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Editor's Blog

Free speech in a fishbowl

In a world where everyone has access instantly to what is said on the other side of the planet, free speech has to reckon with millions of new 'free listeners'

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To be sure, a high-profile event such as publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 so outraged hard-line Muslims that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the novelist. That was a clear sign that the West was no longer talking amongst itself. For better or worse, free speech now takes place in a global fishbowl. Whether you love the US Constitution is unnecessary. You can listen, even if you live where you dare not speak.

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The fishbowl’s big minus is the potential inflaming of public opinion in parts of the world that don’t agree that anything can be said. The threat of far-off violence can chill public discourse. The big plus is that the rest of the world is now part of a global conversation that once only took place in the West. At the least, the rest of the world can help crowd-source and fact-check.

I used to be a foreign correspondent. I hope you will trust me when I say I was scrupulous about sourcing. I know that is an act of faith on your part, so thank you. The thing is, being truthful wasn’t absolutely necessary for journalists in the old days. If a quote was shaded, several sources conflated, or events embroidered – well, read Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” or Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page” and you’ll know that my profession has had plenty of corner-cutters and fact-enhancers in the ranks. The Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times and the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today are recent real-world examples.

But even a by-the-book journalist could take comfort in knowing that the oppressive government of the country he or she had managed to get into wasn’t likely to see the dispatch that reported on suppressed uprisings or secret purges. Those articles were only read back home.

Goodbye to all that. Seconds after an article is published on the Web, it is picked up by search engines. Everyone can see it – the misquoted villager, the government official irked at how his country was portrayed. Everyone can be a fact-checker. That’s good. It improves accuracy. It may also mean that a closed society that puts a Google watch on a reporter’s name may not let that reporter back into the country. Such are the trade-offs in the era of the global conversation.

Long live free speech. Here’s hoping free speakers don’t overdo it. Here’s hoping all the new free listeners get used to it.

John Yemma is the editor of
The Christian Science Montor.

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