A couple of weeks ago, we revisited Virginia O'Hanlon's famous letter to the editor inquiring as to whether there was a Santa Claus.
The editor's response was ingenious. Virginia's father had assured her that if she read it in The New York Sun, it could be believed. Alas, those days are fading away as public distrust of any media is at an all-time high.
The press is not the enemy of the people. If anything, a responsible, free press protected by the Constitution, is the people's best hope for survival against a political system gone amok.
To be sure, the American press has not always been loved and respected, especially when it reports information readers would just as soon not hear. When I first got into the business in the early 60s, popularity of journalists ranked somewhere near the bottom, along with used car salesmen. (Sorry, but it was what it was.)
Those were the days when journalists from the smallest weekly to the largest daily were held accountable by editors and publishers. Perhaps they still are, but journalists today are far too quick to print without thorough examination of the facts and backchecking sources. Smaller newspapers like this one are reticent to dig deeper into corruption for fear of expensive lawsuits. (Even if you win, the expense of defending the most defendable story is exorbitant. Only the news companies with the guts and deepest pockets are willing to risk it. Even then, they settle when they should not.)
Jump now to the out-of-control phenomenon of social media, where seemingly the only control over accuracy and accountability lies with those providing and/or sharing a post.
Virginia's dad today would likely not suggest that if she reads it on Facebook it is always believable. Newspapers have long held those reporting the news to a standard of accountability and accuracy. Facebook and other forms of media have no such restrictions. The result: No one knows what to believe. Or, as is often the case, followers choose to believe anything positive about their favorite political party and anything negative about those they oppose.
I don't wish to infer that everyone who follows Facebook is gullible enough to believe all the garbage posted there. I will say with certainty that the information, sans accountability, is counterproductive. This week Facebook reaffirmed its freewheeling policy on political ads, saying it won't ban them, won't fact-check them and won't limit how they can be targeted to specific groups of people. That is according to the Associated Press which, while not what it once was, still holds its reporters accountable for accuracy.
Critics of Facebook, and there are many, believe it has too much control over (mis)information and is warping democracy and undermining elections. "Facebook has repeatedly insisted it won't fact-check political ads. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued that "political speech is important" and that Facebook doesn't want to interfere with it. Critics say that stance gives politicians a "license to lie," the AP reported. (Aside: The old joke about how to tell if a politician is lying. .... his/her lips move when he/she talks.)
Because the complexities of the Internet allow targeting of individuals based on sites they regularly visit, the lies are easily targeting those who want to believe them. The result is further polarization.
"Facebook and Twitter should not be making these decisions themselves," said Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina told the AP. "In the absence of any standards, you get the mess we're seeing now."
Justification from Facebook comes from their assertion that restrictions might violate provisions of the First Amendment. That, apparently would include the right to lie and get away with it.
I believe Madison and those who framed the First Amendment designed it to work in a world where the press did its utmost to be accountable and hold all three branches of government to the same standard.
Mr. Clinton retired as executive editor of The Messenger in 2011. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Lone Oak.