Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Franklin Roosevelt had his fireside chats, Bill Clinton somehow felt our pain, but when it comes to riveting pungent ripostes, Donald Trump, the nation’s twitterer-in-chief, is without peer.
For FDR the radio was the principal means of communication with his public; for his successors it was television, and, of course, Trump is a veteran of the small screen.
Yet, Donald Trump has come to understand that to communicate through television is to communicate through filters, and to be at the mercy of the owners of the broadcast media controlling it.
Not so with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
As the president pointed out at his White House Social Media summit last week, "you communicate directly with our citizens without having to go through the fake-news filter . . . you reach more people than any television broadcast network by far. . . . "
We are in a Brave New World of social media, with the capability of reaching virtually every American in a manner unprecedented, with unprecedented potential and dangers.
The vaunted transparency of social media may be elusive.
The great social media organs are controlled by a potentially oligarchic few individuals, who, the president and some of his supporters claim, have begun to seek to suppress views (principally those of Republicans and conservatives) with whom these controlling individuals disagree.
At the moment these social media giants enjoy a special status, generally protected from civil liability for any falsehoods or libel they perpetrate. This is a result of federal legislation to keep the Internet an open forum, and which recognized that the Internet is much like a bookstore or a newsstand, which entities generally have no liability for what is contained in the articles they sell.
The theory of removing such liability is the same as the theory of the First Amendment, that what we want is an open marketplace of ideas, with the freedom of thought, creativity, and policy choices that brings.
Some, such as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have introduced legislation to remove the giant social media’s immunity from liability unless individual providers can demonstrate that they don't censor particular views.
Sen. Hawley declared, "the social media giants would love to shut us down. They would love to shut us up. They would love to shut him [The president] up more than anything else. And we can’t let them."
Many in the media will see in Sen. Hawley’s proposal a threat to freedom of the press, but Hawley replies, "They ought to abide by the same principles of free speech and the First Amendment that this country embraces . . . I don’t think it’s too much to ask for these huge tech platforms — who’ve gotten rich off our information. . . Off of our data, off of everything we’ve given them . . . They’ve gotten rich off their special privileges from government. If they want to keep those, they shouldn’t discriminate. They shouldn’t censor."
This is hardly too much to ask of social media, and the problem of access to accurate information is one that this country must now solve. The president pointed to some other glaring issues. "When historians look back at this time," he observed, "they will see that many of the biggest news stories of our era were totally ignored. . . . the spin they put on it — or sometimes they’ll leave it out, and then if there’s something slightly negative, they’ll make it, you know, headline news."
Those watching MSNBC and CNN were bombarded with months of the now debunked Russian collusion theory, and other stories that the president rightly characterizes as "fake news."
A robust republic can only endure if it has access to the truth.
Recognizing this the president has expressed his faith in the American people.
"The public is very smart," he noted, and, further "we’re getting the word out about so many things."
Still, the difficulty of determining what is reality and what is spin or worse remains.
This allegedly partisan president also said, "I’m representing everybody. I do. I represent everybody. I fully understand liberal. I fully understand Democrat. We want to get along. We want to make sure that everybody loves each other, if that’s possible. And, maybe, I really believe it is. Someday it will be."
That was about as inclusive a political message as it gets, underreported though it was in the mainstream media. The president promised a new social media summit with its leaders in a few weeks. If a free press is the lifeblood of our popular sovereignty, and if the social media are coming to become our chief means of communication, nothing could be more important.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was recently appointed as a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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