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Editors versus Algorithms

Reflecting on not so distant suffering at home and abroad in a moment of American state sponsored child abuse

My morning ritual includes reviewing my email messages, looking at my Facebook feed, and reading “the paper,” i.e. the print edition of The New York Times, which arrives at my doorstep sometime between 5:00 and 5:30. I try to read the paper first, though sometimes, I can’t. The paper arrives late, (especially over the weekend). I wake up too early. Or, something seems pressing from a friend or a colleague, or I yield to the temptation to look for something intriguing out on the web. What was once, before email and social media, a quiet time reserved for news reading, thinking about the world, and imagining my place in it, has become a daily struggle to focus my attention.

As it happens, I am now in Paris, and the battle is completely over what I select on my screen. Back in the not entirely good old days, I would have been cut off from much of my social and political world when abroad, especially when I lived on the other side of “the iron curtain.” Clearly the new media and information order has its advantages.

This beautiful sunny Friday morning, I am reading reports from a great variety of newspapers. I am observing the responses of my Facebook friends. I am reading articles they recommend. I am reading about the latest twists and turns of “Trump’s State Sponsored Child Abuse?” as John Lawrence put it here, on Public Seminar. Further, on PS: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, who also happens to be in Paris now, adds additional insight, comparing the fate of the children forcibly taken from their parents to American children’s camps and boarding schools, and to less benign family separations in American history. I am also thinking about Claire Potter’s insightful essay, in which she declares that “The U.S. Border Crisis is Not the Holocaust,” while “showing how comparing these two events sheds light on a deeper truth about what the Trump administration is trying to accomplish.” I happen to know that she wrote her piece just before taking a flight to tour and teach in Central Europe, the grounds of the European killing fields. Last night, my French son-in-law succinctly summarized the situation we are in: “This is something that Mussolini could have done.”

And as I sit at my desk here finishing off this piece, I came across an article in the British newspaper The Independent reporting that some of the children forcefully taken from their parents on the Mexico – Texas border are in my neighborhood at Abbott House, about a mile from my house, and Children’s Village, about three miles from my house. Distant suffering doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, it doesn’t feel distant at all.

I continue to monitor how our commander in chief is supporting anti-democratic forces throughout the world. With the help of my friends using social media, I learn about how this works in Europe, in Canada, the Philippines, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Turkey and beyond. Not only do I find out what’s happening, I often also find out about ways I might support those who are fighting the good fight abroad. Today, they surely are observing, and joining in the struggle against human rights abuses in my corner of the world.

Of course, I do feel connected to the larger world when I go to my devices, and I still can imagine my place in it, but I still wonder about the quality of the connection.

In times past, I depended upon the judgment of professionals: the editors who decided what would be “all news that’s fit to print” that day, and its presentation. I would usually know something about the items on the front page, but go over it to get the depth that radio and television reporting didn’t provide. Then, I would proceed and engage reports and stories from all over the world and the nation, from New York State, and New York City and its suburbs, and finish with the opinion pages.

I knew of course, along with Noam Chomsky, that “the paper” had its biases, though I never thought his propaganda model made much sense. The Times was the best way available to me to know about the world. This ironically was revealed by Chomsky himself, as he depended upon it for news, while he examined its very real limitations.

About this, I used to joke that the difference between The Times and Pravda was the crucial ten percent of the time that Chomsky did not consider, when the Times (and other mainstream American) reporting illuminated the limitations of American policies, foreign and domestic, and went against dominant political and economic interests. The commitment to journalistic ethics and the crafts of reporting, writing and editing provided, and continue to provide, a fine connection to the larger world.

Despite the vivid and intimate connection provided now online, less limited by state and corporate controls, I notice something odd. By reading my regular source of carefully published and edited news, I feel more informed than when I surf the web, following leads I get from social media. With the paper, I can develop a coherent picture in my mind about the course of human events that eludes me when I jump around getting the inside story as suggested through social media.

I wonder: is this because I am a wise experienced man with informed critical insights? Or is it because I am set in my media consumption ways? Since I have generally embraced digital media, using it to develop my primary intellectual commitments here at Public Seminar, and before it with Deliberately Considered, I think that there is more to it than generational habit.

My hypothesis is that it has to do with the fact that what becomes visible in the digital order is decided more by quantitative calculation and less by qualitative judgment, and that we then follow the digital offerings that most appeal to our interests and concerns. Responsible editors and publishers should suggest information and opinion outside the zone of algorithmic offering and personal concern and interests. I think the ten percent rule may still apply. Now revealing to us what we otherwise would miss if we just observed the algorithmically available and our interests. In a future post, I will explain how this is informing the development of Public Seminar.

Here note: I continue to regularly read The New York Times, to be connected to a larger world with the assistance of responsible editorial judgment. I want to read it first thing in the morning before I get carried away with my professional concerns, and my and my friends intellectual and political interests.  I still depend on editorial assistance, as it provides an alternative to my present obsessions, no matter how important they seem to be: today concerning the children separated from their parents who are housed so closely to my home, concerning the threat of xenophobic authoritarianism in America.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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