Dilemma of the Open Megaphone
The ninth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks by hijacked jet planes has just been marked by the hijacking of the open megaphone of the American free press by a heretofore obscure
Whether he would follow through or cancel the threat became irrelevant once the contemptible affront to America's basic principle of religious tolerance captured the nation's airwaves and far beyond. A carelessly discarded verbal match ignited a global bonfire.
None less than the President of
The furor underscored once again the downside of a free press that is now open to a myriad of new public voices greatly amplified by the so-called social media. Not only do the traditional mainstream news media pick up such inflammatory stuff; the greatly expanded new echo chamber of freewheeling comment turns the chatter into a din.
Compounded in the process is the dilemma that has been faced down through the years, first by the American press, then by television, and now by the Internet and its various incarnations, from YouTube to
In this particular case, the pastor named
Subsequently he involved himself in talks with a local Muslim cleric, in a naked blackmail effort aimed at derailing plans for a mosque to be built near the site of the 9/11 attacks in
In the days before television and the Internet, the pastor's antics would probably have remained local. But in the current climate of anti-Islamic protest, and with the easy and broadened access to the technologically magnified public conversation, he became the controversy of the week.
The dilemma of what to cover and what to ignore is one the American free press has had to deal with for years, particularly when covering politics and its practitioners. Politicians have long argued for a zone of privacy in their personal lives, and there was a time when print journalists accorded much greater leeway than is common today.
The question frequently came up regarding matters ranging from excessive drinking to marital infidelity. The standard used to be whether such behavior affected an officeholder's performance of official duties. Only if so would it be reported, and even then the story would have a much shorter half-life than in the era of television and now the Internet.
In the 1980s, reports of womanizing by Democratic presidential candidate
Broader and more rapid dissemination of all manner of news is the consequence of the new means of public discourse and their use by more voices. An obscure pastor, of little stature but deft at using this expanded communications phenomenon, can quickly insert himself and his views into the national dialogue, for good or ill. It requires a greater sense of responsibility and proportion than has been shown by news outlets in this latest hijacking of the public megaphone.
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Dilemma of the Open Megaphone
(c) 2010 Jules Witcover