I believe it was the first grade. Maybe the second grade, at Northfield Elementary School, in the suburb of Cleveland where I grew up. The teacher was leading a discussion about a character in a story the class was reading, a character who lived in an apartment building.
“Why do people live in apartments?” she asked.
My hand shot up. I had actual experience in this matter. I explained how my family had sold its house and was now living in an apartment while a new house was being built.
“No,” the teacher said, and moved on.
True or not, I guess my experience wasn’t the specific answer the teacher was looking for. And I didn’t raise my hand for another 10 years.
But I continued to listen.
It was my fifth-grade teacher who introduced me to potential nuclear annihilation. Northfield, she explained, was perfectly positioned to be a major player in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Pointing to a large map of Northeastern Ohio – in this pre-internet Stone Age, classrooms at the time were well equipped with pull-down maps of the entire planet – she showed us how the Soviets could drop a bomb on our town and wipe out both Cleveland and Akron in one strategic move.
I looked at the map. It seemed logical. We were doomed.
Same teacher, another lesson: I was sitting by the classroom windows, it was a beautiful spring day. The teacher was droning on about her favorite subject, The Cold War. Her point of view hadn’t advanced much beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly a decade earlier. But now there was hope. The United States had a new defensive system, she said. A net, floating in space over the entire country. If the Soviets launched a missile, it would penetrate that net, and an alarm would sound.
I was kind of a smart fifth grader. I even read the newspaper every day. And I knew this story the teacher was telling was totally insane. I suspected she had confused someone’s use of the word “net” as a metaphor for our missile defense system and taken it to mean there was a literal “net” hundreds of miles over our heads, keeping us safe.
Out of these early learning experiences emerged the man you read today: Cynical and questioning of authority, yet prone to glancing fearfully at the sky whenever I make a trip back to Cleveland to visit my mom.
Knowledge is power. And, as such, society is structured around gatekeepers. Sometimes those gatekeepers unintentionally pass on bad information. My fifth-grade teacher simply wanted us to be prepared for nuclear Armageddon, ready to dive beneath our desks if a sudden flash of light blew out the glass in our classroom windows. Because of her prescient warning, perhaps a few of us would survive. Fifth graders on whose narrow shoulders would fall the task of rebuilding and repopulating Earth.
But I doubt my fifth-grade teacher developed the theory herself that our town was Ground Zero. Perhaps she came across a copy of Reader’s Digest left in the Teacher’s Lounge, and in there found the concept of nuclear multi-tasking expressed by yet another fear-mongering gatekeeper, whose qualifications and intentions are lost to us.
Think of all the gatekeepers who control our lives, by managing knowledge, and restricting our access to the ideas and resources that will move us forward. Politicians, of course. Corporations. Relatives. Neighbors. Police. Judges. The school board. The people who write textbooks for our schools. Coaches. Scout leaders. Bartenders. The person who decides what vegetables to stock on your grocery shelves. Your boss. His or her boss. Churches. Satan.
It will only get worse. “Deepfake” technology is coming. We’ve already seen internet hoaxes that regularly fool millions of people. That’s like Gumby and Pokey animation compared to the potential of deepfake. When deepfake technology is perfected, which will be very soon, the world will be inundated with fake photos, videos and audio whose origins will be undetectable. Computers are already being used to write news. With deepfake, algorithms will allow computers to read images and audio, enabling the creation of scenes that never happened. People will appear to say things they never said. In other words, real fake news. Our thoughts and actions will be controlled by technology far more insidious than 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Hal 9000.
We’ll have no idea as to the identity of those gatekeepers.
That’s when the credibility of media – real, authentic people – will become essential to the survival of society.
And just as we need the media to help us navigate this threat, it is losing its way.
Why was so much attention granted over the past week to a television actor, Jussie Smollett, who selfishly tried to parlay the nation’s racial issues into a pay raise for himself by creating a fake crime that would raise his public profile? Receiving far less attention was the arrest of a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist who was stockpiling weapons and creating a hit list of Democratic lawmakers, activists and media personalities. His goal, prosecutors said, was “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country” and establish a “white homeland.”
Let me say right now that the vast majority of news reporters in this country understand which of those two stories is the most significant. But the gatekeepers far up the food chain like the Smollett story because it is web site click bait. A racist plotting mayhem is old news. An actor faking a race-based crime? That’s like an episode of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.
The importance of the media as a responsible gatekeeper in a free society cannot be overstated. Truth isn’t subjective, it really is out there. And it must keep our increasingly overtaxed attention spans focused on a 21st-century perspective: While our president wants to build a medieval wall, a couple of weeks ago China landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon
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