19th Century Vitriol

19th Century Vitriol

To the Editor:

Victorian social restraint was late arriving in the United States, where until the late 19th century political communication was scathingly vitriolic. The Progressive Era which followed in the 20th Century saw newspaper consolidation; major newspapers’ rise to dominance and prominence played a major role in civilizing public speech. The newspaper editor, with fierce independence and integrity, rose above the mud-slinging as a community leader, a counterbalance to venal politicians and narrow-minded partisans. The editor played a unique, irreplaceable societal role as “gate-keeper” for public opinion, who focused debate, framed issues coherently, kept discussion in-bounds. In some times and places, newspapers alone preserved and promoted political, civic, and cultural literacy for a mass audience. The literate read editorials and articles aloud for the general public gathered ‘round on street corners and in taverns, sewing circles, church halls, etc.

When David Speck left the City Council almost a decade ago, “tweeting,” “blogging,” and Facebook were almost unknown concepts. Like former councilmember Speck, I am not convinced these new media are for the better. Today’s communications and information sharing might be faster, more unfiltered, unimaginably voluminous, but less well thought through. Ease, accessibility, and quantity have come at the expense of civility and quality. Casual clothing for young people comes with generous pockets to hold modern micro-electronic devices designed for instantaneous communication, forgetting that such spontaneity and instantaneity comes at the expense of the contemplation and consideration a daily or weekly publication schedule forces, by its very nature causing enough delay to think things through thoroughly.

These new media not only circumvent the edited discourse a newspaper makes feasible, they threaten to undermine civil discourse altogether because they generally lack a bona fide editor acting as “gate-keeper.” These new media take us, I fear, in a headlong rush back to 19th Century vitriolic discourse before newspaper consolidation when everyone with an ax to grind could issue a broadsheet, not unlike today’s “tweets” and “blogs.”

Dino Drudi