May 12, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, May 12, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Should government regulate Facebook's news service? History of 1949 Fairness Doctrine suggests "no"
Headlines continue to ricochet over the controversy concerning Facebook and charges made by the website Gizmodo that insiders at Facebook have admitted to a bias against conservative views and conservative articles in the trending service on the Facebook website. But now there’s a very interesting additional development and it was reported in the New York Times yesterday. Nick Corasaniti and Mike Isaac reporting for the Times tell us,
“The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded on Tuesday that Facebook explain how it handles news articles in its “trending” list, responding to a report that staff members had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative sources.”Show Full Transcript
As the New York Times reports, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, sent a demand letter to Facebook. And in it he demanded that Facebook describe,
“…the steps it was taking to investigate the claims and to provide any records about articles that its news curators had excluded or added. Mr. Thune also asked directly whether the curators had ‘in fact manipulated the content,’ something Facebook denied in a statement on Monday.”
In comments made to the press, Senator Thune said,
“If there’s any level of subjectivity associated with it, or if, as reports have suggested that there might have been, an attempt to suppress conservative stories or keep them from trending and get other stories out there, I think it’s important for people to know that.”
The Senator continued,
“That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.”
As we discussed yesterday, the bigger issue behind this is the new role played by social media in terms of the delivery of news content; and that does not come without major changes in the way Americans not only receive their news, but also analyze it. One thing that hasn’t been often mentioned is how reductionistic many of the social media delivery systems are, unlike the longer format of news reports in both print media and broadcast news just a generation ago.
But as we are looking at the controversy over Facebook, there is a new development. And that is exactly what was represented by Senator Thune’s demand letter to Facebook. And then in the response to all this there are some, importantly some conservatives, who are now calling for something like a return of the Fairness Rule that had been enforced by the Federal Communications Commission for years. That is something we should note with grave concern.
It’s one thing for a United States Senator, in this case, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to ask legitimate questions about what is actually happening in terms of Facebook’s policy. It’s another thing for conservatives to turn to the federal government and see it as the rescuer in this situation and call for government action. There is a background to this, and that was the role the federal government once played in exercising what it calls the Fairness Doctrine. Back in 1949, the federal government adopted this doctrine in a time when there were limited networks on both radio and television and there was the danger that minority positions might not gain an airing. And in light of that, the government adopted this doctrine; again, it was known as the Fairness Doctrine, requiring that networks and broadcasters would have to give equal time to balancing views—both liberal and conservative views.
The problem with that should be immediately apparent. This means that someone has to watch all of the news, has to review all the news content, and decide and define what a balanced perspective is. There’s a dual danger in that. The first danger is that that reflects too much confidence in government as itself the gatekeeper; that’s a problem. The second is that it also relies upon subjective human evaluation to decide what is and is not balanced. We should note that we have been served well in terms of the exchange of ideas by a multiplication of media outlets and a new expansion in terms of media opportunities. In the digital age there is no excuse for anything like government coercion when it comes to something like the fairness doctrine, which, we should note, was repealed in 1987.
But there is always the danger that when people think that someone has acted unfairly they will look to the government as the rescuer. And in this case, conservatives should check very carefully the impulse to turn to the federal government, even in a case like Facebook, even when there is demonstrated and proved discrimination, and say that something like the Fairness Doctrine should be put back into place. That doctrine did not serve this country well in terms of the free exchange of ideas, because instead it meant that many broadcasters simply didn’t cover many issues or allow any discussion because of the fear that how they might present the issues would be defined as unbalanced. Instead, we are better served by understanding that a pluralism or a multiplicity of media outlets affords a far greater opportunity that the exchange of ideas will be both balanced and legitimate over time. It is much more effective to have liberal arguments balanced by conservative arguments in the marketplace of ideas. And this is where conservatives need to understand that there is no way, given our own principles, to ask the government to do what we must do for ourselves—and that is make arguments that are compelling in the public square.
An editorial in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal got right to the point when it described the action now pending in the Senate as being counterproductive. The editors wrote,
“We’d suggest there are higher government priorities than reimposing the 1949 Fairness Doctrine that dictated equal coverage for opposing viewpoints (but ended up squelching all viewpoints).”
That is a very legitimate concern. It’s fair to demand that Facebook be transparent in terms of its policies and procedures when it comes to news, whether it’s on the main site or in the trending feature. Then informed users of Facebook would at least be fully aware of what’s behind what they are seeing and not seeing on Facebook’s website. But in terms of turning to the government for rescue, this is a lesson we should learn from the past. It simply doesn’t work. If there’s going to be something like a Fairness Doctrine, then someone has to define fairness and decide who, after all, is fair and balanced. The current media environment may be truly more chaotic than anything we’ve seen in the past, but we should at least understand the decided advantage of having an open forum for a free exchange of ideas. Those who have confidence in the truth should not fear that free exchange of ideas. It is our responsibility to make arguments, and to make them stick.
Obama's upcoming visit to Hiroshima raises questions of how this generation remembers WWII
Next, a story of huge moral significance landed on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. As the New York Times reported, President Obama will be visiting Hiroshima. A visit they said that will,
“Raise ghosts of the past.”
David E Sanger writing for the Times said,
“For decades, visitors to the ghostly dome in Hiroshima that stands like a sole survivor from the dropping of the atomic bomb there more than 70 years ago entered a world that mixed unspeakable tragedy with historical amnesia.
“The site, which President Obama will visit this month, reflected an almost universal Japanese view that the city was a victim of unnecessary brutality — parents and children incinerated, thousands killed and a generation poisoned by radiation.
“Yet museum exhibits nearby were largely silent on what led to that horror, a Japanese war machine that tore through Asia for a decade before the morning that changed the history of the 20th century.”
In my view, Sanger’s article on the front page of yesterday’s edition of the Times is an excellent example of journalism. He explains the issue straightforwardly and very accurately. As he writes,
“For Americans of the World War II generation, and many of their children, Hiroshima is at the center of a very different narrative. They believe President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the bomb saved tens of thousands of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Ask the few surviving veterans of that generation — those who fought their way from Iwo Jima to Okinawa and knew what was coming next — and there is no looking back at Truman’s decision, no moral equivalence between a Japanese campaign that killed more than 20 million in Asia and the horror of the bomb that ended it all.”
The White House announcement of the President’s visit to Hiroshima ricocheted all over the world, and indeed as Sanger pointed out in the New York Times this points to two competing narratives about the meaning of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that brought to an end the war in the Pacific theater. Similarly, Carol Lee and Peter Landers, writing for the Wall Street Journal, point to the inevitable questions that will be raised by President Obama’s visit. As they wrote,
“He won’t apologize for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 70 years ago, officials said. But the symbolism of an American president commemorating the victims of the attack on Hiroshima is as close as the U.S. will have come to delivering one.”
So let’s note some historical facts. Only in the last several weeks has an American Secretary of State visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And this visit by President Obama just announced this week will be the first visit by an American president to either of the cities. Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary said,
“The president intends the visit to send a much more forward-looking signal about his ambition for realizing the goals of a planet without nuclear weapons.”
“This also is an opportunity for the visit to highlight the remarkable transformation in the relationship between Japan and the United States.”
That last point is worthy of our reflection, because it is one of the great quandaries of history to imagine how the United States and Japan became such close allies after being locked into the situation of being such deadly adversaries in the Second World War. In its headline story on page one yesterday, USA Today pointed out that many in Japan will understand the President’s visit to be an apology regardless of what President Obama does or does not say. As Kirk Spitzer of USA Today reported,
“American veterans groups have urged Obama not to visit Hiroshima until the Japanese apologize for the wartime treatment of American prisoners of war, thousands of whom died of abuse and starvation in Japanese prison camps.”
Spitzer went on to write,
“And while polls show that most Japanese do not expect Obama to explicitly apologize for the bombing, many Japanese are likely to interpret his mere visit as an apology.”
But there are huge ironies embedded in this story, huge moral issues that go beyond the symbolism of a presidential visit. For one thing, the White House Press Secretary said that President Obama will be speaking at Hiroshima in part because he wants to take additional steps in terms of his goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. That, on the one hand, sounds like a very laudable goal; but on the other hand, in a fallen world one of the things we have to keep in mind is that once a technology, including a technology of war, has been invented, it is not going to be forgotten. And thus, it is virtually irrational to believe that at any point nuclear weapons having been invented will somehow disappear by anyone’s political will.
Furthermore, the irony was extended in an analysis piece published also in yesterday’s New York Times in which the paper said that the president’s push,
“…to modernize the American nuclear weapons stockpile by spending as much as $1 trillion over three decades could cause a new arms race, as even the president has acknowledged.”
So here we have the irony of a president appearing at Hiroshima saying that he will not apologize, even though his visit is likely to be interpreted in itself as an apology. And his own spokesperson says he will be appearing in order to advance his argument for the end of nuclear weapons, even as he himself is pushing for a modernization of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile, spending as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Another major irony is that even as the President will be visiting Hiroshima, Japan itself is protected, along with other American allies in the Pacific area, by the fact that the United States has a nuclear arsenal; and the only reason our allies in the Pacific, including South Korea and Japan, have not had their own independent nuclear force is precisely because they have been under what has been defined as the American nuclear umbrella. That is something that Japan does not want to escape even as the President will be appearing in Hiroshima. There are all kinds of moral issues here, moral quandaries and ironies abound, and there is no way that a President of the United States can visit Hiroshima without at least some people interpreting his visit as an apology. One thing is for certain, when the President visits Hiroshima he will begin a conversation he himself will not be able to control.
President Obama set to create first LGBT national monument at infamous Stonewall site
Next in terms of understanding how the moral revolution is taking shape around us, Josh Lederman of the Washington Post reported,
“New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn, where the modern gay rights movement took root, will become the first national monument honoring the history of gays and lesbians in the U.S. under a proposal President Barack Obama is preparing to approve.”
As Lederman goes on to say,
“Designating the small swath of land will mark a major act of national recognition for gay rights advocates and their struggles over the last half-century. Since the 1969 uprising in Greenwich Village, the U.S. has enacted anti-discrimination protections, allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.”
Lederman goes on to explain,
“Land must still be transferred to the federal government and other details worked out, the president is expected to move quickly to greenlight the monument following a public meeting Monday in Manhattan, according to two individuals familiar with the administration’s plans.”
In terms of the historical significance of the Stonewall rebellion, Lederman reports,
“The gritty tavern, known colloquially as the Stonewall, became a catalyst for the gay rights movement after police raided it on June 28, 1969. Bar-goers fought back, and many more joined in street protests over the following days in an uprising widely credited as the start of large-scale gay activism in New York and around the word. Annual pride parades in hundreds of cities commemorate the rebellion.”
This is really interesting for us to watch, because if you go back to 1969 and what is now called the Stonewall Rebellion, you’ll discover that many of the press photographs from the era depict something very different from what most LGBT activists would want us to imagine today. It was in many ways the incident that prompted the modern gay-rights movement, but it is itself a very clear indicator of the vast moral change that has taken place in the United States. For the Stonewall Inn to be designated a national historic monument and celebrated by the President of the United States is a clear sign of a moral revolution that has come, in a very real sense, full circle. And as we’re looking at the President’s announcement, we need to understand that it’s not the first time he has pointed to Stonewall as a commemoration.
As the Washington Post noted, President Obama has paid tribute to Stonewall before, “most notably in his second inaugural address in 2013.”
Lederman goes on to say,
“In what’s believed to be the first reference to gay rights in an inaugural address, Obama said the principle of equality still guides the U.S. ‘just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.’”
But a reference in an inaugural address is one thing, the commemoration of Stonewall as a national monument is something quite different. And when we’re thinking about the moral revolution itself, the terms of President Obama in office, elected first in 2008 and then reelected in 2012, point to just how fast this revolution has taken place, something the President, we should note, drew attention to recently when he was in London. In remarks made while he was visiting the United Kingdom, President Obama said,
“In the United States what’s been remarkable is the rapidity with which the marriage equality movement changed the political landscape, and hearts and minds and resulted in actual changes in law.”
That from the website, Christian Today, referring back to when the President was making comments in order to assure people in the United Kingdom that the United States was a welcoming country. He made those statements in the aftermath of a controversy having to do with legislation passed in North Carolina and Mississippi. But what wasn’t noted in terms of the press coverage of the President’s remarks is how what he described as,
“…the remarkable rapidity with which the marriage equality movement changed the political landscape.”
It’s the remarkable rapidity with which that particular movement evidently changed in his own policy. Because when he ran for president in 2008, he was opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage. He supported it when he ran for reelection in 2012, and by the time he spoke to this group in London about the transformation of the United States, he could just as well have spoken of the transformation of his own presidency as he is completing eight years in the office. Interestingly, in making reference to his own change of mind and policy on the issue, the President pointed to his two daughters as being primary influences on his change of mind.
Christians looking at this announcement from the White House need to understand at least two things, and we need to understand them clearly. On the one hand, it points to the fact that the moral revolution around us is real and the velocity that we have experienced is not a misperception. Here you have one of the agents of that velocity, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, speaking in an international context, not inside the United States, making that very same point in trying to explain the United States to a London audience.
The second thing we need to understand is that worldview implications attach to virtually anything of importance, and that includes even something that might be considered to be just circumstantial or ceremonial, like the naming of a national historic monument. It might be tempting to think that there are no real worldview implications to something like putting up an historic monument. But as we now understand, the battle over history is a battle over worldview. It’s a battle over morality and how these issues are to be explained not just to Americans alive in 2016, not to mention those who were alive in 1969, the event to which the monument will point, but those who will be live in generations yet to come.
Winston Churchill was once famously asked if he thought history would treat him well. He said yes, indeed he did. The person who asked the question asked why he could be so confident. Churchill famously replied,
“Because I intend to write the history.”
That’s exactly what we’re seeing now. The gay-rights movement, having told us repeatedly that we will be found opposing them on the wrong side of history now, intends to write that history. And the President of the United States intends to help them by means of this national monument and the marker that will explain the significance. The Christian worldview reminds us that history is never just history. It is telling a story. The big issue is, who gets to tell that story?
"Male," "female," or "fill in the blank"? College applications join the gender revolution
Finally, sometimes the moral revolution shows up in some unexpected places and one of those might be your college application. The so-called Common Application is used by more than 600 schools nationwide, and the Universal College Application is used by more than 40. Together they announced that the next version of these applications will allow transgender and “gender-nonconforming applicants,” that’s how they are described, to begin in the 2016-17 academic year to indicate some new gender other than male and female. As the Huffington Post reported,
“Starting in the 2016-2017 academic year, the Common Application will offer an optional free response text field to give students a place to further describe their gender identity, and will update the ‘sex’ field to read ‘sex assigned at birth,’ its leadership said.”
The other major application, the Universal College application said it will “begin asking applicants for their ‘legal sex’ instead of simply ‘sex.’ While applicants must select ‘male’ or ‘female’ on the form, a new optional gender identity question will offer students the choice of identifying as ‘man,’ ‘woman’ or ‘self-identity’ with a free-form text field, according to the consortium of schools that use the application.”
The important thing to recognize here is that you have a moral meltdown that shows up in an application to college when a moral revolution like this has its way. For one thing, these newly revised applications will simply add to the confusion. We have to ask the simple question, what exactly will these colleges and universities now know and what will they do with this information? We’re quickly headed into a situation in our society in which categories like male and female will have no public significance whatsoever. We need to recognize that that’s exactly what’s being celebrated when that Stonewall revolution monument is unveiled—a movement to totally revise the moral code upon which our civilization has been established. But that, we should note, is certainly not what will be said on that monument.