AP NEWS

Don Jarvis: Have you lost freedom of the press?

November 10, 2017

Back in the early 1960s, Soviet police seldom carried any weapons, not even billy clubs. They didn’t need to, because the Soviet government controlled all mass media.

If you control the information, you control the people.

We see the same thing in North Korea today. There, Kim Jong Un starves his people to afford nuclear weapons and rockets, without a peep of protest from huge docile crowds, because he controls their news.

That has never been the case in America. Today we endure competing tidal waves of information and nobody controls every journalist, blogger or Twitter user.

We are confronted with viral hoaxes, trolls’ paid opinions and questionable stuff from friends. Overwhelmed, many of us have stopped seeking information from legacy sources like newspapers and are just reading whatever pops up on our digital media.

But that is the problem. According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of us get most of our political news from Facebook. And that questionable news is a constantly decreasing slice of the whole picture.

In a recent Atlantic post, Alexis Madrigal warns that the “informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded.” He blames Facebook’s “ability to give you what you want. ‘Like’ a page, get more of that page’s posts; ‘like’ a story, get more stories like that; interact with a person, get more of their updates.” Google and other services follow a similar pattern. You get mostly news that resembles what you have ‘liked’ or clicked on.

So we are unconsciously limiting ourselves to news that fits our prejudices. We thus lose the sense that the whole truth may be far more complex than what our preferences have stealthily limited us to.Conservatives get conservative news, liberals get liberal news. Enclosed in news bubbles of our own making, our understanding of the world gets badly distorted, and rational discourse becomes impossible.

An infamous example is the ‘Pizzagate’ incident at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C. In December, 2016, a North Carolina man entered and fired three rifle shots. When arrested, he explained that he had been led by countless social media posts to believe that the restaurant was connected to a child sex-trafficking ring run by members of the Democratic Party, so he had come to investigate the disturbing reports for himself.

These stories were examples of completely fake news, circulated widely before and after being thoroughly debunked. The misled gunman had apparently never read the rebuttals and ended up being sentenced to four years in prison.

And this is the main point. This unfortunate man and too many of us have done to ourselves what the Soviet government did to its people and North Korea now does to its passive masses — controlled the free flow of information to provide only one-sided news.

Most of us do not even realize how completely we have discarded our own precious freedom of the press.

The result is the increasing polarization of our country, the elimination of moderate politicians, and the near-total gridlock of our government.

So what could cure all this?

We could ask ourselves questions such as “How can I trust what I am reading? What is the reputation of this source? Does anyone stand behind this? Will they be around tomorrow to take the consequences of inaccurate reporting or good investigating? How does the reporting hold up when fact-checked with Snopes? Does this source ever stretch my understanding?”From the earliest days of our country, we had newspapers. They were far from perfect, but at least readers knew who published them.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “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.”

Today we still have inexpensive newspapers and magazines, and many have even cheaper online forms. Many, however, are in serious financial trouble.

What do newspapers offer? While they may not always give you the complete, unbiased truth, most carry a broad variety of stories from the whole community. Unlike Facebook, Google or Twitter, most help us learn that the truth about many issues is not simple and does not fit our preconceptions.

And newspapers carry crucial local news, which is seldom covered well on free-of-charge social media and national digital sites. Those media have legitimate uses, but we should also find more reliable sources.

Excellent free digital sources of national news do exist, but consider getting a newspaper in hardcopy or electronic form to regularly stretch your understanding, especially for local news.

Reclaim your freedom of the press. It’s the informational underpinning of democracy.