My Turn: What does a paper owe its readers?

  • jacoblund jacoblund

Published: 4/12/2021 4:08:21 PM

A recent “My Turn” essay (“Sixty Days,” March 31) led me to think about the responsibilities of a local newspaper to assure that it does not give a platform to disinformation and a call for violence.

A commitment to the principal of free speech might suggest a very high bar for imposing limits on what ideas may be expressed, especially in a section of the paper dedicated to airing opinions. It might also be argued that if a viewpoint is held by a number of others in the community, beyond the author of a given piece, then it should not be subject to censure. I’ll take these arguments in turn.

The Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines free speech rights along with religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is essential to note that this prohibits the government from limiting speech; it does not restrict the right of private companies from restricting speech unless by doing so they violate other established rights. This is why Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies were free to block the former president’s accounts without fear of being legally liable for doing so.

The Greenfield Recorder may refuse to publish whatever it sees to be counter to the principles of its business. In fact, the editor must routinely make precisely these decisions. There is simply no free speech argument restricting the Recorder’s decisions about publishing a particular opinion piece, any more than any such claim would force it to cover events it doesn’t deem newsworthy.

The second argument is even more easily refuted. While it may be worthwhile and important to report on the prevalence of a particular viewpoint in the local community — for example, in an article assessing support for a candidate or governmental policy — it is certainly not the responsibility of a newspaper to provide that viewpoint with a platform, especially when it is founded on thoroughly debunked claims and promotes a military takeover of the United States government. Imagine a QAnon believer writing an essay that perpetuates the absurd claim that Democrats are cannibalistic child traffickers. Would the Recorder feel compelled to publish it even if there were others in the area who subscribed to the idea? Of course not.

Where does this leave us? Perhaps the editor has another reason to want the conspiracy theories and seditious ideas expressed in the piece propounded. Perhaps the editor simply wants to sell more subscriptions with controversy. Either way, it was a profound error to publish the essay and to refuse a reasonable request for the online version of the paper to carry a simple disclaimer. What the Recorder owes its readers is better judgment.

Donald Joralemon is a resident of Conway.  

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