Carl Bucholt: Our Democracy is in peril
The founding fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the U.S. Constitution because they recognized that to have a working democracy you need an informed public who can make rational choices based on accurate information. Today, our system of governance is breaking down because of the widespread misuse of media outlets to spread false information, even outright lies that are totally irrational, but which are protected under the
umbrella of "freedom of the press."
The most egregious example I'm aware of involves the nightmare that several parents of students who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut are going through, one of whom recently committed suicide. Alex Jones has given a media platform — Infowars — to right-wing conspiracy theorists who alternately say some of the students are actually alive, living under new names; and the students died but the whole incident was staged by left-wing elements in government because they wanted a premise to pass gun control legislation.
Many of the victims' parents have had to move, some several times, because their names, addresses, and social security numbers have been published/ put online
and they have been relentlessly harassed.
Another infamous example was the ridiculous assertion that Hillary Clinton was running some sort of child pornography ring from the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington DC. It would be laughable except for the fact that some guy actually showed up at the pizza shop with a rifle.
My point is: We need to find a way to maintain freedom of the press but without allowing false information to be printed willy-nilly and have it afforded the same privilege as genuine news based on fact-based reporting. Freedom of speech is also protected under the Constitution but the Supreme Court ruled a long time ago that there are limits to that right. For example, someone can not stand up in a crowded movie theater and yell: "FIRE!". That is not protected speech. We need similar reasonable restraints on freedom of the press.
We had a recent example of abuse right here in Manchester, in a letter to the editor in the Manchester Journal, written by Perry Green, chair of the local Republican party. His letter makes the false, perhaps even libelous, assertion that the teachers at MEMS "indoctrinated" their students about banning single-use plastic bags. He stated that students "should not be used as puppets in support of particular ideologies." The assertion is an insult to the intelligence of the students because it implies they are unable to form their own opinions on a topic that affects their future, and it is an insult to the integrity of staff at MEMS.
This is how false information gets disseminated: Someone writes a bunch of lies in a newspaper, other people read it, and they pass it along to their friends as the truth — because they read it in the paper. I like the Journal. The staff works hard to provide accurate information.
The offending letter is a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be solved, a problem that is even worse in online media. (Think Russian meddling in our elections via Facebook.) In the meantime, all we can do is consider the source before believing what we read or see online, and realize there is a lot of misinformation being purposely disseminated.
Carl Bucholt lives in Manchester.
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