fact,” forgetting that there is only one reality … and that Truth is not malleable.  America’s Constitutional democracy requires an open and free press to hold its politicians, its governments’ employees, and its populace to the Truth, so that decisions and actions are grounded in reality.  In America, an essential role of investigative reporting is to monitor speech, publish what is fact, and debunk what is fiction.  It is also the role of media to self-censor and to make it clear precisely how and why they are dong so.

Finally (from a good friend)

The Washington Post has published the winning submissions in its yearly neologism contest in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words.  The winners are:

  1. Coffee (N.), the person upon whom one coughs.
    2. Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
    3.    Abdicate (V.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
    4.    Esplanade (V.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
    5.    Willy-nilly (Adj.), impotent.
    6.    Negligent (Adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
    7.    Lymph (V.), to walk with a lisp.
    8.    Gargoyle (N.), olive-flavored mouthwash.
    9.    Flatulence (N.), emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
    10.  Balderdash (N.), a rapidly receding hairline.
    11.  Testicle (N.), a humorous question on an exam.
    12.  Rectitude (N.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
    13.  Pokemon (N), a Rastafarian proctologist.
    14.  Oyster (N.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.
    15.  Frisbeetarianism (N.) (back by popular demand), the belief that, when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
    16.  Circumvent (N.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.
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