More than one reader of the brand-new Provincetown Independent has asked us about our “politics” as a newspaper. What is our position on property taxes, or the Mass. Shellfish Initiative, or the funicular (sorry, “inclined elevator”) up the hill to the Pilgrim Monument? What’s our agenda?
My usual answer to these questions is not very satisfying, I fear. In general I say we need more information before we even think about possibly taking a position.
In fact, that is our agenda: gathering information, reporting it, and creating a space where an honest give-and-take of opinions can occur in a vigorous and yet respectful tone. Newspapers are especially important in pursuing that purpose.
So are our town meetings. Only in New England do we have this peculiarly democratic form of government, and one reason it works at all is because of the moderator, whose job is to protect everyone’s right and ability to speak while ensuring that the work of the meeting is accomplished. “Free speech” is the foundation of this precious institution, but that doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want. The moderator can cut you off if you take too much time, wander from the topic, or make a personal attack.
That’s what editors do, too. Like the moderator, the editor’s most important job is not to express his or her own opinion but to enforce the rules of discourse in a way that encourages the truth to emerge and good decisions about the public’s business to ensue. The best ones do this while overseeing some good-spirited entertainment as well.
As newspapers have declined, we have seen the ethic of moderation waste away. Facebook’s overwhelmed “moderators” can’t even hold back a tidal wave of child pornography, much less keep neighbors from abusing each other to the point of physical violence. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Andrew Marantz wrote, “I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.”
Marantz suggests that it’s time to reconsider some aspects of our understanding of the First Amendment, including “blanket protections of hate speech.” He quotes Berkeley law professor John A. Powell: “It’s simpler to think only about the First Amendment and to ignore, say, the 14th Amendment, which guarantees full citizenship and equal protection to all Americans, including those who are harmed by hate speech. It’s simpler, but it’s also wrong.”
We have launched the Independent not to promote a particular point of view on one or another issue but to promote a way of engaging with one another that pushes back, in some small way, against the forces — economic, technological, and political — that tend to pull us apart. Let’s not give up on that town meeting-like way of addressing our differences and leaving the auditorium smiling and shaking hands at the end of the evening.