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CNN Town Hall Tackles Tough Gun Control Issues, but Blind Spots Persist

The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has once again put the spotlight on a host of immense challenges in America, the battle over assault weapons among them. But one of the biggest problems extends far beyond Florida — and into the heart of Silicon Valley.

The CNN Town Hall on Wednesday night was generally transfixing and capably presented (with one major exception, which I’ll get to in a moment). It does not come close to making up for the 17 lost lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but, during the two-hour session devoted to assault weapons and potential gun-control measures, viewers received the small consolation of knowing that the school has been doing a good job of turning its students into informed, articulate citizens.

Time after time, it was affecting and impressive to see students who had just seen their classmates gunned down, teachers who had bravely sheltered kids, and parents who had lost children ask questions of the panelists in such measured yet forceful ways. The entire Stoneman Douglas community has been through an unimaginable trauma, one they’ll be processing for the rest of their lives. But that did not stop them from having a pointed conversation about difficult issues with politicians and others with whom they sometimes disagreed, and Jake Tapper did a good job of keeping the tense conversation on topic and moving along. The main takeaway of the first half was that, unlike attendee Sen. Marco Rubio, who has a history of engaging in “conversations” on this topic and then doing nothing, members of the Stoneman Douglas community want action, not more hot air. 

The most notable problem with the Town Hall came with the second half, which featured NRA advocate Dana Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel taking questions from the audience. Why wasn’t there a gun control advocate sitting alongside them? It seemed like an obvious thing to do, especially for CNN, which has such a strong (and sometimes misguided) belief that “both sides” of an issue must be represented that it has spent two years stacking its panels with frustratingly vapid advocates for the policies and Twitter meltdowns of Donald Trump.

So where was the other side of this important debate on Wednesday? A source close to the CNN production said it was thought that the views of gun-control advocates would be adequately represented by Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida congressman Ted Deutch. That’s not an unreasonable point of view, but those men weren’t on the stage with Loesch — which meant that that part of the conversation felt unduly weighted toward the gun lobby.

While Israel did say he is in favor of an increase in certain kinds of gun regulations, he was hardly an effective substitute for someone who could tangle with the NRA, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.

Of course, the Parkland adults and teens did a good job of asking pointed questions of all of the participants, and student Cameron Kasky should be commended for hammering Rubio on whether he would ever take NRA donations again. I sincerely wonder if any professional journalist would have been as dogged. Kasky, like most of those on the stage, wasn’t interested in evasions, and that kind of civil stubbornness was often refreshing.

But a professional gun control advocate would have had an enormous array of facts, figures and frameworks at his or her disposal. Loesch was able to engage in the kind of adept spinning that may well have fallen apart — or looked less plausible — when challenged by a gun-control expert.

Just one small example: Reputable studies have shown that people with chronic mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crimes, rather than the perpetrators, but Loesch talked at length about taking guns away from “crazy” people and repeatedly pinned much of the blame for Parkland on insufficient action by law enforcement, which had been repeatedly called to the shooter’s home. Rather than talk about taking assault weapons off the streets — something that thousands of people in the arena clearly wanted addressed by an emissary of the NRA — Loesch diverted the conversation again and again. Despite the tense atmosphere, she promoted the group’s talking points with something close to impunity.

That said, it was a valuable forum, and it’s laudable that CNN arranged something so necessary and thoughtful so quickly. In fact, they — and others — should do another forum soon. It should focus on the way that Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have largely abdicated responsibility for their power when it comes to the rise and spread of conspiracy theories, ridiculous slurs and harmful lies.

These companies’ dereliction of duty in these realms may not be killing people, like easily acquirable assault weapons are. But their laziness is poisoning just about every kind of public discourse, and that’s deeply troubling in many ways. Every day, these online giants allow the equivalent of toxic sludge to be dumped in the town square, and then pretend they had no way of knowing that would happen. Please. 

To some degree, their reluctance to take on the roles of editors and curators is understandable: They started out as companies that conveyed information, and they have not traditionally seen themselves as content creators or active gatekeepers.

But no matter how these powerful companies started, they are now, for many people, news delivery services. Many people believe what they see on these platforms. And while traditional media companies (and some news startups) are going through seismic and often demoralizing changes, Silicon Valley’s grip on the flow of information grows tighter. Yet Twitter’s sporadic attempts to cleanse itself of Nazis and Russian bots, for example, have come a few years too late.

These online behemoths need to do more — much more — to stop the pernicious flow of abuse and false information. Videos, social media posts and “news” items accusing the Parkland students of being paid actors swamped the internet after the Stoneman Douglas shooting, and the companies barely reacted until they started getting bad press about it. It’s just not in their DNA to care about anything but pleasing their investors, it would seem.

The irony is, a bunch of high school kids are demonstrating how to be discerning and media-savvy citizens. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube ought to learn from their examples. These companies are, in a sense, citizens as well. And taking one’s hand off the wheel isn’t a defense a judge will accept if you get in a car accident that hurts other people.

“This misinformation pollution comes from extremist bloggers and trolls, many of whom are anonymous, and some of whom don’t even believe what they’re saying,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote Wednesday. “I see it happen all the time, especially in the wake of tragedies. They promote alternative realities about ‘false flag operations’ and ‘deep state conspiracies.’ Some of them believe this stuff; some prey on people to gain traffic and score political points.”

Google once had the slogan “Don’t be evil,” but it’s increasingly hard to find evidence of the titans of the internet acting on those kinds of principles. Take, for example, the reaction of Facebook when users complained about conspiracy theory videos in which the traumatized students were ridiculed as “crisis actors.” In a statement to Buzzfeed, the company said it does not “have policies in place that require people to tell the truth.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

I’m all for freedom of speech and the representation of differing points of view. But that does not mean chaos should reign. You can’t run a newspaper by letting anonymous trolls write front-page stories while avoiding relevant facts. Whether they like it or not, these Silicon Valley companies have become a combination of newspaper, town crier and gossip-mongers. They have to decide if the truth matters to them.

Someone should ask them about that at a Town Hall. If they’d show up, that is.

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