George Pyle: It used to be much easier to spot lies

It’s hard to edit any platform with 275 million contributors.

(AP Photo) This Jan. 8 image shows the suspended Twitter account of President Donald Trump. The social media company permanently suspended Trump from its platform, citing "risk of further incitement of violence."

The people who run Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all that other stuff are under no obligation to provide a cyber-megaphone for anyone, especially anyone who spreads lies, foments violence and wants to use their pride-and-joy creation to undermine democracy.

Blocking tweets, deleting posts and banning users is in no way a violation of anyone’s First Amendment rights. Social media is not a public utility and pushing anyone off any of the platforms is not a government decision.

Some complain that conservative views are more likely to be blocked by social media giants. Maybe. Maybe things that get called “conservative” these days are just more likely to be false, hateful or seditious.

Things were so much simpler when the public forum was a newspaper, and the editors actually saw everything that was in it. Something that’s just not possible when, like Twitter, you have 275 million monthly active users worldwide, not all of them as visible as the president of the United States.

Their names were Wilbur and Ernie, and they looked just like that sounds. A couple of grumpy old men who were the president, vice president and, as far as I was ever able to tell, the only paid-up members of the local Taxpayers Association.

Pillars of the community found them annoying. “Gadflies” was the label they won and cherished. But reporters for the newspaper I was running at the time found them useful.

Any time anyone in that town wanted to improve anything — expand the library, create an art center or, most of all, spend more money on schools — it was a very simple matter to make the newspaper article about it “fair and balanced.” We just called Ernie or Wilbur and asked what they thought.

No matter what it was or who commenced it, they were against it. You put their quote in your article and, bingo, you had “both sides.”

There was an election coming up to ratify or reject a vote of the local school board to raise property taxes. Wilbur and Ernie were leading the charge against the tax hike.

Just a few days before the vote, Wilbur walked into the newspaper office with a spread sheet and enough money to buy a full-page ad. It was a list of every school district employee, from the superintendent to the crossing guards, by name, with each person’s annual pay and benefits.

Wilbur wanted to run the list in the newspaper, without comment or elaboration. He figured the information would build up public resentment over how much money some of the administrators and teachers were being paid and undermine the argument that the schools were underfunded.

He figured correctly. The ad ran and the tax hike was narrowly voted down.

Before taking Wilbur’s money, the publisher and I seriously considered rejecting the ad on the grounds that it was a last-minute bomb that pro-school folks wouldn’t have time to respond to or put in context. It was a tricky way to sabotage a needed improvement in local education.

There was just one problem with that thinking. Wilbur’s information was true. Every middle initial and decimal point. All accurate and all public record. We checked.

We could have still rejected the ad. It was our newspaper, a private business with unquestioned editorial control over what we did and did not publish. Wilbur had his First Amendment rights to speak his mind, but no legal right to demand the use of our printing presses as his megaphone.

If the ad had contained false information or was a violation of privacy rights, we’d have shown him the door. Newspapers, then and now, routinely reject ads, letters to the editor and commentary pieces when we know they contain lies, invasions of privacy or racist utterings. But when you are in the truth business, well, you don’t spike facts.

Of course, if Wilbur had had a Twitter account, or a Facebook page, he’d tweet and post whatever he wanted, fact or fiction, in context or without, fair or unfair, and nobody could or would have stopped him. And if he had been able to get school taxes voted down, the city manager fired or plans for a local-access cable TV channel canceled, that’s free speech for you.

(Actually, the local-access cable channel, funded by a tiny surcharge on everyone’s cable bill, sailed through because the mayor cleverly put Wilbur on the operation’s board of directors. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.)

Looking back, it occurs to me that, while Wilbur and Ernie were automatically opposed to anything that cost taxpayers money, they actually had some respect for the truth.

Ah, the good old days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks it is pure karma that so many people who invaded the U.S. Capitol are being traced by the FBI through their social media accounts.


Twitter, @debatestate