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The Press Crosses the Line

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For generations, Americans have been wedded to the idea of the free press. In fact, this idea has been seen as of such importance that various geopolitical projects carry it as a principle, i.e., having a free press is often a prerequisite to gaining the maximum benefits Uncle Sam can offer. While journalists have never held a premium social status in terms of respect, the public have generally seen them as a net social good, and this view has been largely based on the idea that journalists keep those in power honest. In the United States, the exposure of President Richard Nixon by Woodward and Bernstein has held an almost mythical significance. Less than a month into 2019, and this edifice of modern society has imploded.

The signs were there already, from Gawker going bust to plumetting trust levels to the almost comical level of Trump-based hysteria on a daily basis, but the case of the Covington Catholic school students represents a turning point. People are now not only seeing the press as an organ of propaganda for the official ideology of liberalism, but as a threat to civil liberty itself. In our day and age, you do not have to be Richard Nixon to see your entire life destroyed.

When a viral video surfaced online showing teenagers in MAGA hats at the March for Life seemingly abusing a Native American Vietnam veteran, all hell broke loose. After this video, which featured no public figures, was made into a phenomenon by the national media, the boys were quickly identified by online vigilantes egged on by blue-check Twitter journalists, and thereafter were inundated with death threats. Liberals guffawed over the prospect of ruining the kids’ futures, blacklisting them from employment and university. There was a psychotic lust for their ruin, supposedly on behalf of the downtrodden Native Americans, but really in service to their own malice against white Catholic youth from red states. This came from major TV news outlets, online nu-left publications, and garbage pseudo-conservative magazines like National Review.

It did not take long for the entire scandal to be debunked. It is hardly worth going over the layers of falsehood involved here, though one can get a good idea of the sheer scale of media malfeasance from this segment of Tucker Carlson. The more important discussion to be had is what this completely unjustified and unprovoked campaign of destruction, launched against children by people with some of the widest social media reach in the country, means for the future.

The incident shows that the media dynamics we were so certain of once upon a time, have indeed been completely overturned by the internet. It might have taken us well over a decade to realise this fact, and yet its truth is now undeniable. For a while now (due to the decline of print publications), the media’s influence has been said to be faltering and while this is true in some senses, it is radically untrue in others. Individual news pundits, even the less talented ones, can now martial social media followings in the millions and voice their opinions immediately without having to go through any kind of editorial process (the process through which they become known in the first place). The influence of tweets from CNN is beginning to edge out the influence of CNN on the screen, simply due to the amplification vectors which Twitter facilitates. In this new dynamic, journalists and their equivalents in the celebrity world have become supremely powerful in American culture. They can immediately, and with far more effectiveness than any politician, incite a mob of deranged followers to send targets into hiding. In what world can this fall under the usual justification of a free press: to keep the powerful honest? Today, the media are the powerful, and they are far from honest.

It is time to acknowledge that technology has fundamentally altered the media landscape and must now change how we think about information. The idea of gifting dangerous amounts of social power to over-educated women’s studies majors and passive aggressive soy boys is one that needs to be consigned to history. As media edifices have become a threat to American civil liberties, it is time for executive restrictions. It should start with the president following through on his promise for broader libel laws which would give greater room for recourse to victims of press malfeasance such as the students of Covington Catholic. There should also be explicit laws against running footage of minors on national television with the intent to incite violence or retribution. We should also renew calls for there to be a national discussion about the nature of Twitter and its possible nationalisation. The fact is that the platform has become a monopolistic aspect of the public square, and while its owners have ruthlessly worked to ban conservative voices, major media figures can get away with threatening children. This has to change.

Civil society the world over is being eroded by the ubiquity of social media itself, and while government solutions cannot tackle this in the broad sense, individuals can, by supporting projects aimed at curbing media influence and building better community relations to counter online threats. The students of Covington Catholic might have felt a whole lot safer if their entire community had backed them up in the face of such hatred. It’s the kind of thing we hope would exist for all of us if we were unfairly smeared.

We knew that the media landscape was changing as early as 2010, but we were not sure which perennial problems would be solved by this shift away from classical forms of media, and which new issues would confront us. These answers are now starting to become evident. The first step in adapting ourselves to the new environment is to forcefully reject its toxic influence on society and individual lives. Brave individuals stood up against the howling mob this time, but next time that support may not materialise, and next time it could be you in the crosshairs.

Author: K. E. Benois