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Hooking the Readers



If any of you actually liked Ryan Burns' cover story last month, the one titled "Hooked," raise your hand. That's what I thought.

But then again, if you liked everything you read, we wouldn't need a First Amendment. That's the one that protects our right to speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. It is what lights Lady Liberty's torch.

You don't need to protect what everyone likes, just the stuff some people dislike enough to want to stifle. And that First Amendment becomes stale and crusty if no one has the guts to publish something stifle-worthy. "Hooked" fell into that category, for sure. There I was at Renata's, forced to explain to my 5-year-old daughter over a spinach and almond crepe why someone would hang herself from a ceiling by hooks in her skin. This was not a conversation I wanted to have. And in my household we consider almost no subject taboo. As soon as she was old enough to know that boys have a penis and not a "peanut," we talked about where babies come from and watched on YouTube a woman give birth. She thought it was yucky. But that was on my terms and not in public over crepes before my second cup of coffee kicked in.

So when I read the slew of letters that flooded in to Hank Sims I told him I couldn't help agreeing with them. But then again, it wasn't the story I objected to so much as the cover displayed on racks at the eye level of a 5-year-old.

But when Judy Hodgson wrote to tell me she intended to apologize to her readers in a column, I cautioned her. It was 20 years and six months ago that I quit my first newspaper job over a publisher's apology to his readers for something the paper had printed. That's too long a story to go into now, but the point is this: Publishers hire editors and writers to decide what to write about. The best publishers let their people do their jobs and back them up for the decisions they make.

As a reader you don't want your publication to serve you mush. But that means that on occasion it will hand you something that won't taste too good. Once in a while, it might taste so awful, you want to dump it in the trash. So do that. But come back to the table next time, because you might find the next week's serving delicious.

The publication of "Hooked" couldn't be more timely. Last week was Banned Books Week, and it is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is one of the most-targeted books for banning. I also picked up the "Hooked" story just a few weeks after accomplishing a lifetime goal: I read Ulysses, by James Joyce. In 1933 the U.S. banned importation of Joyce's masterpiece, which, by the way, is almost impossible to read. But back then, U.S. District Court Judge John Woolsey ruled that in its entirety the book wasn't obscene, even though in one chapter Leopold Bloom masturbates on a public beach and in another Molly Bloom imagines the various ways she has had sex. The decision gave writers license to experiment and gave the American public the ability to read what some might consider dangerous.

The First Amendment is now just over 200 years old, but its concepts of press freedom date to 1644, when John Milton wrote this: "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes based his landmark opposition of wartime censorship in Abrams v. United States in 1919 on Milton when he said: "Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition ... But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe ... that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas ... that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ..."

There was no better example of this marketplace of ideas than the backlash of letters and comments that flooded the Journal after it published "Hooked."

More and more I worry that in the age of media selectivity, where we Google search only stuff we already know about, we will lose the ability to dialog. That requires civil conversation between opposing viewpoints.

NPR recently aired a story about SeekFind, a Christian-based search engine that will yield only links deemed Bible-safe. In a class on mass media I taught several years ago, I assigned two books and by the end of the course I had disagreed with just about everything both authors had to say. A student asked me why I bothered assigning a book I disagreed with. I said: "Why read something you agree with? It is the stuff you disagree with that gets you thinking."

The bloody photo on the cover of the "Hooked" issue I could have done without. But my daughter hasn't developed any obsession for piercings, except for her ears, and she first asked for pierced ears when boys still had peanuts.

I never finished reading "Hooked" because I decided I got the gist and it didn't go with my crepes. But the community dialog the article spurred? Well, that I ate up.


Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She doesn't hang by any wires but you can usually find her hanging out at the Farmer's Market in Arcata each weekend. 

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