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Preserving Editorial Prerogatives

Posted on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 4:51 PM

Watching a trend that could constrain our editorial judgments.

By William Dunkerley

The US Postmaster General and the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission have released a joint edict of great consequence to editors everywhere. The two federal agencies are introducing startling new regulations. They are intended to protect Americans from misinformation. Accordingly, editors will be provided with formal guidance specifying topics and issues that will be impermissible for dissemination by mail or over the internet. A "three strikes you're out" rule will apply to infractions. A violation notice will be provided to first-time offenders. A second offense will result in a two-month suspension of access to postal and internet services. Offense number three will bring about a permanent block on access to services. The effective date for the new edict is April 1, 2022.

The foregoing is, of course, not true. It is simply a fictionalization intended to dramatize a point. What point? It is the beginning of a movement to regulate content. Carried too far, content regulation can be of great danger to editors. It can constrain our prerogatives in making editorial judgments in the interests of our readers.

Historically, content regulation has been very minimal. Obscenity, indecency, and illegality have been accepted areas for regulation. But on April 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee delved deeper into content regulation. It held a hearing that, according to Politico, focused on "structural issues in how companies approach content moderation."

"In the last decade, going through 2020 with the pandemic as a capstone, there has been a lot of focus on content," said a Facebook executive in a CNN report. The recent Senate hearing specifically concerned itself with algorithms used by social media companies. Senator Ben Sasse said, "I want to dig into the role of algorithms in spreading information and shaping behavioral health."

That's certainly far afield from the editorial focus of most EO readers. But even this level of content regulation would set a precedent. It could readily lead to expansion in the future.

Whether editorial decisions are made by algorithms or by people is just a matter of means, not substance. If algorithmic editorial decisions can be regulated, so can human-based decisions. Political interest ultimately seems to be directed at the editorial result, not just the means. Politicians apparently want their particular issues promoted, and those of their opponents suppressed. The fact that editorial decision making might be constrained by political exigencies should be troubling to any editor.

Our legislative bodies should indeed be concerned about the overarching roles that the social media companies are playing. Monopolistic practices are clearly ripe for regulation. That would be a more productive role for regulation. Meanwhile, lawmakers should be more respectful of the First Amendment and stay away from content regulation intended to further their political objectives.

Consider the hypothetical dilemma of an editor at a publication covering the energy field. What if a political consensus emerges that the use of any fossil fuel places public health and the environment at unacceptable risk? Accordingly, regulation will forbid the publication of any information that does not portray the production and use of fossil fuel as a danger.

Presently, as an editor you are free to apply that editorial judgment in your publication if you want. Perhaps you believe it is a practical solution. But maybe you don't. Would you want to be forced to implement a mandated choice contrary to your own judgment? What if the readership of your publication is heavily weighted toward the interests of the fossil fuel industry? Where would that leave your publication?

This is a matter for our professional organizations to take up and defend our editorial prerogatives. But I don't see them doing it. If you are a member of an editorial association, I strongly recommend that you demand its attention to this and other matters that are of global significance to our profession. If you are not a member, this might be a good time to join and demand action.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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