When I was writing The Rise of the Blogosphere in 2006, I puzzled over how to approach Benjamin Franklin’s 1731 “Apology for Printers.” As the book is meant to provide background for the rise of the blogs (and, though I had never heard the phrase then, of “social media”) in American journalism, Franklin’s apology needed to be included. After all, American journalists have often thought it referred to them. Clearly, though, it doesn’t.
I thought of that yesterday when I read Isaac Stanley-Becker’s “The apology from Benjamin Franklin that predicted the fight over falsehood and hate on social media” in the Washington Post yesterday. Though Franklin’s apology has little to do directly with journalism, it does, as Stanley-Becker points out, show that “Franklin learned lessons from this experience, lessons that endure today.”
In my book, I write that many people mistake it:
for a statement on the press, forgetting that the press did not then exist as an enterprise separate from the printing trade and ignoring the fact that Franklin constantly refers to his role as a printer, not as writer, editor or publisher. [Eric] Burns. for example, sees it as Franklin’s means “to explain the problems of journalism to his readers,” and [Walter] Isaacson calls it “one of the best and most forceful defenses of a free press.” The relevance, however, is simply to printers, as is indicated most forcefully in point #5, where Franklin writes that printers “chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well.” This is a defense of a craft in practical terms, not of an institution (especially not of an institution that did not even exist in a codifiable form at that time). (13)
Stanley-Becker doesn’t fall into that trap. His point is that our social-media platforms are analogous to the printers of the 18th century, at least in terms of their responsibilities to the public. He writes that Franklin’s “frustration at the pitch of the debate is fitting for present times. The principles he articulated, with his characteristic irreverence, seem relevant, too.”
The tenth of Franklin’s points, as Stanley-Becker points out, is the stickiest for him and for today’s social-media platforms:
I have also always refus’d to print such things as might do real Injury to any Person, how much soever I have been solicited, and tempted with Offers of great Pay; and how much soever I have by refusing got the Ill-will of those who would have employ’d me. I have heretofore fallen under the Resentment of large Bodies of Men, for refusing absolutely to print any of their Party or Personal Reflections. In this Manner I have made my self many Enemies, and the constant Fatigue of denying is almost insupportable.
Franklin never manages to define the point at which he would start refusing to print. In a way, he couldn’t: That line is based on societal norms that are constantly in flux. It was so for him just as much as it is for Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest today.
However, this was not then (it couldn’t have been: The Bill of Rights was some 70 years away), as it is not now, a question of Freedom of Speech. It is a question of the responsibility of a business to the society that supports it. It remains, as I wrote, a “thorny issue… for ISPs, for webmasters, and even for search-engine providers today.” It is not, however (as I am sure Stanley-Becker would agree), an issue concerning the integrity of the profession of journalism.
Alex Jones, who was recently booted from a number of social-media platforms, tweeted:
Understand this: The censorship of Infowars just vindicates everything we’ve been saying. Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) August 6, 2018
This is nonsense that only passes muster with people who do not understand the differences between business, journalism and government. What Franklin was doing, and what the platforms have done to Jones, is simply responsible business practice within the confines dictated by the supporting culture. It is not censorship and it is not tyranny.
We are not all Alex Jones now.
But, on the other hand, we perhaps should each of us think of ourselves in terms of Ben Franklin, asking what would he do? After all, he is much more critical to the survival of our country than Jones ever could be.