All That and a Bag of Mail: First Amendment Under Siege

The First Amendment is under siege in this country, this time from the left wing, but attacks on free speech are cyclical. Back in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it was conservatives who wanted to shut down debate they found “unpatriotic” or “offensive” now it’s Democrats.

I suspect I will live long enough to see this reverse itself again multiple times.

Why?

Because the far left and far right in this country have been emboldened by social media and now speak almost entirely to their steadfast adherents, the truth be damned.

With that in mind I wanted to spend Friday’s mailbag discussing a recent study from the Cato Institute that was absolutely fascinating. It polled people on their views of the First Amendment and the results were terrifying to anyone who believes in robust debate or a healthy marketplace of ideas.

I’d encourage all of you to go read it today or this weekend.

I posted two Tweets from the survey that I’m going to reppost here because I found them particularly alarming.

I’m starting with this one, which shows that both Republicans and Democrats are going fucking insane.

Can you believe that 51% of Democrats support a law mandating that you have to call someone by their preferred gender pronoun?! Over half of the people supporting one of our two most prominent political parties believes that it should be the government’s job to pass laws saying you have to call someone ze or zim or you face prosecution?

This is unbelievable.

But it’s met by equally terrifying views from Republicans.

Can you believe that 46% of Republicans don’t believe new mosques should be able to be built in America?! The Republicans, ostensibly a party of limited government, want the government to disallow the construction of new mosques in a country that was founded on the principle of free religion.

Every American should be terrified by both of these results. (And can we also point out the irony here that 58% of Democrats believe employers should be able to fire employees for offensive Facebook posts, but these same Democrats don’t believe an employer should be able to require a football player to stand for the national anthem?)

These opinions from both political parties strike at the very heart of our democracy and should be scarier to anyone with a reasonable mind than the vast majority of what our media spends time reporting.

Now let’s look at some other alarming data from this study.

Fully 65% of black people, nearly two-thirds of the black population in this country, and 61% of Hispanics believe that supporting someone’s right to say racist things is as bad as saying racist things yourself.

When I saw these results the fact that I get called racist so often on social media made perfect sense. Because the majority of minorities in this country can’t distinguish any more between supporting the first amendment and supporting racist speech.

They think they are the same thing.

It gets worse.

75% of black people, 71% of Hispanics and 46% of white people now believe that hate speech is violence.

Holy crap.

The majority of this country now believes there is no difference between words and acts.

Which is frightening.

So is there any lesson to take from these beliefs? Or any connection that we can draw between Republicans not wanting mosques and Democrats believing that hate speech is violence?

I think so.

I believe what we’re seeing is fear overwhelming logic in this country.

And the media is playing up fear and division in our country because we have almost no national media that speak to the middle part of our country any more. Our media is now almost entirely partisan, serving particular segments and subsets of the larger country the news that they want to hear and already believe is true.

I read two newspapers every day — The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. These are actual physical newspapers delivered to my house. When I turn to their editorial pages it’s as if I’m reading about two different countries.

I love reading both of these papers every day because I think it’s important for an educated mind to challenge itself. Every day I challenge my world view and seek to ensure I still believe what I used to believe, that the facts support my opinions.

But how many still people do this?

Almost none.

What we’re seeing in media is everyone running to service their niche audience and gives them information that reinforces their world view. When Donald Trump says the media is reporting “fake news,” it isn’t so much that as it’s this — the media is reporting the news that will make them the most money.

And if you’re aware that your audience is left wing, you’re going to serve up left wing news. And if you’re aware that your audience is right wing, then you’re going to serve up right wing news.

This is a fundamental change in American society, but it isn’t an unprecedented one. We’re actually returning to a time before national media existed, when local newspapers were nakedly partisan and media were unabashedly political, reporting “fake news” with regularity.

If you read American history you aren’t likely to long for the halcyon days of 18th and 19th century media. Because those media companies were insanely partisan and designed to serve up red meat to a core of readers who were already convinced they knew what the news was.

And, remember, that core audience was actually pretty tiny because the vast majority of Americans weren’t educated enough to read a newspaper.

Do you know why the New York Times started trying to be nonpartisan? Get the fuck out of here with all your journalistic ethos. They did it because it was a great business strategy. The way you won a newspaper war in the old days was by appealing to the largest possible audience. As American educational standards increased the audience for newspapers grew.

The vast middle of the country were there to be reached.

And how were they reached by the stream of American commerce? Through newspaper ads. Remember, the news in the newspaper only exists, from a business perspective, as a way to get you to read the ads that are delivered to your front door every day.

That became even more the case with radio and TV which were trying to serve the largest possible audience. The goal of CBS, NBC, ABC, and the USA Today wasn’t to segment the audience, it was to entertain everyone. So we got the Cosby Show, Diffrent Strokes, Oprah and Michael Jordan when I was growing up. Sports was not politicized in the least and the goal was to appeal to the greatest possible audience, to make everyone seem as similar as possible.

The Cosby Show is a great example of this. Cliff and Claire Huxtable were a wealthy doctor and a lawyer with kids striving to succeed in 1980’s America. Barack Obama was a Cosby Show president, someone whose race was, for the most part, not his primary point of contact with the American public.

Sure, the Huxtables and the Obamas were black, but they weren’t professionally black. By which I mean they didn’t preface everything they said or did by saying, “As a black family we…” The reason that show succeeded and Obama was elected was because they appealed to everyone as a family first, as a black family second.

That’s changed in the past few years.

Why is that?

My suggestion is social media has returned us to the days of 18th and 19th century media.

Social media has led to the rise of much smaller audiences and the destruction of our national discourse. The great, vast collection of reasonable people isn’t the target audience any more, it’s all about servicing niches. And even reasonable people can be sliced and diced up into smaller subsets.

We enjoyed watching “The Cosby Show,” but was it better than “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “The Americans?”

Of course not.

But I don’t watch any of those shows with my kids either.

When I was a kid I sat in front of the television and we all watched shows together. A show had to appeal to everyone. Other than movies — which still do that, particularly with Pixar — if you have a family when was the last time you watched a show that the entire family could enjoy?

It doesn’t exist.

When I was growing up newspapers, radio and TV were methods of audience outreach that sought to entertain everyone. That was their business imperative and it was the exact same business imperative for most of the 20th century. If you had a newspaper, a radio show or a TV show that didn’t appeal to the widest possible audience then you lost out to your competitor, who would do a better job appealing to that audience and steal your advertising dollars.

And how did you appeal to the widest possible audience? By ignoring the fringes on the left and right and speaking to the vast middle part of the country.

Cable started to change that dynamic with its ability to fragment audiences, but social media shattered it forever.

Sometimes that can be positive — a site like Outkick can make millions of dollars a year off our audience. If I’d been born in 1959 instead of 1979 and tried to make a living doing what I do now, I couldn’t have done it. If I’d wanted to make a living as a sportswriter at all I would have had to write at a newspaper. And I would have had to work my way up through the ranks until maybe I finally got an opinion column at the age of 45 or so.

Instead of that, from the moment I started writing online, I’ve been sharing my opinion. That’s because the Internet is a meritocracy. And while our critics like to denigrate the Outkick audience, the people reading the mailbag today will, as a group, be highly educated and well paid.

But what if instead of serving up a steady diet of sports news, TV reviews and radically moderate political takes, this site had decided to believe that black people were being regularly killed by police officers or Muslims were all terrorists intent on destroying American democracy and I covered that story all the time?

Well, there would be an audience there to make me rich if I did that well too.

By and large I think what I do at Outkick is appeal to readers sense of logic. But there’s a huge market in appealing to readers feelings too. You can agree or disagree with my opinions, but I think most would agree that I cite evidence to support my beliefs. And I try to contextualize those facts.

The same isn’t true of people who appeal almost exclusively to feelings and emotions.

And so what we’ve got in these first amendment results that I linked above is what I believe is the defining battle of 21st century discourse — a contest between logic and emotions, facts and feelings.

And right now there is a huge segment of the American population that would agree with this statement: “If it makes me feel bad, it shouldn’t exist.”

 

I wholeheartedly believe that is wrong.

And I’m starting to believe I may spend the rest of my life fighting this battle.

And for those of us who value logic and facts over facts and emotions, this is a battle we have to win.

Hope y’all have fantastic weekends. Thanks for supporting Outkick.

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