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Straddling the fence is as painful as it sounds

Editorials aren’t what they used to be.

Years ago, we had Republican papers, Democrat papers, Grange papers, Populist papers, immigrant papers — you name ’em, we had ’em, even in Marion County.

Editorials were like today’s pundits on cable TV, talk radio, and Twitter. Featuring messages by partisans for partisans, they used skewed logic to whip predisposed people into frenzies over whatever were supposed to be the issues of the day.

Essentially, they told us what to think. Even after the partisan press era ended, editorials still preached at us, making it seem as if whoever wrote them thought he or she knew more than everyone else and that we should, therefore, go along.

We’ve all come to realize that editorial writers are no smarter than anybody else. Sometimes — present company included — they’re not even as smart.

Editorials no longer guide what we think. But they can give us an idea what to think about. Really good ones often leave us thinking there’s more than one side to any story.

Despite being wired to want to see a hero and a villain in any situation, sometimes no one is wearing white hats or black hats. All the hats are gray.

Take, for example, the huge companies that control most of the Internet — Google, Facebook, and the like. Good or evil? Maybe both.

This week, we had a reader complain about an ad that showed up on our website for a dating service that specializes in matching married people who want to cheat on their spouses.

We didn’t sell the ad, not do we endorse it. We also won’t make any money off of it unless people sign up for the service. It came within a package of ads that Google puts on our site. Only some people saw it — the people who Google’s secret profile of everything they’ve ever done of the Internet predicted would be likely customers for this so-called service.

Personally, I saw in the same spot an ad about learning a programming language. Google apparently regards me more as a geek than as a hedonist. I’ll take it.

The same sort of secret manipulation happens with things people post and read on Facebook. You might think you see whatever someone or something you like or have friended might post. In fact, Facebook’s secret profile of everything you’ve ever looked at shows you only a fraction of those things and mixes in other stuff it rightly or wrongly thinks you will like.

Facebook gets a reputation as a place for good, positive news about friends and family, but when we look back at the top stories we posted on Facebook this year, we see that the one story to which Facebook decided to give widest play wasn’t among any of the top stories from our website.

It was an editorial that drew reactions not from its main points but from a misreading of a slight aside reference in one of its first few paragraphs. The whole item was distorted in a much more partisan fashion than the old partisan press ever would have done.

And it was all done by an anonymous computer program. At least in the old days, partisan papers openly publicized their affiliations. Nowadays, everything is twisted and slanted by secret algorithms and mega-corporations that appear to regard us as even greater fools than the old preachy editorial writers did.

National news — and a TV courtroom drama this week — sent me looking back at an editorial we prepared but decided not to run several months ago because we weren’t sure people would take it the right way.

It was about civil forfeiture, which the U.S. Supreme Court last week severely limited and which was the topic of Monday’s episode of the CBS TV show “Bull.” You’re forgiven if you missed the episode. It aired during KU’s thumping of K-State in college basketball. (Sorry, Wildcats. I’m a Jayhawk alum.) So unless you had a DVR and weren’t too heartbroken or celebratory after the game, you probably missed it.

Basically, we’re talking about a law that allows virtually anything used during the commission of crime to be seized by police — even for minor crimes and in some cases even before anyone has been convicted of a crime.

The original idea was to cut down on drug trafficking by seizing boats and airplanes of drug kingpins, but it has been used much more aggressively. In fact, police in Marion County have made some use of the law, which was what the editorial we didn’t run was all about.

The editorial would have pointed out that it wasn’t just revenue from traffic tickets that prompted police to stop cars zipping across the edge of the city limits on state highways.

At the time we wrote the editorial, it seemed as if half the law enforcement activities in some cities were focused on officers sitting along the edge of town, stopping vehicles without license plate tags, then having drug-sniffing dogs take a whiff to determine whether they could search the vehicle for contraband and, ultimately, seize it.

While it’s good to get illegal drugs off the streets, we questioned the motivation behind some of the arrests. It wasn’t as if the lawbreakers were coming into town to push their products, and there was a huge and often hidden reward to the police for doing this. After seizing a vehicle, they could sell it and keep the profits for whatever special activities that they wanted but that city government wouldn’t pay for.

We were afraid people would think we were anti-police or pro-drugs, so we didn’t run our editorial, which on the contrary was designed to get people thinking about the law. Now that the Supreme Court and a TV drama have taken up the cause and — wisely, we think — local police have pretty well stopped making such stops, we’re a little less fearful mentioning the topic.

Our editorial wouldn’t have sought to condemn, just to provoke thought. There is, after all, always more than one side to anything.

We note, for example, when looking back at old Marion High School yearbooks that the school colors once were crimson and blue (like KU’s). We also note, after many years of arguing, that we finally have persuaded Friend Mother, an inveterate KU fan, that the Marion High School fight song that she so loved in the 1940s — “Faithful and True-Hearted” — was in reality set to the tune of “Wildcat Victory.” So much for one-sidedness.

Things aren’t always what they seem, whether they’re drug arrests, school colors, fight songs, or editorials. The important thing to do is think about them.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 27, 2019

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