I spent the bulk of my career in the days prior to the internet working as a gatekeeper. I managed the flow of information.
As an editor, aka “gatekeeper,” I took great pride in making sure that what passed through my hands and landed in the news pages could be trusted, based on verifiable facts.
I picked through press releases, advertisements disguised as “news,” and avoided ploys by politicians and other charlatans to grab the limelight that wasn’t theirs to own. I looked for hard, usable data and read all the local and metropolitan rags. Mostly, I sought a good story, which was compelling, dramatic, and backed with solid, robust information, and filled with reliable, trustworthy sources. I liked to tease my brain with information I could trust; I still do.
I spent the better part of 25 years working within various small communities, for religious as well as secular audiences, deciding what they would get to read as “news.” I decided what, in the flood of data then in circulation, would get a share of the precious, and limited, “news hole” that was my job as editor to fill.
I treated limited space in the newspaper as if it were high-end real estate. The closer to the front of the book, as far as I was concerned, the more value it held. The cover story, for example, belonged to me, and to our readers. I protected that space through heated discussions and a passion for truth. It received the greatest play and attention, occupying pages that advertisers would pay thousands for.
My primary task was to make sure that information could hold up to the scrutiny of informed readers and have something of value for the whole community. It was important that the information could be established, as much as was possible, as fact. The risk, otherwise, was to suffer the consequences of libel, which could ruin a publication, or at the very least destroy its credibility, which in turn meant a severe drop in faithful readership, which advertisers seek to influence with their precious dollars.
Mostly, libel suits, in my experience, failed because they were issued more as threats rather than as actual attempts to reclaim verifiable truth and to protect one’s character from real defamation. The two or three libel threats sent my way during those 25 years came to nothing.
On one occasion, for example, I ran a story about a local video producer of a series that featured bar room fights while women, strategically placed for the big event, would flash their breasts. In one of the videos, a patron of the bar got plunked on the head for no apparent reason and soon he was in the midst of a fight. The police came and cleaned the place out.
The unsuspecting patron had no idea that the melee was staged or being videotaped, at least not until a friend who had seen the video called to say, “Hey, dude, I was just watching this video with all these babes flashing their titties and you were in it, fighting. What’s up with that?”
The victim researched the matter and found that the whole thing had been staged. He made a big stink about it, contacted the authorities and gave us a heads up, wondering if we would be interested in telling his story. We were and we did.
The producer, outed for the phony setup and for putting unsuspecting patrons at risk of injury or arrest, threatened to sue for libel. Our attorney sent a one-paragraph letter back, explaining the basics of libel law, indicating they had no basis for a suit because there was nothing actionable, meaning “false, misleading, or malicious.”
Truth is the best defense against libel. A person might feel defamed but if the facts can be established – through the court systems, government agencies, or through other incriminating evidence – there’s no libel, no slander, and no risk of going to court.
Today, however, in the war zones of social media and platforms that claim no responsibility for what gets posted or published, libels and slanders flourish, the truth be damned. Facts don’t matter. Instead, malicious individuals with an agenda fabricate half-truths to look like facts, which they then publish and use to mislead and hurt others. Few are held accountable.
Consequently, in the midst of this insane free-for-all, there’s little to no consensus on important issues such as how to govern, how to proceed toward a healthier, more vibrant democracy, where people are held accountable for what they claim and publish, where truth matters.
In the best circumstances, citizens can discern fact from fiction, and can think critically about what they consume in today’s world of information overload. This will only happen with media, especially with social media, that can be trusted, that can take responsibility for ensuring the robust solidity of their content.
The idea of Gatekeepers existed before the web spread its tentacles across the planet. Their goal was to separate reliable data from false and misleading information. They vetted everything that went into publication to inform rather than confuse, mislead, or hurt readers, to give them a solid footing in the workings of their community. An informed readership, I was taught, would make better decisions–for themselves and their community. They would, ultimately, be less divided.
Fights and heated disagreements might break out over an unpopular story or idea but seldom, as far as I can remember, did a mob of malicious malcontents descend upon school boards to harass, intimidate or outright terrorize the opposition. There were no insurrections, or misinformed and pathetically misled mobs storming the nation’s Capitol, all for the sake of promulgating The Big Lie.
This, by the way, is how fascists operate. And fascists don’t like truth. Fascists are fabricators that have no respect for dialog and established facts. They make up their own “facts.”
They cherry pick their data in order to boastfully make their false claims, they bully and harass those who disagree with them, even when those who disagree have a better grasp of reality, and they refuse to listen to sound reason, primarily, I believe, because gatekeepers no longer play a key role, at least in social media, in the dissemination of trustworthy information. It’s a giant free-for-all of fools tearing at one another’s eyeballs.
Often, the bloviators who organize through social media don’t know what they actually stand for because they don’t possess reliable data to back their claims. Their bag of goodies is full of holes. Mostly, all they can offer are random bits of insider jargon, a fist-full of fake “facts,” and a failure to glean truth from a lie. This is what happens when gatekeepers no longer have a role in what gets played in the media, when social media platforms refuse to take responsibility for what they feature on their sites.
I took some hard knocks for not getting things right. Readers who knew the truth, I learned, spoke loudly when falsehoods or misleading data got published in the local paper or magazine. They called, and let me know: Truth matters, get it right!
That lesson came home to me again and again but especially as my responsibilities began to increase, including editorial decisions that could very well, and sometimes did, send someone to jail, or cause disruption in the community. Truth matters, and not everyone likes the truth. But it’s better than a lie, and a more reliable indicator of a healthy democracy, and trained, knowledgeable gatekeepers can help to make that happen.
Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice, where this article first appeared. Please feel free to add your comments. Minor edits have been made for publication by DemCast.
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