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Cannibals of free speech

The media holds incredible power—the power to illuminate, the power to educate, the power to liberate.

The power to destroy.

So we have entered into an age where the news is global, digital and ever-present. It comes straight to you, it happens instantaneously, and it has the influence beyond even the most feverish, yellowed dreams of William Randolph Hearst. When your truth is catered to your appetite, you rarely find your plate empty—but perhaps you don't pause to question what the dinner bell has brought.

I have never been particularly shy about my disdain for the Huffington Post. From its onset it drew ire and criticism for its habit of poorly compensating its writers, making money and building an audience off the backs of poor fools toiling for exposure.

Exposure never filled anyone's belly, but it's certainly killed a fair share of people.

So the Huffington Post continues a proud tradition of exposing people, this time setting its sights on a woman who was known as Amy Mek, a twitter persona popular among conservatives, at one point acknowledged by President Donald Trump and known for being, well, less than politically correct.

To be blunt, Mek's twitter feed is not a demonstration of man's better nature, and indeed was a conglomeration of disdainful, angry comments, cartoons and "memes" that condemned Islam, Islamic extremism, and hosted comments that can easily be described as disparaging, even racist.

You don't have to take my word on it—for you see, Mek's twitter feed, her identity, the name of her family, her family members, their businesses, her husband's work, were all exposed by the Huffington Post and by their in-house writer Luke O'Brien. The predictable responses were of the degree of vitriol, belligerence and righteous fury that have become all-too-normal in today's supposedly social media landscape.

For the crime of having 200,000 followers and being a supporter of the current administration, Mek—whose real name is Amy Mekelburg—was pilloried before the public eye.

In fact, Mekelburg was doing something at least vaguely unethical, managing a website which collated public figures, city commissioners, police chiefs and religious leaders whom she and her fellows believed were part of some manner of unseemly conspiracy. A screenshot from the story itself shows that she provided the public contact info, Facebook and Twitter handles and emails, to these individuals. It is impossible now to access the site where this information was once posted, so beyond that screenshot no further information about this feature can be ascertained.

This is the key thing that makes Mekelburg distinct from any other anonymous online personality—which is why this key information is buried 2/3s into the story and appears as an afterthought, rather than the immediate impetus for the report.

So certainly she is not without sin, yet the fact remains that the Huffington Post didn't simply attack her, they drew ire upon her whole immediate family. They ensured that her husband lost his job. They wrote a story of such length and such deep and salacious detail, drawing from sources described as "ex-friends" that I think even the most passionate paparazzo might consider it overkill.

This was a story whose solitary news value was to cause Mekelburg harm. This is its clear and evident intent, and the story goes to considerable lengths to justify this to the reader, opening and closing with sweeping statements as to how influential and impactful Mekelburg allegedly was and how harmful "extremist" rhetoric like hers can be.

Ironic, though, that the Huffington Post does not take into account the harm it is itself perpetrating. In fact, it all but insinuates that the collateral damage that it directly admits to causing, and indirectly caused following, is deserved.

This isn't the first instance of the mass media attacking private citizens for boorish—or even rather benign—behavior online. In fact, it's become par the course, from the days of Justine Sacco to the unnamed internet "troll" whom CNN openly threatened to reveal publicly—an act known as "doxxing"—should they not recant and apologize for an image that the outlet took personal offense to.

These supposed outlets of news claim to be under attack, should they draw condemnation for these actions, and O'brien himself has demonstrated no remorse for his story on Mekelberg. It is, however, not the impact on her nor on him that concerns me most. In the spirit of self-interest, I turn and say that this only makes my job—and the job of any honest, community-driven newsman—harder.

You see, with great power comes great responsibility. When I interview you, or your children or your brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors, I am entrusted with a not insignificant power. When I cover our local elections, I could very easily pick and choose whatever quotes I could and twist all the words given to me around to present whomseoever I wish in the most negative and unflattering light possible. I am often told "don't make me sound stupid" because it is plainly evident that I could.

When I was a young journalist, I became aware of a poor decision made by one of the sources I regularly would cover. Eager for a chance to cover something more "significant" then the average faire I generally reported on, I sought out all the details I could, put to scrutiny this person's actions, and published them without hesitation. I was excited to see what might happen.

What happened was that I embarrassed a person who acted in what they felt was the best interests of other people, children in fact. In a small community, where one's name is known widely and one's reputation matters, this became a stain. Forevermore, should this person seek work in their field, my record would stand. I had made every effort to ensure their mistake was memorialized in ink.

They didn't forget that, and they in time took opportunity to slight me as well. I was furious, arrogant and possessed by a righteousness that was unwarranted. I thought I should do what I could to harm them. My hand was stayed, however, by the wisdom of my supervisor, an editor of candor and virtue who understood my anger and understood the mistake I was making.

He talked me down, explained to me that which I had not considered—the perspective of my subject, my source, a human being with everything to lose. It became clear to me that I was not seeking to right a wrong, I was seeking to cause harm because I could, because I felt justified in doing so.

I have never forgotten that lesson. It is my privilege to bear witness to the stories I cover, to be entrusted with your words, with your histories, with your reputations. It is a privilege and it is a responsibility that I carry forward. Ever do I recall the most immutable ethical standard that everyone is taught, but so few remember in times of anger: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A golden rule.

It seems this lesson is not being recalled by others who share in my profession. It seems indeed that we march down a path of vindictive righteousness, where human lives are disposable in the service of greater causes, where a single wrong word is enough to nail a man for all to see. I think of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

"A fool folds his hands and eats of his own flesh."

We who persecute one another, heedless of our own shortcomings, we who brand those in an age where all is recorded, all is sealed in ink and marked with blood, we consume of our own flesh. My supposed peers, who perpetrate these acts of pillory, who seek to destroy, not to inform—they are cannibals of free speech, and they will not be the ones to suffer from their foolishness.

It will be me, and others like me, here on the ground, assuring you that we may have your trust, who will suffer.

For why would you trust a wolf to sit at your table, especially with blood dripping fresh from its jaws?