Monday, December 19, 2005

On Cougars, Communism and Considering the Source

On Saturday, the Standard-Times, a Massachusetts news publication ran an article with this chilling lead:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

The student was working on a research paper on Communism for a class on fascism and totalitarianism. He followed protocol and filled out an inter-library loan form, requesting the book. Two agents with the Dept. of Homeland Security then showed up at his parents’ home because the book was on a “watch list.”

Let’s be clear. “The Little Red Book” is NOT a classified document dealing with national defense. It is not a banned book. It is not illegal to print, to own, or to read.

The agents brought the book with them, but didn’t let the student have it.

The article quotes UMass professor, Robert Pontbriand, as saying, “I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book.”

Commendable journalism, or raging terrorist plot? You make the call. In any case, it is quite clear that reading certain books can put Big Brother’s eye upon you – even if the books are not illegal, banned, or otherwise censored.

Now, this seemed like an entertaining Hollywood plot point in “Conspiracy Theory,” in which Mel Gibson’s character is programmed to compulsively buy a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” whenever he goes anywhere – with the transaction thus alerting the shady G-Men tracking him of his exact wherabouts. But when real college kids have actual agents respond to an attempt to finish a research paper, I feel the icy fingers of fear tickle my spinal cord.

We live in a society where innuendo, gossip, speculation, and hypotheses are too often paraded before us as fact. Witness, for instance, the National Enquirer’s public apology to Teri Hatcher, for printing a story about her activities that they now believe was fabricated. OOops. Nothing like checking your sources AFTER someone takes legal action.

Another case in point is the ongoing Berrien County Cougar story. When one person says, “It was a Big Cat,” very few reporters have the time or the inclination to check on that person’s credentials, to question his agenda, or to verify other, similar proclamations he may have made in the past.

I am a big fan of going to the source. I don’t like to read paraphrases, and I despise abridged versions. I loathe soundbites and prefer to hear an entire speech, so a quote is heard in context.

Not going to the source for one’s information allows someone else to do your thinking for you. It allows someone other than the original speaker to command your attention. It gives someone else the right to decide what information you have access to.

At the very least, not going to the source is a sign of sloppy, lazy, just-scratch-the-surface writing. At the worst, it’s dangerous – offering opinions as fact, and hearsay as evidence. A news story suggesting that federal agents are employed to monitor citizens and keep them from accessing the text of books that are not illegal to own blows a very cold wind over the plains of journalism and frosts the freedoms that too many of us, I fear, take for granted.

If free speech and freedom of the press were no more, would you notice? Normally, I don’t consider myself a political animal. But I find it bleak indeed to think that I may discover the answer to that question in my lifetime…