The Public’s Right to Know


For the past ten or more years, I have posted my essays on a blog run by Google. It had always been easy to do; traffic on the Blog was generally slow. It was a way to preserve my essays (besides the paper copies and the ones stored in the cloud and on my hard drive), and as a means to access them by subject through the internet. In recent months, the number of "hits" on my Blog has risen to the range of four to six thousand a month - not a lot in this age we live in, but enough so that Google apparently decided that posting and editing should be more onerous. I have not been blocked, but access for me has become more difficult.

"Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Wherever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press."

~ Calvin Coolidge ~

A few days ago, Twitter and Facebook blocked access to a story in the New York Post that showed an e-mail from Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, to Hunter Biden, a new board member. The e-mail, dated April 17, 2015, thanked Hunter Biden for an introduction to his father, indicating a meeting had taken place between Vice President Biden and Mr. Pozharskyi. Mr. Biden has denied such a meeting took place. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, led by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is "in the process of validating the information," as Senator Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. As well, Twitter locked the personal account of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, because she had linked to the Post's story.

The excuse given by Twitter, with more than a whiff of hypocrisy, was that the story the New York Post published was based on private information about another individual without permission. Twitter had no problem publishing the New York Times leaked (or hacked) tax returns of President Trump, despite no permission. Nor did Twitter or Facebook ever "fact-check" the Trump-Russian collusion story, which went on for three years, and turned out to be fake. One would think that news about Mr. Biden and his family, just as news about Mr. Trump and his family, would be in the public domain. After all, both men are running for President. Why are conservatives not offered the same latitude as progressives? One answer might lie in relations between big tech and the Biden campaign. At least three individuals who have ties to Silicon Valley (and the Obama administration) sit on the Biden campaign committee: Avril Haines who worked for the data mining company Palantir; Antony Blinken, a co-founder and lobbyist for WestExec, where he acted as a go-between between the Department of Defense and Silicon Valley companies like Google; and Cynthia Hogan, former vice president for public policy and government affairs at Apple.

Nevertheless, to keep the public in the dark regarding news of political candidates is censorship. There are only two reasons for suppressing information: one, you don't trust the public with the data, or, two, you think the public is imbecilic. Fact checking is legitimate, but when "fact checking" means canceling facts or opinions that are at odds with a preferred narrative, we approach the realm of George Orwell's "Thought Police." If "big tech" governs what we write or say, what will be the fate of minority opinions? Facebook and Twitter, as Michael Dougherty wrote in National Review are "the most powerful media companies on earth." Voters have a right to know if, as Vice President, Mr. Biden paved the way for his son Hunter to reap millions of dollars from Ukraine, China and Russia. Is it not possible that such information could be used to blackmail Mr. Biden should he be elected President? As the Wall Street Journal opined on Friday in their lead editorial, "...a free society cannot survive if its people are not committed to it..."

Throughout American history slanted news has been a constant, but with 24-hour news and ubiquitous internet connection, it is important we understand the biases of those we read and to whom we listen. In terms of our rights to know, the risk we face is not a dearth of information but a surfeit of propaganda pretending to be news. We should all listen, watch and read skeptically. It is when we take as gospel the eloquent words on the page or believe without questioning the mellifluous voices on TV, we are likely to be snookered. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961, once wrote: "Freedom of the press, or, to be more precise, the benefit of freedom of the press, belongs to everyone - to the citizens as well as the publisher...The crux is not the publisher's 'freedom to print'; it is rather the citizen's 'right to know'" If only his heirs felt the same! Unfortunately, opinions on the frontpage of today's New York Times masquerade as news. And we now have tech executives determining what and what not we read and see. With the left dominating the media, the power they have is overwhelming. When they and politicians march to the same drummer we have cause for alarm, reminding one of Mussolini's description of fascism: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

A democracy cannot survive without an informed citizenry. Newspapers, radio and television were our sole source of information through the 1980s. The internet changed that. Daily newspaper circulation in 2018 was 28.6 million, down 55% from a peak in 1984 of 63.3 million. In contrast, 87 million people follow President Trump on Twitter. The three broadcast stations and the three main cable networks have a combined evening news audience of about eighteen million. Most people get their news in ways unknown to my parents' generation. Statista claims there are 275 million smart phones in the U.S. There are about 225 million Americans with Facebook accounts and 48 million with Twitter accounts[1]. A 2019 Pew Research study suggested 43% of Americans get news through Facebook, 21% from YouTube and 12% from Twitter. The power a small number of tech companies have over the dissemination of news is astonishing, not to mention the influence they have on behavior. When they, in concert, favor one candidate or one political Party, we risk becoming a one-Party nation. The Founders created a republic, not a democracy, for the reason they wanted to ensure minority rights were protected.

It is disturbing to a commentator like me, with a small following of a couple of thousand, to be harassed if even in a minor way, because of what it says about our society and culture. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but I do hope everyone agrees that I have a right to my opinions. "Our liberty," said Thomas Jefferson, "depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited, without being lost." Whenever and wherever suppression of the news appears, it should be shouted down. The public has a right to know.

Sydney Williams

October 17, 2020

[1] For the record, I have a dormant Facebook account. I do not have a Twitter account.