12 September 2018 – The Front Page was an hilarious one-set stage play supposedly taking place over a single night in the dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. I’m not going to synopsize the plot because the Wikipedia entry cited above does such an excellent job it’s better for you to follow the link and read it yourself.
First performed in 1928, the play has been revived several times and suffered countless adaptations to other media. It’s notable for the fact that the main character, Hildy Johnson, originally written as a male part, is even more interesting as a female. That says something important, but I don’t know what.
By the way, I insist that the very best adaptation is Howard Hawks’ 1940 tour de force film entitled His Girl Friday starring Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant as the other main character Walter Burns. Burns is Johnson’s boss and ex-husband who uses various subterfuges to prevent Hildy from quitting her job and marrying an insurance salesman.
That’s not what I want to talk about today, though. What’s important for this blog posting is part of the play’s backstory. It’s important because it can help provide context for the entire social media industry, which is becoming so important for American society right now.
In that backstory, a critical supporting character is one Earl Williams, who’s a mousey little man convicted of murdering a policeman and sentenced to be executed the following morning right outside the press-room window. During the course of the play, it comes to light that Williams, confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue speaking in a public park, accidentally shot the policeman and was subsequently railroaded in court by a corrupt sheriff who wanted to use his execution to help get out the black(!?) vote for his re-election campaign.
What publicly executing a confused communist sympathizer has to do with motivating black voters I still fail to understand, but it makes as much sense as anything else the sheriff says or does.
This plot has so many twists and turns paralleling issues still resonating today that it’s rediculous. That’s a large part of the play’s fun!
Anyway, what I want you to focus on right now is the subtle point that Williams was confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue.
Soapbox demagogues were a fixture in pre-Internet political discourse. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment explicitly gives private citizens the right to peaceably assemble in public places. For example, during the late 1960s a typical summer Sunday afternoon anywhere in any public park in North America or Europe would see a gathering of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 hippies for an impromptu “Love In,” or “Be In,” or “Happening.” With no structure or set agenda folks would gather to do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. My surrealist novelette Lilith describes a gathering of angels, said to be “the hippies of the supernatural world,” that was patterned after a typical Hippie Love In.
Similarly, a soapbox demagogue had the right to commandeer a picnic table, bandstand, or discarded soapbox to place himself (at the time they were overwhelmingly male) above the crowd of passersby that he hoped would listen to his discourse on whatever he wanted to talk about.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century.
I haven’t been hanging around local parks on Sunday afternoons for a long time, so I don’t know if soapbox demagogues are still out there. I doubt that they are because it’s easier and cheaper to log onto a social-media platform, such as Facebook, to shoot your mouth off before a much larger international audience.
I have browsed social media, however, and see the same sort of drivel that used to spew out of the mouths of soapbox demagogues back in the day.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s really nothing novel about social media. Being a platform for anyone to say anything to anyone is the same as last-century soapboxes being available for anyone who thinks they have something to say. It’s a prominent right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In fact, it’s important enough to be guaranteed in the very first of th Bill’s amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
What is not included, however, is a proscription against anyone ignoring the HECK out of soapbox demagogues! They have the right to talk, but we have the right to not listen.
Back in the day, almost everybody passed by soapbox demagogues without a second glance. We all knew they climbed their soapboxes because it was the only venue they had to voice their opinions.
Preachers had pulpits in front of congregations, so you knew they had something to say that people wanted to hear. News reporters had newspapers people bought because they contained news stories that people wanted to read. Scholars had academic journals that other scholars subscribed to because they printed results of important research. Fiction writers had published novels folks read because they found them entertaining.
The list goes on.
Soapbox demagogues, however, had to stand on an impromptu platform because they didn’t have anything to say worth hearing. The only ones who stopped to listen were those, like the unemployed Earl Williams, who had nothing better to do.
The idea of pretending that social media is any more of a legitimate venue for ideas is just goofy.
Social media are not legitimate media for the exchange of ideas simply because anybody is able to say anything on them, just like a soapbox in a park. Like a soapbox in a park, most of what is said on social media isn’t worth hearing. It’s there because the barrier to entry is essentially nil. That’s why so many purveyors of extremist and divisive rhetoric gravitate to social media platforms. Legitimate media won’t carry them.
Legitimate media organizations have barriers to the entry of lousy ideas. For example, I subscribe to The Economist because of their former Editor in Chief, John Micklethwait, who impressed me as an excellent arbiter of ideas (despite having a weird last name). I was very pleased when he transferred over to Bloomberg News, which I consider the only televised outlet for globally significant news. The Wall Street Journal‘s business focus forces Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray into a “just the facts, ma’am” stance because every newsworthy event creates both winners and losers in the business community, so content bias is a non-starter.
The common thread among these legitimate-media sources is existance of an organizational structure focused on maintaining content quality. There are knowlegeable gatekeepers (called “editors“) charged with keeping out bad ideas.
So, when Donald Trump, for example, shows a preference for social media (in his case, Twitter) and an abhorrence of traditional news outlets, he’s telling us his ideas aren’t worth listening to. Legitimate media outlets disparage his views, so he’s forced to use the twenty-first century equivalent of a public-park soapbox: social media.
On social media, he can say anything to anybody because there’s nobody to tell him, “That’s a stupid thing to say. Don’t say it!”