freedom and medial responsibility

“‘I meant to keep them in their places, –I did not intend wholesale murder and arson […] Gentlemen!’ he shouted; ‘this is murder, it is madness; it is a disgrace to our city, to our state, to civilization!’
‘That’s right!’ replied several voices. The mob had recognized the speaker. ‘It is a disgrace, and we’ll not put up with it a moment longer. Burn ’em out! Hurrah for Major Carteret, the champion of ‘white supremacy’! Three cheers for the Morning Chronicle and ‘no nigger domination’!’
‘Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!’ yelled the crowd.
In vain the baffled orator gesticulated and shrieked in the effort to correct the misapprehension. Their oracle had spoken; not hearing what he said, they assumed it to mean encouragement and cooperation. Their present course was but the logical outcome of the crusade which the Morning Chronicle had preached, in season and out of season, for many months. When Carteret had spoken, and the crowd had cheered him, they felt that they had done all that courtesy required, and he was good-naturedly elbowed aside while they proceeded with the work in hand, which was now to drive out the negroes from the hospital and avenge the killing of their comrade.”

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

This is a passage from a historical novel about a ‘race riot’ that happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. It was called a ‘race riot’ by the Southern press and white Democrats, when in fact it was a coup d’etat to restore power back to the white Democrats from Black Republicans.

Wilmington insurrection of 1898

I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular, due to its relevance in regards to our current media situation. In the novel the seeds of discontent were sown through the Morning Chronicle, the local newspaper, and it was because of a particular inflammatory article that local white people decided to take up arms. This is not far from the truth of what actually happened in 1898. And it is not far from how Soviet propaganda used to work, and it’s not far from the fake news stories circulating today.

The writers or inflammatory or fake news articles are never the dangerous ones. It is the people they embolden, the people whose views they legitimize by virtue of the fact that it’s been printed so there must be some validity in it. I doubt Steve Bannon is going out himself and spray-painting swastikas or actively harassing people, but when he posts something like, “What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it?“, he’s not exactly promoting a mentality that tries to look at all sides of a situation. With rhetoric like ‘Luciferian’, it’s difficult to argue that this is an attempt at an unbiased standpoint.

There is the question of why people believe the news/media owes them the truth. I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the responsibility of the media. Ideally, sure, the media would present you with both sides of an argument in an unbiased manner and allow the consumer to make decisions for itself. Funnily enough, this was the case from 1949 to 1987, while the Fairness Doctrine was implemented, which “required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was — in the Commission’s view — honest, equitable, and balanced” (Wikipedia).  But doesn’t ‘freedom of the press’ imply the press’s right to a bias the same was ‘freedom of speech’ implies a right to express whatever opinion you have? It’s the responsibility of the citizen/consumer to sift through all the news to find the most unbiased and fairly written pieces. You can argue that it’s disappointing that the media is so polarized and that there’s no neutral ground, but neutral ground doesn’t sell and the media is a business just like any other.

It’s funny that most of the people who argue for less governmental control are also the ones who fault the mainstream media for ‘spreading lies’, when what was previously regulating the media was governmental oversight. But at the end of the day, the media doesn’t ‘owe’ the citizens of a country anything. Technically, the government is what ‘owes’ the citizens because the government works on behalf of the citizens (in theory). However, despite the fact that the media doesn’t have a responsibility towards its citizens, it does have a responsibility to know the implications of their own actions (responsibility comes with all variations of freedom). You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded area and then shrug your shoulders when there’s a stampede, especially when there are people who have been waiting for any excuse to run.

We’re lucky to live in a time where we have the internet and the ability to seek out multiple perspectives; we’re not at the mercy of a local newspaper. This means more work on behalf of the citizen in order to seek out trustworthy news sources, but this is the result of taking information for granted.


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