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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

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Chanson de Roland

With the Internet, we made the unfortunate transition of most of us getting our news from social media websites instead of from established news organizations and newspapers (hereinafter, "newspapers"). While established newspapers were not and are not immune to bias in reporting, they are far better than most of the crap on social media, because, unlike what happens on social media, where anyone can post anything and do so and where the bias of the owners of at least Google and Facebook has been established, newspapers' reporters and editors are professionals, which means that their reporters and editors have a set of ethics and skills which operate to vet the news and almost always ensure that their reports are accurate as to the facts reported.

Newspapers also police one another with competition amongst themselves, so whereas the New York Times is avowedly liberal and slants its reporting to reflect its bias; there is the counterbalancing Fox News and Wall Street Journal; for NPR's bias, we have McClatchy.

So with newspapers, you have professionalism and competition, while with social media, you have none of that. Instead, you have various peanut galleries that are kept by various zookeepers, who allow almost anyone to throw whatever nuts for news into the galleries that they want. Add to that, that the zookeepers at Facebook and Google take the liberty of occasionally editing the content of their news according to their biases, and you have quiet a witches' brew of bigotry, prejudice, and nonsense in the various social media websites' so-called news.

But who would imbibe such a witches brew as their news? Well, apparently a great many Americas, who are not well enough educated to think critically about the sources of their news. To simply ask questions like: Who is telling me this? And why are they doing do? What are their resources and capabilities? Is reporting their regular business across a broad range of topics? Or do they just occasionally reach into their bag of biases and prejudices to throw something out to their interlocutors on social media to see what sticks? Do they expose themselves in ways where they will be legally liable for defamatory statements? Does the reporter report the news in a way that is fair and balanced? Or is he just preaching to the choir? Have other newspapers, not the social media cesspool but credible outfits like Reuters, UPI, New York Times, Fox News, NPR, TV network news, McClatchy, etc., picked and carried the story? Being able to ask these questions and know where you can get the answers (e.g., research in a good public library or on the Internet, if you know how to separate the news from the social media) is part of what being well educated is all about.

But apparently Americans are ignoramuses and lazy beasts when it comes to the Internet, so they just get in their respective Hillary loving or Trump loving or liberal or conservative groups, where those echo chambers reverberate with the latest rumor. Can our republic long survive as a democratic republic, if we don't fix this with better sources of news, greater legal liability for social media websites that publish defamatory "news," and better educate our people so that they know the difference between propaganda, bias, and prejudice masquerading as news and the real thing? It cannot. President Thomas Jefferson explained the reason for this:

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

So good newspapers and the ability to read them are vital for a democratic republic, yet Jefferson recognized that newspapers are flawed and suggested this as a remedy:

"My opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful [is]... 'by restraining it to true facts and sound principle only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood." --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:224

So Jefferson would have newspapers that report true facts according to such principles of journalism, as our necessary and advisable for a democratic republic. But, since too few would subscribe to such newspapers, President Jefferson suggest this:

"Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2nd, Probabilities. 3rd, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The second would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The third and fourth should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:225

So President Jefferson comes to rest on newspapers that present four categories, supra, for every type of reader, from those seeking truth to those that would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy. However, since the currency of social media isn't money but our personal information, everyone pays with the intimate details of their lives for their social-media news, with those who prefer truth paying too dearly for the little that they get, and those who prefer lies getting what they pay for at a bargain, since they value their privacy no more than a goat values Shakespeare.

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