Sacking the Capitol proves free speech is in trouble
The First Amendment is in tatters.
It lies strewn on the floor of the Capitol, mixed in with the debris left behind by rioters who invaded Congress last week. It is there with the garbage dumped in the Speaker’s office, with trash and shattered glass outside the Senate chamber.
Free speech is now in trouble because the rabble attacking the Capitol was driven by a mass delusion — and no mass delusion can take hold without mass media to give it life and sustain it.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as “The Bill of Rights.” But history and experience have shown that they should really be called “The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.”
None of these liberties exists in a vacuum free of consequences.
We have the right to assemble, but are held responsible when that assembly becomes a riot or crime spree. We have the right to bear arms, but not the right to use those arms to threaten someone. And we have a right to free speech, but not the right — as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it — to falsely shout fire in a theater and incite a panic.
Which brings us to right-wing media and social media. Their problems go back years, but let’s focus simply on the last few weeks since the election. In that time, they have used the rights granted to them by the Constitution to falsely shout fire as loudly and as often as they could. They have, in essence, used the Constitution’s guarantees of liberty to subvert the Constitution and its guarantees of liberty.
Just one day after the election, there was already several examples of fire-shouting by right-of-center outlets, including: “The outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters,” (Tucker Carlson) and “Is the fix already in?” (Laura Ingraham) In fact, less than 12 hours after last week’s insurrection, this same media universe began floating the baseless idea that left-wing agitators were “really” behind the chaos.
There is no both-sides-do-it here. Yes, mainstream media has drifted further left during the Trump years — but no one reading Paul Krugman or watching Joe Scarborough was out there ransacking the seat of our national government last Wednesday.
The roughest part of all of this is the motivation behind it. The executives running many of these outlets are experienced journalists — well-trained in digging up the truth and separating it from delusion. They choose not to do it.
No one can look into their minds and tell you why, but we do know this: delusion is profitable.
In the searing documentary “The Social Dilemma,” computer scientist and former Google executive Tristan Harris explains how social media is programmed to hook users by feeding them a steady dopamine drip of conspiracies, threats, and bias confirmations. It is how outlets like Facebook make a lot of money.
For its part, Fox News is well-known as a leading profit center for Fox Corporation, more so now that the company sold off its film and TV studios, relying instead on live broadcast programming like news. The channel has no financial incentive to do anything other than what it has been doing.
Clicks and ratings — profits, not politics — drives the mass delusion machine.
There was no mass media when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Local newspapers then were very political and could be vicious in attacking opponents — but they were local. It was hard for their accusations and misinformation to travel far and wide.
But it wasn’t long after the invention of radio that authoritarians in Europe a century ago discovered “The Big Lie.” As Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly understood, mass media allowed a big lie — an obvious lie — to be repeated often enough to enough people that significant segments of society “will eventually come to believe it.”
That is what we have witnessed throughout the Trump presidency, but especially over the last several weeks.
It is hard to say what happens to the First Amendment now.
As the Capitol Building gets cleaned up, we’ll find the torn pieces and try to tape it all back together again. Mass media and mass delusion — along with mass profits — will continue. Commentators and talking heads will still shout “Fire!” in the crowded theater of our democracy.
Here, in the last paragraph of a column, is where people like me are supposed to offer our answers or advice. I have just this:
All any of us can do is hold out hope that honest journalists will shame the marketers of hysteria and chase the dealers of dopamine and delusion into the dark alleyways where they belong. We can only hope that professionals who understand the responsibilities that accompany our first amendment rights will continue to outnumber and outsmart those who just want to make a fast buck.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.
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