As I See It: In the Shadow of The West Wing
March 9, 2020 Victor Rozek
Twenty years ago, I developed an addiction. Not to one of the usual recreational substances, but to Aaron Sorkin’s writing. The West Wing was like no other show I had ever seen. It had gravitas. It explored issues of significance. The dialogue was crisp and quick. The characters had range, from funny and wise, to playful and profound. For the first time since I began watching television, I didn’t want to miss a single word.
It aired at a difficult time for the country. The Bush administration was in the process of orchestrating two major wars, the housing bubble, and the bank collapse as a follow-on to its failure to prevent 9/11.
By contrast, Sorkin’s fictional rendition of a presidential administration was intelligent, nuanced, principled, and competent; in short everything the “Is our children learning?” administration was not. For me The West Wing was like a balm on a national sore.
So when Sorkin weighed in on the Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook/political free speech controversy, I was reasonably sure his viewpoint would be, at the very least, eloquent and persuasive.
He published an Op-ed in The New York Times, in which he acknowledged that he and Zuckerberg had some history. Back in 2010, Sorkin wrote the movie The Social Network and Zuckerberg didn’t like it. But not because it wasn’t well written. Rather, I would guess, because it portrayed him as a young man with few social skills and questionable loyalties.
Sorkin took issue with Zuckerberg hiding behind a free speech defense to justify “Facebook’s practice of posting demonstrably false ads from political candidates.”
“Right now on your website,” wrote Sorkin, “is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son.”
Now, most rational people could see the absurdity in such a claim immediately: Everyone knows Ukrainian public servants can be bribed for far less. Besides, who would believe Joe Biden had an extra billion laying around for nepotistic childcare?
Nonetheless, there are people in this country who eagerly and gleefully believe that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington pizza parlor. And, they vote.
Therein lies the problem, and the risk. While even pornography is protected by the First Amendment, Sorkin points out that “This isn’t the same as pornography, which people don’t rely upon for information.” And when “over 40 percent of Americans say they get news from Facebook,” not to mention that about a third of the entire global population now regularly accesses the platform, it may be time to consider the impact of unexamined posting.
“This can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want,” argues Sorkin, “to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.”
As sacrosanct as the First Amendment is to American life and values, Sorkin contends that speech protections exist “to make sure no one gets imprisoned or killed for saying or writing something unpopular, not to ensure that lies have unfettered access to the American electorate.”
It was poet and essayist Rita Dove who captured the unwritten essence of American governance, and therefore of free speech with which it is inextricably entwined. “Much of our government,” she wrote, “seems based on trust, the assumption that people will behave like decent human beings.” And while a system of checks and balances was designed to restrict power, “there are these loopholes that betray a belief that people will be decent.”
In other words, decency was presumed to be a bulwark against the worst impulses of people in power. And for the most part, it worked. Even Nixon resigned. But decency has recently been abandoned as a standard of behavior. Which brings us back to the question of whether Facebook should assume more responsibility for what it will tolerate on its platform.
If, 250 years ago, a British loyalist claimed that Martha Washington was the head of a satanic cult that met regularly in her root cellar, such absurdity wouldn’t reach enough susceptible ears to influence her husband’s political future. Without the amplifying power of computer technology, lies could only spread so far.
In point of fact, Sorkin argues, there are existing laws holding content producers and distributors accountable: “…movie studios, television networks and book, magazine and newspaper publishers” can be sued for deliberately malicious content. Libel and slander can be addressed in civil proceedings.
Currently, there are no laws governing do’s and don’ts for Internet content carriers, and Zuckerberg seems testy when challenged in Congressional hearings with the threat of them. His position is that “people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.” If that’s the case, Facebook could still post all political ads, but simply label those that are demonstrably deceits. In fact, Facebook recently announced it will flag false posts about the coronavirus, fearing the spread of misinformation and panic. How the coronavirus differs from a thought virus is not clear.
The flaw in Zuckerberg’s argument is that propaganda, domestic and foreign, is the purview of highly skilled professionals, with more information about us than we’d care to believe. Their work is generally much, much more sophisticated and shrewdly targeted than sex-rings in pizza parlors. As Sorkin points out: “Most people don’t have the resources to employ a battalion of fact checkers.” And a percentage of users will believe something precisely because it is on Facebook.
This debate shows no sign of resolution. Zuckerberg is digging in, perhaps out of concern for the erosion of the First Amendment, or perhaps solicitous of the profit it provides. Regardless, the amplification of indecency in “truth-telling” has become industrialized. And while Facebook is not its source, it has become its willing vehicle.
The decorum and dignity of The West Wing are a distant memory. But apparently I wasn’t the only one who liked it. The show received 277 award nominations, and won 87 of them. Here’s a timely excerpt from an episode titled The Short List, in Season One.
“In 1787, there was a sizable block of delegates who were initially opposed to the Bill of Rights. This is what a member of the Georgia delegation had to say by way of opposition; ‘If we list a set of rights, some fools in the future are going to claim that people are entitled only to those rights enumerated and no others.'”
I suspect Sorkin would say that the same can be said for responsibilities – enumerated or not.