Should publishers censor their content to further social goals?

A lot of interesting currents in popular culture are raising questions about the ethics of publishing. The two most obvious are (1) free speech issues, and (2) whether profit or management drives content in the daily news.

The main free speech question is whether a publisher should censor what it publishes based on some moral or social rules. This isn’t a new question, but it has a new importance in an era of “social justice warriors” (aka “cry bullies”) who throw tantrums if a contrary view is given a platform.

An example along these lines is the conflict over Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Milo Yiannopoulos — a self-described provocateur.

It’s an interesting question, mostly (to me) because the politics of censorship seem to have flipped. Speaking broadly, it used to be the left that advocated free speech (e.g., the dispute over Lady Chatterly), and now it’s (parts of) the left that want to shut down speech — albeit by private protest and not usually with the strong arm of government.

The success of some conservative writers has incentivized many publishers — whose staffs usually skew liberal — to (perhaps cynically) decide that the money is more important than the message. So … Yiannopoulos and Coulter and others may have views the publishers hate, but they love the sales.

Publishing is a business, after all.

The second issue is similar in that it gets to the motive that lies behind the publishing decision.

This article, for example, raises the specter of a rich, globalist elite at war with the common man.

China’s president will preach the advent of a new world order in Davos next week before the high priests of globalisation, who are facing an uprising from voters against their orthodoxy of open markets and borders.

Some people believe that a cabal of globalists is trying to force a new attitude on the public to help the globalists with their transnational business interests. The trouble — for the globalists — is that a lot of people aren’t buying it. Brexit and Trump are taken as signs of the revolt.

How does the media fit into this picture? Is Big Media a tool of the globalists and the purveyors of elitist propaganda?

The question reminds me of other conversations about the news. Does the media answer to the public (e.g., how many clicks on an article) or to the boardroom (e.g., the people who pay the salaries)?

As with most things, it’s certainly some combination of both. But it’s interesting to see how it plays out in popular opinion, where we seem to have two competing memes going on.

The first is that the media is being pulled in one direction by the tyranny of clicks and advertising. As I like to say, “All’s well, details at seven” doesn’t get eyeballs on the evening news, but “the new threat your kids face at the bus stop” does. That well-established reality pushes news coverage towards the sensational and the scary. (Along the lines of Dirty Laundry.)

Fear sells papers. So does sex. So do crazy conspiracy theories. And if that’s the stuff that pays the bills, that can become the yardstick by which journalists are measured.

“How much traffic did your story get?,” not “was it accurate?” (or helpful).

The second meme is that these media empires — and their content — are controlled by rich people with an agenda. I see this stuff all the time on Facebook. People try to discredit a source because it’s funded by Soros, or Big Oil, or whomever.

Which is it? Does the globalist cabal control the media, or is it all “give the public what they want”?

Perhaps that’s too either/or. Why can’t it be both? E.g., the globalist elite doesn’t care what the public thinks about most issues, so … fine. Let extremism and sex and crazy ideas drive that part of the business, but when it comes to trade deals, or immigration, or … whatever they talk about at Davos … then the Big Boss steps in and tells the editors how to cover the story (if they know what’s good for them).

It would be an easy thing to believe, but I don’t buy it. At least not to that extent.

I’m sure there are journalists who would sell their soul to get the 8:00 spot, and I’m sure that when some rich guy with an agenda buys a media empire, he hopes to use it to push that agenda. But there are also plenty of decent people who would blow the whistle on such editorial control, and it’s no longer possible for the Big Boss to control all the sources of information.

For good or ill, we have this crazy, wild-west thing called the Internet — and, for that matter, 10,000 cable channels — where anybody can say (or read) what they want. Sure, Twitter and Facebook censor people from time to time, but it’s not as if they’re able to stop anybody. Milo Yiannopoulos seems to have survived his Twitter ban. In fact, it might have helped him.

The Big Boss might control the big platforms, but (1) his ability to shape the news is limited, and (2) there are plenty of other sources not controlled by the Big Boss. And these other sources are growing daily.

All of which has to be enormously frustrating for this alleged conspiracy of globalists who want to fashion the world to suit their business needs. They think they should be able to sway public opinion with all their power and influence. Just buy out the media and get some bubble-headed beach blonde to ridicule the opposition (with a twinkle in her eye).

But … it doesn’t seem to be working, does it? The swarm warfare of the public is overwhelming the carrier-based approach of the elite.

Which leaves us with an important question. Do publishers have a responsibility to police their content?

I’m not talking about accuracy, or grammar. I think that goes without saying.

Rather, do publishers have some sort of social responsibility, or mission? Or do they just publish whatever the people want?

Is news a commodity, like the candy bars in the vending machine? Stock the ones that sell. Or is journalism a calling to something more significant?

I think it is and has always been both. You’re going to have organizations that want nothing more than a fast buck, and you’re going to have organizations that stick to principle. And it seems to me that is a very good thing.

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