It is a traditional August-type of story; that is, something when nothing else is happening.
That annual summer doldrum, which can trace its lineage to ancient Romans, blew up in 2016 with the presidential race.
Nothing in recent weeks suggests any kind of quiet will be resumed in the world of journalism.
But in the Good Old Days, a reporter would retype the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, frame it as a proposed law, and ask passersby, “Should this be legal?” or something like that.
Too many, maybe even a solid majority, had an opinion but failed to recognize the “proposed” law as a vital part of our Constitution.
Depending on the national mood, freedoms of the press, speech and religion drew the most comment. Lots of respondents to this inter-generational on-the-street poll were hostile to adding any of that to the national laws.
And if under-30s or minorities were demonstrating for this or that, freedom of assembly could draw negative responses.
This sticks in my mind because of the failure to recognize the First Amendment.
The whole exercise usually ended up as a Sunday feature with graphics and an editorial tut-tutting.
My guess is that the ability to identify key laws and to accept freedom embedded in the First Amendment has declined.
Public discourse — if the cacophony can be called that — reinforces my gloom.
As before, press, speech and religion provoke today’s most heated arguments and least invocation of the actual amendment or modern court decisions affecting our understanding of those freedoms.
All of this came to mind when NPR drew a blizzard of hostility by reading the Declaration of Independence on July 4. I haven’t been able to shake the vitriol and its implications for free speech, free press, free religious practice and the increasingly porous “wall of separation” between church and states.
From what I’ve read online, most of the anger aimed at NPR seemed to come from the political right who encountered it on Twitter.
Not on NPR. It’s probably not on their dial.
It was plain that the complainers didn’t recognize the Declaration of Independence and heard the list of colonial grievances at George III and his agents as attacks on Trump.
This was the first year NPR tweeted the document, line by line, in 113 consecutive posts. It was also NPR’s 29th year with the staff reading it.
Some tweeters took down their tweets when they realized they’d made fools of themselves. Others, not so.
• “Propaganda is that all you know how? Try supporting a man who wants to do something about the Injustice in this country #drainingtheswamp,” wrote @JohnLemos11.
• “Seriously, this is the dumbest idea I have ever seen on twitter,” Twitter user Darren Mills said after NPR had only gotten as far as the Declaration’s dateline. “Literally no one is going to read 5000 tweets about this trash. This is why you’re going to get defunded” — @darren_mills
• One user wondered if NPR’s social media accounts had been hacked, and the network lost at least one follower who called the tweets “spam.” “In case you’re missing it, looks like @NPR has been hacked, tweeting like crazy!” — @Trackerinblue
• “This is spam I get alerts for NPR tweets because they are important My device is alarming nonstop. unfollowing.” —@btravan_IT
Another user tweeted, “Please stop, this is not the right place.” A user named @BitterDickery tried to clear things up by posting: “Unfortunately people didn’t know it was quoted from the Declaration Of Independence! Our education system is lacking…” @JustErafel tweeted, “So, NPR is calling for revolution. Interesting way to condone the violence while trying to sound ‘patriotic.’ Your implications are clear.”
The sum of the reactions indicated that most writers were politically conservative if not tragically ignorant. My partisanship aside, how do you reach people with what should be vital political and economic information when there is this astounding lack of appreciation for what used to be called “civics”?
Trying to tell people they’re not as well-informed as they believe only drives them back into belligerent ignorance: “Who you calling stupid?”
Years ago, The Enquirer watched as Auto Trader and similar startups grabbed its long-lucrative classified ads for cars and trucks.
The secret was photos. Auto Trader ran them; The Enquirer didn’t.
It was over before the paper could respond.
The loss of classified ads — the most lucrative in the paper — had begun.
That hurt, but the paper remained profitable. Otherwise, it would have followed others into history.
It took the internet and online vendors to impoverish The Enquirer and most American dailies. Loss of further ad revenues to the internet put tens of thousands of journalists on the streets and left most readers with shrunken dailies.
A recent Wall Street Journal column said Google and Facebook “account for more than 70 percent of the $73 billion spent each year on digital advertising, and they eat up most of the growth.”
Much of that was ad revenue on which American news media were built.
Finally, the newspaper industry is rallying around a strategy that might provide a lifeline, if not robust health.
They want an exemption from anti-trust restraints so they can jointly confront Google and Facebook and regain a larger share of ad revenues. Of course, such open, joint action will bring howls from partisans who’ve always suspected or accused the news media of being in cahoots.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, David Chavern said a united front would allow the news media to push for “stronger intellectual-property protections, better support for subscription models and a fair share of revenue and data — they could build a more sustainable future for the news business.”
Chavern is president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing approximately 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. He said the News Media Alliance is proposing a solution: a new law granting a limited safe harbor under antitrust for publishers to negotiate collectively with dominant online platforms.
I love it. Traditionally anti-union publishers want to negotiate better economic terms collectively because they’re too weak individually.
Sounds familiar, but just don’t call their whatever “a union.”
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]