This is actually a Christmas column. But it will take a while to get there, so please bear with me.
My first job at my first newspaper was wire editor for the Wabash Plain Dealer. That meant that, in addition to being a reporter charged with gathering information and writing local stories, I got to come in early and, as they said back then, “strip the wire.”
It was my duty to collect the stories coming off the Associated Press wire machine in a long strip of newsprint, cut them apart and sort them into three piles – state, national and world. I also had the responsibility of culling the most important and interesting stories so those higher in the chain of command could decide which ones to include in that afternoon’s edition.
How important I felt. This was a small town, with only one news-deficient radio station and no television stations. The Plain Dealer’s only print competition for regional news was from the Marion Chronicle-Tribune and the relatively distant Fort Wayne papers.
And there I was, a punk kid just a few months out of college, being the first person in Wabash to know what had happened in the world overnight. Sometimes I’d walk around all day, just looking at ordinary people and feeling sorry for their ignorance: “I already know what you’re going to see on the evening news tonight,” I’d silently gloat.
I was the gatekeeper, the guardian at the breach. No trivial nonsense would get through me and into the paper. Nothing dull or trite or boring. Just the good stuff.
I realize how quaint and, yes, old-fashioned that sounds now. Today, every single thing that happens anywhere in the world is almost instantly available to anybody in the world. An explosion in Sri Lanka kills a thousand people? Bam, there it is on your phone. A movie star slaps her hair dresser in Beverly Hills? That’s there, too.
The downside is that there is no gatekeeper. There is no filter to sort out the critical from the nonsensical. That’s your job, however much time and skill you have to devote to it. Good luck on being informed when there is so much news you can’t process it.
Fast forward a few years. I was also there when print married the Internet, and we discovered we were no longer bound to the 24-hour news cycle. We could use our laptops and satellites to send both stories and pictures from anywhere to our newsroom, from which our editors could send them out online almost immediately.
If there was anything headier than being the first to know something, it was having the ability to instantly send out something to a worldwide audience – still with that filter, of course, gatekeepers to decide what went out and what got killed.
But it was just a heartbeat until it became obvious that everybody had that same ability. Today, with but a blog or a website or a Twitter account, you can say anything about any of your neighbors, and they can say anything about you. But there are no filters. The only person who can decide if you should send something out just because you can is you. And if you decide wrong, too bad. It will be out there forever, for the whole world to see.
Now, finally, the Christmas part.
As a longtime editorial writer, one of my favorite newspaper stories is the one about 8-year-old New Yorker Virginia O’Hanlon, who, one day in 1897, asked her father if there was really a Santa Claus. Coward that he was, he ducked the question and told her to ask the newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun, it is so,” he told her.
So she wrote to the newspaper, and it resulted in arguably the most famous editorial in American newspaper history, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” who of course exists “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” as long as one has not been “affected by the cynicism of a cynical age.”
Just imagine. A father tells a fragile little girl to put her faith in a newspaper to answer one of the gravest doubts of her young life. And she does!
That, friends, is gatekeeping. That is trust. That is an unbreakable bond between news provider and news consumer.
I put it to you, what possible gatekeeper could engender such trust today? We have all the news in the world instantly available and the ability to add anything we choose to that infinite stream. We are in more need than ever of a filter that can sort it all out for us, but any organization or group of people deigning to take on such a role would be met with universal and unyielding suspicion. This truly is a cynical age.
There is also the question itself, which the modern press would surely feel falls outside the arena of legitimate objective analysis, unless, of course, the United Nations or Union of Concerned Scientists were to take a position.
Whether there is a Santa Claus is, after all, a sensitive metaphysical issue for which there is precious little measurable evidence to rely on. A certain percentage of adults have merely decided to accept the affirmative for the benefit of those too young to think critically. How could any responsible media member weigh in on such a controversial parenting decision, especially when it might be a remnant of a patriarchal society completely ignorant of the complexities of intersectionality?
Is there a Santa Claus? Hey, Virginia, that’s between you and your parents. Beat it, kid.