Facebook and Free Speech

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There’s been a lot of talk among some in the media about the suppression of the First Amendment – every American’s right to free speech. Folks like to point to President Trump’s never-ending battle with his major media opponents. You hear a lot about Trump supporters shouting down national media celebrities. You can argue the anti-media crowd is merely exercising its First Amendment right to free speech, but that’s another topic. For all the ink spilled, one thing is certain: merely complaining about the press is a far cry from actually shutting down that press.

There is, however, another national actor that actually is shutting down the free press. And that could be a much bigger problem than the sum of all of President Trump’s tweets.

As of August 1, 2018, Facebook has blocked third-party tools from sharing posts on Facebook Profile pages. Professional journalists regularly use all social media platforms to distribute their content. To accomplish this most efficiently, they often use third-party tools as a one-stop vehicle to post to all their social media accounts simultaneously. It makes life easier. It allows us to exercise our free speech rights.

Lately, Facebook (and to some extent Twitter) has been shutting down our ability to exercise those free speech rights. I realize you can make the argument that Facebook is a private company and can do anything it wants. Indeed, the Supreme Court affirmed Facebook doesn’t have to sell me a cake if it doesn’t want to. But what I’m addressing here is not the letter of the law. Rather, I speak to the spirit of the law, or, more appropriately, the spirit of our constitution.

In the seemingly noble act of becoming a curator of the content that passes through it, Facebook has destroyed the one thing that attracted many to it: the ability to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights. In a sense, in order to prevent anyone from shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, they have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

This hit home most remarkably for both me personally and for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (“NSNC”), the organization in which I currently serve as president. In its July 3, 2018, issue, in conjunction with America’s celebration of its independence, USA Today was kind enough to print my editorial on the role of Revolutionary War pamphleteers in laying the foundation for what eventually became our First Amendment.

This op-ed proved quite popular (judging by the resulting explosion of my Twitter feed). To broaden its reach, the NSNC decided to boost the Facebook post of the article. Facebook rejected this, saying the piece was “political.” We don’t know how they came to that conclusion. Could it have been the word “Revolutionary”? Or maybe “War”? Our able communications officer remedied the situation and Facebook eventually ran the ad. We shrugged it off as an “Oh, well” moment and moved on.

But then August 1st hit. At least one of our members discovered “Facebook took down my column from earlier – including all the shares from my newspaper’s page – saying it violated Community Standards.” I read the column. I’m at a loss to explain how a story about a good Samaritan whose deed was captured by an onlooker in a picture that ended up going viral could violate Facebook’s “Community Standards.” It makes me wonder: Do I want to be part of a community that doesn’t encourage good Samaritanism? (In a delicious irony, the original picture was posted on Facebook.)

If you, like me, are a lover of free speech, then this sort of thing makes you cringe. I’m a good old-fashioned 19th-century liberal. That means, to borrow from William Blackstone’s Commentaries, (“Public Wrongs,” Book IV, Chapter 27, paragraph “Fourthly”), I’d rather see “ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”1 I may not be smart enough to run a billion dollar high tech company, but I know censorship when I see it. I’d much rather have to put up with the propaganda of three dozen fake Facebook accounts than see one innocent columnist’s work stricken from my Facebook feed.

So here’s the advice I offer – free of charge: ditch the computerized algorithms, allow folks the freedom to post any speech they want, and let the buyer beware.

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VII: Those Amazing Menches Boys

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(The seventh part in a series of seven)

Brothers Charles and Frank Menches were prolific concessionaires. They didn’t start that way. By the time he was twenty, Charles had a “successful season” with the Bob Stickney circus. Contemporary reporters called him a “thoroughly proficient” trapeze artist.1 After spending several years as a high wire and trapeze artist with the Bob Stickney circus and the Old John Robinson circus, Charles decided to enter the concession business full-time with his brother Frank in 1884.2

Frank, six years younger than Charles, was no slouch when it came to athleticism, either. He was an award-winning bicycle racer, competing into his early twenties.3,4

Born in Canton, Ohio, the brothers dove into multiple business ventures at an early age. While working with the circus, Charles began dabbling in concession sales. Very quickly, he Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VII: Those Amazing Menches Boys”

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VI: A Day In Hamburger History – September 18, 1885 – Everything is the Same, Except, “You Are There!”

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(The sixth part in a series of seven)

“What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… all things are as they were then, and you were there.”

– Walter Cronkite, at the conclusion of each episode of the CBS Series You Are There

On this day, September 18th, 1885, the last day of the Erie County Fair, Hiram P. Hopkins woke up to threatening skies. While the weather appeared ominous, he breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t see the clouds as presaging rain. Rather, he saw the southwesterly breeze as ushering in unusually warm temperatures. In exchange, he’d accept the oppressive humidity.

In the early morning, before the expected thousands of fairgoers arrived, Hiram strolled the grounds. Just a day earlier, the place was packed, the crowd so dense it was difficult to move. This morning the only people Hopkins could see were the many vendors prepping their booths for the final day. Popcorn, peanuts and candy sellers had a brisk business the day before. The same was true of those selling lemonade, pop, and sandwiches.

As he passed close to the grandstand, he noticed two young men fretting about. It was Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VI: A Day In Hamburger History – September 18, 1885 – Everything is the Same, Except, “You Are There!””

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part V: CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.

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(The fifth part in a series of seven)

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk..”

– Henry David Thoreau

And then there was one. Charles and Frank Menches were born in Canton, Ohio. Their father, Jacob Menches, an engineer in Prussia, immigrated to America and became a grocer in Canton. Their mother, Charlotte Hahn Menches, was originally from France. As young men, both boys were quite athletic. Charles as a well-regarded gymnast who travelled with a popular circus as a trapeze artist and high wire walker before he turned twenty.1 Frank, six years younger than Charles, was an award-winning bicycle racer.2,3

While the brothers’ lives contain several amazing stories, our focus here is on only one: Their role as (potentially) the first to sell a hamburg sandwich. How this story became known is itself a story. The brothers’ claim was widely known (the headline of Frank’s 1951 obituary reads “‘Inventor’ of Hamburger Dies.”4 The real story, however, lay hidden for half a century and was published decades after the brothers had passed away.Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part V: CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.”

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part IV: A (Swiss) Cheesehead Tale

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(The fourth part in a series of seven)

“…with each recollection the memory may be changed.”

“Memories don’t just fade, as the old saying would have us believe; they also grow. What fades is the initial perception, the actual experience of the events. But every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed – colored by succeeding events, other people’s recollections or suggestions, increased understanding, or a new context.”

From Witness For the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory On Trial, by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham (St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

When you’re a reporter, you often find yourself interviewing sources to try to get a broader perspective on the story. Reporters will often Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part IV: A (Swiss) Cheesehead Tale”

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part III: The Texas Two Step

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(The third part in a series of seven)

“Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth beneath my hand.”

“He answered, like a wave on a rock, who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth beneath my hand. None can meet Swaran in the fight but Fingal, king of stormy hills. Once we wrestled on the heath of Malmor, and our heels overturned the wood. Rocks fell from their place; and rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our strife.”

From FINGAL, An Ancient Epic Poem. In Six Books, Together with Several other Poems, composed by OSSIAN the Son of FINGAL, Translated from the Gallic Language, By James MacPherson. (Published by Richard Fitzsimons, Dublin, 1762)

James MacPherson, a Scottish poet stunned the literary world when he published an Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part III: The Texas Two Step”

Hamburger WhoDunit Part II: The Shrine of the Four (and a half?)

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(The second episode in a series of seven)

“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Illustration from the Monday, July 23, 1894 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thus spoke crime fighting sleuth Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring his most-popular character, as published in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. By coincidence, the most noted hamburger origin stories occurred within a few years on either side of this date. It’s fitting, then, that we employ the deductive techniques of the Baker Street mastermind in attempting to solve one of histories greatest culinary mysteries: Who sold the first hamburger.

First, as in all good police thrillers, let’s take a look at our line-up of suspects (in reverse chronological order). In each case, their hometowns have created what amounts to a shrine to their claims. We count them as four and a half because two are inexorably tied together. Still, for our purposes we’ll untie them. Here’s the line-up:Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunit Part II: The Shrine of the Four (and a half?)”

Hamburger Helper – Solving the Greatest WhoDunIt? In Culinary History

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(The first part in a series of seven)

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”

When J. Wellington Wimpy first voiced that phrase on December 28, 1934 in Fleischer Studios short “We Aim to Please,” Popeye’s 17th theatrical cartoon, [http://popeye.wikia.com/wiki/We_Aim_to_Please] the White Castle hamburger chain had already been around for 13 years. By the time E.C. Segar added the character of Wimpy to his King Features Syndicate cartoon Thimble Theatre in 1931, White Castle was well on its way to selling 50 million hamburgers. It would achieve that mark in 1941.

A year earlier, brothers Dick and Mac McDonald moved their father’s food stand from Route 66 in Monrovia, California to the streets of San Bernardino. They rechristened their Continue Reading “Hamburger Helper – Solving the Greatest WhoDunIt? In Culinary History”

John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease

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Many, many years ago, most likely 1985 but possibly 1986, I decided to do something different. I was living on Oliver Street in downtown Rochester. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a while and I needed to spend those precious vacation days or risk losing them. What to do… what to do…

Even now, I’m not the kind of person who dreams of the traditional vacation. In fact, I Continue Reading “John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease”

A Tribute to Animal House 40 Years in the Making

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The year was 1978. For some, it was to be remembered as “Peak Disco.” For others, (like me), it represented the beginning of the end for Disco. We kind of hoped the whole fad would blow over, but then that Beatles-wannabe group – the Bee Gees – went and made disco go mainstream with their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. For many fans, this was the low point of rock and roll. Thankfully, by the time Paul McCartney & Wings succumbed to Disco Fever when the band released “Goodnight Tonight” in 1979, the genre was already past its prime.

Music doctors officially called Disco on the night of July 12, 1979, when the Chicago White Sox hosted a Disco Demolition Night. The promotion featured an explosion of Disco records in between games of the twi-night doubleheader. Enthusiasm for the death of Disco turned out to be far greater than anticipated. The fans rushed the field following the fiery demise of those discs. The resulting damage to the playing surface caused the White Sox to forfeit the second game.

In the summer of 1978, that fiasco was still a year away. That summer, a different culture-defining event occurred. On July 28, Continue Reading “A Tribute to Animal House 40 Years in the Making”