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Social Media Paints Perfect Picture of Gabby Petito Before she Went Missing; WSJ: Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls; The Factors That Will Decide House Control In 2022; Interview With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist George F. Will. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired September 18, 2021 - 09:00   ET



MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: Social media is not real life and that has consequences. I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. That may sound obvious, but it's not as clear to young adults and studies are showing that dissonance can lead to tragedy -- depression, self-harm, suicide to name just a few.

I was thinking about this when watching the national news coverage of the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. The happy, smiling pictures and videos that we've been shown of Petito and the fiance, Brian Laundrie, drawn from their social media accounts and how differently things may have been off camera. With all the media focus on Laundrie's role, now he's gone into hiding.

And all this comes as "The Wall Street Journal" has been publishing a Facebook investigation and one of its stories focuses on how its Instagram app is harmful to the mental health of teenage girls. "The Journal" reports that Facebook has been studying this for three years with in-house focus groups, surveys and diary studies on the topic, but it hasn't made its research public or done much of anything to fix it.

Among the findings that "The Journal" reported from the internal company documents and slides, that 32 percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse, one in five teens say Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves and among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users, 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

These statistics are even more alarming once you comprehend the number of users involved. More than 40 percent of Instagram's users are 22 years old and younger and about 22 million American teens use Instagram every day. That's compared with 5 million using Facebook. The generation that has come of age posting their lives publicly has suffered more mental health problems.

Psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of that great book "iGen," noted that 2012 marked the year when more than half of America had cell phones and this coincided with steep declines in teens actually hanging out with friends, dating, having sex. She's written, quote, "Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones."

And by way of example, she cited a survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found 8th graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent. In 2014, another pair of studies in the "Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology" concluded, quote, "Spending more time on Facebook and/or viewing Facebook more frequently provides people with the opportunity to spontaneously engage in Facebook social comparisons of any kind, which in turn, is associated with greater depressive symptoms."

So how might the Gabby Petito case relate? Since her disappearance, the media has been playing endless images from Instagram and YouTube of her months-long van trip around America with her childhood sweetheart and fiance, Laundrie, and they paint this idyllic picture of two attractive, young people in love having extraordinary experiences and lots of fun on their adventures to beautiful, even exotic locations.

But what they don't show and what social media almost never shows is what was happening when things weren't going so well. So far, at least one clue has surfaced -- this police body cam footage from August 12th when officers in Moab, Utah responded to reports of disorderly conduct and encountered Petito and Laundrie as they were engaged in some sort of altercation according to a report released by the Moab City Police Department.

Petito told the officer that they'd been fighting over, quote, "personal issues," attributed it to her OCD. Laundrie said that it all started when he climbed into the van with dirty feet.


GABBY PETITO, MISSING WOMAN: We've just been fighting this morning, some personal issues. And he wouldn't let me in the car before and then I ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why wouldn't he let you in the car? Because of your OCD?

PETITO: He told me I need to -- he told me I needed to calm down. Yes. But I'm perfectly calm. I have OCD and sometimes I just get really frustrated.


SMERCONISH: The report describes that despite having a physical fight following an argument, quote, "both the male and female reported they are in love, they're engaged to be married and desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime." At the officer's suggestion, Laundrie and Petito separated for the night, the report said. Petito was described by an officer as, quote, "confused and emotional as well as manic."

[09:05:02] One officer wrote, "After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis." No charges were filed.

The last communication Petito's family received from their daughter was on August 30th, but the family attorney says they don't believe that she wrote it. Laundrie allegedly returned alone September 1st to the Northport, Florida home that he and Petito shared with his parents. Petito's family reported Gabby missing on September 11 and that day, her van was recovered at Laundrie's house.

An attorney representing the Laundrie family said in a statement on Tuesday that the family is "remaining in the background at this juncture and will have no further comment" on the advice of counsel and now comes the report that Laundrie's family called police Friday to report that he has not been seen since Tuesday.

But at least this much is certain -- the picture painted by social media was not the whole story and the dissonance between the happy videos and pictures and the actual experience of life on the road could not have been healthy for the couple. If she hadn't disappeared with the police video coming to light, hers was just the sort of social media that would have caused others to be self-reflective, even envious, and sadly, now, none of us will ever look at her Instagram in the same way.

I want to know what you think. Go to my website at Answer this question. Will concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health diminish its popularity?

Joining me now to discuss, "Wall Street Journal" technology reporter Jeff Horwitz, who's been part of that great Facebook investigation, and Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book that I referenced, "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us."

First of all, Jeff, congratulations. This series of yours and your colleagues' is phenomenal. There's a lot of news this week and I don't want it to get lost. Suffice it to say, you've documented that Facebook, via Instagram, they know they have a problem, right?

JEFF HORWITZ, TECHNOLOGY REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I think that's something that probably we should probably begin with congratulating the company for, which is that I don't know that many major tech companies have really studied whether their product is healthy for their users as much as just figured out how to get them to use it more.

So I think that's a good start, but the problem is that Instagram did do the work and it found some pretty serious effects and I think it's pretty much concluded at this point that, as Instagram had Adam Mosseri put it, that there are no silver bullets. In other words that the things that are problematic about its product seem to be pretty deep rooted, there isn't a way to obviously change them and it's going to work on them, but it doesn't necessarily even have great hope that it's going to be fundamentally able to change those dynamics.

SMERCONISH: Well, here's what makes me nervous. You reference Adam Mosseri. I have a clip I want to show of him making a car analogy that I don't think stacks up. Catherine, will you run that clip?


ADAM MOSSERI, HEAD OF INSTAGRAM: I think that anything that is going to be used at scale is going to have positive and negative outcomes. Cars have positive and negative outcomes. We understand that. We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy and I think social media is similar.


SMERCONISH: I found that troublesome, Dr. Twenge. I mean, I need a car, I don't need Instagram and I think the argument he was making was that the ends justify the means. How did you interpret that?

JEAN TWENGE, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY: Yes. That's certainly what it sounds like and I think -- I agree with you. It's not a great analogy because, yes, we need to communicate with each other, technology writ large is a net good, but I don't think you can yet make that case for social media, especially because social media is designed to be addictive, it's designed to keep people coming back as many times as possible for as long as possible.

And we know, from their own studies as well as outside studies, the longer a teen girl spends on social media, the more likely she is to be depressed and self-harm.

SMERCONISH: Do you buy into the linkage that I put between this case that has fixated the nation where we're all watching, on a -- on a loop, these videos of your best life being lived? You look at this handsome young couple on this exotic trip and then you realize, wait a minute, the way in which they presented themselves through social media is not the reality, at least according to that police video. Is that what you were capturing in "iGen?"


TWENGE: Yes. I mean, I think that's one of the key issues with social media, is that, I mean, at base, it's not honest. It's people putting forth a very unrealistic picture of their lives. On Instagram in particular, it's filled with beautiful pictures of beautiful bodies, often Photoshopped, and it creates this very unrealistic picture of what your body's supposed to look like, what your life is supposed to look like and that is a very difficult thing, especially when you're a teenager.

Even when you're an adult, even if you know, on an intellectual level, that this is happening, it kind of gets you emotionally, it gets you in the gut when you think everybody else is always on vacation, everybody else always looks glamorous all the time when that's not actually reality. That's just the way it's portrayed on social media.

SMERCONISH: I didn't realize the ease with which -- there's this bikini side by side. Put that on the screen so people know what I'm talking about. With remarkable ease, I can alter my physical appearance. Believe me, I could -- I could use that technology on my gut. I guess, Jeff, the question is what can they do about it? What are they going to do about it?

HORWITZ: Those may be different questions. I think the car analogy was interesting because I actually would agree that social media does have some car-like traits in the sense that probably it is going to be a permanent part of our lives and it is very useful. The question, though, is what type of social media?

There are -- I think many of the things that Instagram has a problem with are the Explore Feed, it's certain types of content, it's certain sort of filters, things like that and there are ways that you could still let people connect and follow each other and communicate online and be inspired that wouldn't be sort of feeding them the same stuff that has the same risks.

And so I think kind of the car analogy is actually correct, right? Which is that absolutely cars are essential. However, not everything needs to be a Ford Pinto and I think the question of what exactly is safe and what exactly isn't isn't something that we, outside the company, have really had a chance to understand before because the company's just simply said it's fine.

SMERCONISH: Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Cathy McMorris-Rodgers in March of this year in a congressional hearing. Roll that clip.


REP. CATHY MCMORRIS-RODGERS, (R) WASHINGTON: Mr. Zuckerberg, has Facebook conducted any internal research as to the effect your products are having on the mental health of our children?

MARK ZUCKERBERG, CEO, FACEBOOK: Congresswoman, I know that this is something that we -- that we try to study and understand ...

MCMORRIS-RODGERS: Can you say yes or no? I'm sorry.

ZUCKERBERG: I believe the answer is yes.


SMERCONISH: I find that cagey, Jeff. "I believe the answer is yes?" If the timeline of yours lines up against that, for three years, he's been on the receiving end of slide presentations along with the rest of the leadership being advised of this issue.

HORWITZ: So yes, exactly what Mark Zuckerberg was aware of, I think, is hard to say fully. Obviously some of this stuff was discussed with him. However, there's no question that the company was very aware that its product could have potentially life-threatening effects for some of its users and I think that is something that the company -- for example, following up on that, they sent a letter to Congress in which they sort of were asked to elaborate on that and that letter didn't really say much in terms of serious concern.

It just said sort of everything's inconclusive, whereas I think the important thing inside Instagram is that they don't think it's inconclusive. They wrote in a presentation to executives that, quote, "We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls."

SMERCONISH: Look, this is the second big example this week. I am equating this with the drone strike in Kabul. But for the reporting by "The New York Times" and CNN and others, we would never have known, I'm convinced, what went on there. But for your reporting at "The Journal," we wouldn't know how Facebook and Instagram have been in the loop from the get-go about this. I mean, thank God for investigative journalism.

Final question, Jean Twenge, if I may. While we wait for them to try and do something, what can parents and teachers do?

TWENGE: Great question. So, first, we really, as parents -- I have three kids myself. We shouldn't let our kids have social media accounts before the age of 13. That's actually the company's stated policy. You have to be 13 to have a social media account in your own name, yet that's routinely flouted, and just help regulate this for your kids. This is a challenge. We're all fighting this every day. So many people around the country think, oh, I lack self-control and I'm on social media all the time.

We all feel that way because the products are designed to keep us coming back. So imagine feeling that way as an adult and then put yourself in the shoes of a 14- or 15-year-old and realize this is very difficult to regulate.


So put parental controls on your kids' phones, use them, say, OK, if you really, really want to be on social media, you can use it, but for half hour a day or an hour a day or whatever you think is reasonable. That's the great thing. We can use technology to solve the problem of too much technology.

SMERCONISH: Jeff Horwitz, Jean Twenge, that was excellent. Thank you both.

HORWITZ: Thank you.

TWENGE: Thanks, Michael.

SMERCONISH: I'm not a Luddite. I love the technology. Last night -- last night, I'm in my backyard taking a photograph up in the sky of the International Space Station and what did I do with it? I put it on Instagram.

But the thing is, you know, I'm a product of an era, maybe you are too, where we grew up and would compare ourselves to whomever was in homeroom. Damn, I wish I were as handsome as he is, I wish I were as smart as she is. Today, the technology allows this artificial comparison to everybody on the planet and it's a lot for our kids to handle.

What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. I will read some responses throughout the course of the program. This comes from YouTube, "Teens are watching other people's lives instead of living their own lives." Nancy, that was the point of Jean Twenge's book, "iGen." Like why did I make reference, a moment ago in the setup, to the fact that 2011-2012, they started having less sex and you might say as a parent, well, that's a good thing, I don't want my teen having sex. No, it's not necessarily a good thing because it shows social disconnection.

Through all the technology of our phones when people think they're actually more connected like, hey, I'm now talking to people I went to high school with. Yes, you're talking to them via your phone, but you're not having a beer with them. That's the double-edged sword in all of this.

Make sure you're voting at my website,, and answering today's survey question. Will the concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health, like "The Journal" is now documenting, is that going to diminish its popularity?

Up ahead, religious exemptions are becoming a common loophole against coronavirus vaccine mandates, but what exactly constitutes a sincerely-held religious belief? I'll discuss with the doctor who says they're the next threat on the horizon.




SMERCONISH: As sweeping new vaccine mandates could force millions of holdouts to get vaccinated against coronavirus, there's growing concern that people may try to misuse religious exemptions to avoid employer vaccine mandates.

Many large corporations already require the vaccination, but they must also, under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, offer exemptions to people with either a disability or a sincerely-held religious belief that prevents them from getting the vaccine. However, no major religious denomination in the U.S. outright opposes vaccinations. So what constitutes a sincerely-held religious belief?

According to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a religious belief does not have to be recognized by an organized religion and it can be new, unusual or seem illogical or unreasonable to others, but it cannot be founded solely on political or social ideas. That puts employers in the difficult position of determining what is a legitimate religious belief and what's a dodge?

Joining me now is Dr. Robert Klitzman, the professor of psychiatry and director of Bioethics Masters Program at Columbia University. He's also the author of "The Ethics Police? The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe" and he wrote this "L.A. Times" op-ed that caught my eye, "The next threat on the horizon: Religious exemptions from vaccine mandates." Dr. Klitzman, thank you so much for being here. Tell me about your cancer patient who self-medicated.

DR. ROBERT KLITZMAN, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHIATRY & DIRECTOR OF THE BIOETHICS MASTERS PROGRAM, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: So I had a patient who had terrible cancer. She was told that it's treatable if she goes and gets chemotherapy. She, however, decided that prayer alone and Chinese herbal medicine was going to help her and that is what she pursued instead of medical treatment and she came back to the hospital not long afterwards and the cancer had basically taken over her body.

I felt her stomach and it had bulges like rocks of tumor and she died shortly thereafter. So her religious beliefs contributed to her death unfortunately.

SMERCONISH: And that is so darn sad, but we respect her right to make that decision. How is it changed, however, when it's a contagious virus and we're in the midst of a pandemic?

KLITZMAN: Well, it changes it a lot. So we believe in religious freedom in this country, but we also believe, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, that your freedom of speech, your freedom ends at the point at which you yell "fire" falsely in a crowded theater. So there are people who say -- for instance, there are some Muslims who are Jihadists who say my religious belief is that I should kill infidels.

Well, that's OK perhaps if that's your religious belief or we respect people's religious beliefs, but there are limits on it. We don't say, fine, you have the religious belief you want to harm other people, go and harm other people. So there are limits in our society to how far religious beliefs can go.

And I should add that Judeo-Christian faiths all say we should also love our neighbors and help other people and care for our parents and our children and not getting a vaccine puts these people in danger.

SMERCONISH: Well, how in the world are employers, including the federal government, going to be able to sort this out?

KLITZMAN: Well, I think that we need to come up with guidelines. I think that the Biden administration and state and local health departments, for instance, need to say here is what can be done rather than just checking off a box, yes, I want to have a religious exemption or even providing a statement because, at this point, there are lots of templates online on how to get out of having to get a vaccine using a religious exemption.


Just cut and paste this text. I think having an interview with the person and saying, OK, this is your belief, tell me about it. A problem is that a lot of religious exemptions that people are claiming, and there's lots of them right now, are based on myths. People saying, for instance, that all vaccines are made using fetal cells and I'm pro-life.

Well, that's simply not true. One vaccine, Johnson & Johnson, was developed using cells derived from fetal cells from 40 years ago, but those cells have been replicated thousands of times in the lab and basically every other medicine that we take was used -- was developed using these same lines. So every antibiotic was also developed using these fetal cell lines and, more importantly, there are several vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, et cetera, that were not developed using fetal lines. So I think correcting these misunderstandings is important.

SMERCONISH: So where no major religion is anti-vax, and I'm hearing anecdotally, and most troublesome among healthcare providers, that all of a sudden people are finding religion. It seems disproportionate, right?

I mean, there aren't that many folks known to be following religions other than the major denominations suddenly asserting, hey, all of a sudden -- it reminds me of when, as a plaintiff's lawyer, I'd be trying a case and during the jury selection process, I would have a disproportionate number of folks claiming to be Jehovah's witnesses who suddenly couldn't sit in judgment and my attitude was, well, I didn't even want you on the jury in that case. Anyway, respond to the disproportionality, if there is one.

KLITZMAN: I think people are using it as an excuse. People are saying I just don't want a vaccine be it because of my political views or I don't want someone jabbing me in the arm, but we need to remember that by not getting a vaccine, we are putting other people in danger, we have thousands of Americans dying every day of COVID and we can stop this pandemic if we get everyone vaccinated and I think religious exemptions are a major problem in getting that done.

SMERCONISH: Amen to that, pun intended. Thank you, Dr. Klitzman.

KLITZMAN: Thank you very much.

SMERCONISH: Let's see what you're saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. This comes from the world of Twitter, "The idea that someone's religious beliefs should grant them special privileges is a social construct that has outlived its usefulness." Michael, you're making sense to me. You know, you are making sense to me and imagine what's going to happen when we get to the point where the vaccine's been approved for kids of all ages and now, like, you know, measles or mumps, it becomes required for -- it's your ticket to go to school.

What's going to then happen when a parent says, oh, we have a religious exemption? My tolerance level for it is similar to yours.

I want to remind you, go to my website at and answer this week's survey question. Will concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health diminish its popularity?

And up ahead, this week, Congressman Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump, announced he won't be running for re-election and my next guest believes that after the midterms, of those 10, only four will remain.

Plus, a look at how redistricting based on the 2020 census could decide the 2022 balance of power.



SMERCONISH: One big factor in the upcoming midterms, the long shadow of former President Donald Trump that became even clearer this week when one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him, Ohio's Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, announced he will not run for re- election citing the animus that he has endured because of that vote. Trump's response, one down and nine to go.

But there are other factors at play determining the make-up of the next Congress historically. The midterm pendulum usually swings against the party controlling the White House. Indeed since World War II the president's party has lost an average of 26 seats.

The current Democratic majority in the House is a precarious 220 to 212. But in a new piece in "The Cook Political Report" "The Five Factors that Will Decide House Control in 2022" senior U.S. House editor David Wasserman cautions, "There are plenty of ways in which the next 14 months could defy past patterns or produce another surprising outcome."

David Wasserman joins me now. David, so great to have you back. With regard to redistricting, Republicans have an advantage. I'm going to put a chart up on the screen that talks about how many districts they control. Explain to everybody, why do they have the upper hand?

DAVID WASSERMAN, SENIOR EDITOR, HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: Well, look, Republicans got to draw the lines for a lot of state legislatures last time. And in 70 percent of the country partisans control the process. And neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has put guard rails up against gerrymandering. What that means is that the majority party in each state can annihilate the minority through gerrymandering.

In Ohio, for example, Republicans this time could draw themselves 87 percent of the seats even though Biden won 45 percent of the votes there in 2020. In New York State, Democrats could draw themselves 88 percent of the seats even though Trump got 38 percent of the vote.


So the net effect is that blue states are going to get bluer, red states are going to get redder. There are going to be fewer competitive seats and that's going to make Congress even more dysfunctional.

SMERCONISH: Can we underscore both parties do it?



WASSERMAN: Yes. Historically, yes.

SMERCONISH: So that's -- that's -- all right. That's redistricting. That's reapportionment then redistricting. But here's the issue that you're into and you've made me very, very knowledgeable of, it's the self-sorting idea.

I want to put on the screen a map of the country. A progression of maps on the country that, I think, begin in 1996 and end in 2016. There it is. What are we looking at where there's a progressive increase of red and blue but mostly red?

WASSERMAN: Well, over the last half century we have seen a self- sorting of the electorate both geographically and in terms of the media in which we consume. And that has led to the vast majority of Americans living in partisan echo chambers.

And, you know, what that -- what that means over time is that we've got an entire generation of kids that are growing up in the country with limited exposure at best to alternative points of view, both in terms of the communities where they're growing up and the media that's present there. And, I believe, over time that's going to lead to increasing sectarian strife, rising political violence, as long as misinformation is so freely disseminated.

SMERCONISH: In other words, there's a process taking place now that will redraw state legislative and congressional boundary lines and politics are influencing that process. But those maps, they document how counties, the number of blowout counties, where we don't redraw the lines are increasing exponentially, so there's something going on out there.

What do you think it is? Is it osmosis? Like you move into a blue area, you become blue? Or the converse among reds? Or what, a reticence to express yourself? Explain.

WASSERMAN: Yes. I think what's happening is Americans are choosing to live in places that are politically comfortable for them, where the vast majority of their friends and neighbors agree with their political and cultural values. And that's leading to a lot of red districts. It's leading to a lot of very blue districts where the primary is tantamount to election.

You know, we talked about Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio. And the reality is Trump's goal has been to make it a personal nightmare and politically not viable to oppose him in the Republican primaries in these districts where the primary is tantamount to election. I would be surprised if more of the three of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment are back in Congress in 2023.

By the way, I think Lisa Murkowski is vulnerable in her Senate race in Alaska. And on this rate, I think, de-Trumpification of the Republican Party will be largely complete by 2024 with the possible exceptions of Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse and Susan Collins.

SMERCONISH: If history repeats itself, Republicans if they get anywhere close to the 26 that history says they'll gain, say hello to Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

WASSERMAN: Well, that's true. And, look, I think the odds are that Republicans will take back the majority at this point. They only need five seats to do so. They could conceivably get all of those five seats through the redistricting process alone. They control big states like Texas and Florida and North Carolina and Georgia in the process.

Democrats, they have the opportunity to gerrymander in New York and Illinois. Even so, the historical pattern of the party out of the White House picking up a couple dozen seats, well, you know, that's far more than the five that Republicans need to make Kevin McCarthy speaker. And Democrat, by the way, they've got more problematic retirements on their side as well. So the odds favor Republicans.

SMERCONISH: David Wasserman, excellent. Thank you so much for coming back.

WASSERMAN: Thanks for having me, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Checking in on your tweets and your Facebook comments. This comes from the world of Twitter, I think. What do we have?

Trumpism is very much alive. And the GOP will be destroyed because of it.

Joe Z, this is bigger than Trumpism. There were factors that gave rise to the election of Donald Trump that, I think, are similar to those that gave rise to Brexit. And if your belief in sending me that tweet to think that when Donald Trump is no longer a dominating influence on the Republican Party that these type of issues that we're discussing go away -- I totally disagree.

Still to come, legendary Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will is in the on-deck circle and he's ready to play ball. And I want to remind to you answer this week's survey question at "Will concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health diminish its popularity?" Go vote.



SMERCONISH: George Will brings the long view to America's turbulent current events. He's been writing a column for "The Washington Post" only since 1974, won the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is his 16th and it collects his writing during the past two presidencies. It's called "American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008- 2020." And George Will joins me now.

The book is terrific. I hope you can see from my marked up copy how much I've enjoyed it. I had a freshman seminar back in the day on conservatism at Lehigh University. [09:45:00]

Required reading, your columns, William F. Buckley's "God and Man at Yale," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," and a couple of other books. Today's conservative books -- and I don't refer to yours, but they're written by talk radio hosts and they don't even have footnotes. What the hell has happened to intellectual conservatism?

GEORGE F. WILL, COLUMNIST, WASHINGTON POST: That's a terrific question. When conservatism began to grow after the Second World War it was very bookish. It began with the book by a man named Weaver in Chicago called "Ideas Have Consequences," Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," Bill Buckley's "Up From Liberalism" and "God and Man at Yale." It was a bookish persuasion and it led my dear friend Pat Moynihan, the senator from New York, to say in the 1970s that something momentous had happened and that the Republican Party had become the party of ideas.

Well, ideas have gone on vacation from the Republican Party partly because they can't be expressed in Twitter and all the other new media that encourage vituperation and venting and anger and all the rest. And this is why the -- in a way technologies have made the world safe. It has made the Republican Party captive to Donald Trump.

SMERCONISH: You argue in the book that social media, which we've spent a lot of time on this particular program discussing today, is actually good for the literary world. How come?

WILL: Well, it can give a great velocity to ideas. What it has done is made speech cheap in the sense that in order to disseminate ideas in previous ages to large numbers of people you had to own a printing press or a broadcasting entity. Today, we've given unlimited access to inexpensive dissemination of speech.

That sounds like a good thing. The problem is there are no gatekeepers so if you're stark raving mad and are overflowing with weird conspiracy theories, you, too, can send that stuff out into the ether.

I'd like to pick up on something, if I may, that your previous guest, the estimable David Wasserman said. He talked about what has been called the "big sort" in America. People living in their own intellectual silos, picking the media that's congenial to them.

I write a lot in my book about parenting and how modern parenting has produced the kind of children who go to college. And when they get to college they don't want freedom of speech, they want freedom from speech. They want safe spaces and they want bias response teams spanning out across the campus to police discomforting ideas and organizations.

How did that happen? Well, partly because parenting now, we've taken the noun "parent" and turned it into a verb, are producing bubble- wrapped children, prevented from exposure to difficulty. Superintended by helicopter parenting closely until they get to campus.

We're producing neurotic parents who think that given parental determinism they can produce the perfect child who will go from prep school to Princeton to Goldman Sachs if they just do it right. The result is a kind of neurotic parents, stressed out children, fragile children, brittle children and it seeps into our politics.

What happens on campus doesn't stay on campus. And as David Wasserman just said to you what we have is a country increasingly sorting it out, encountering one another, rarely, in terms of contrasting ideas, with the results that our politics becomes more and more bitter and loud.

SMERCONISH: I accept what you say as long as you put in the role of technology. But you've set up something that I just want to read in our closing moment.

My favorite column, among the 6,000 you've authored and I think I've read most of them, begins -- it doesn't begin. But it contains this, "The day after Jon was born, a doctor told Jon's parents that the first question for them was whether they intended to take Jon home from the hospital. Nonplussed, they said they thought that is what parents do with newborns. Not doing so, however, was still considered an acceptable choice for parents who might prefer to institutionalize or put up for adoption children thought to have necessarily bleak futures."

Who were Jon's parents?

WILL: I'm Jon's father. He was born on my birthday, in May 1972. When he was born, the life expectancy of Down syndrome children -- Down syndrome is a congenital genetic defect that produces some abnormalities -- there's old Jon -- and some physical abnormalities and mental retardation.


The life expectancy for Down syndrome children was 20 years because they were warehoused. They were considered hopeless. They were not given stimulation.

Well, next year Jon turns 50. Jon works in the Washington Nationals Clubhouse which means he gets up every morning, goes to a major league ballpark and has a better job than I've got. It just goes to show that we are often told that there are limits to people's lives that are just wrong and it also goes to show how astonishingly America is open to improvement.

SMERCONISH: Thank you so much for being here. I love that column and it's a great book.

WILL: I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments if we have time. And the final result of the survey question at "Will concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health diminish its popularity?" Go vote.


SMERCONISH: OK. On the subject of how do you know if someone using a sincerely held religious belief is legit when they're trying to not get vaccinated? Here's Sean Penn's answer just sent to me. If their kids already have a measles vaccine that in its own should deny a religious status dodge.

It's brilliant, right? If somebody -- if some adult now says, "Well, you know, I have a sincerely held religious belief," and they've got kids who are vaccinated against other things -- nope.

Time to see how you responded to the survey question at "Will concerns about Instagram's impact on mental health diminish its popularity?" Survey says, 86 percent, no. Well, that would be sad, with more than 11,000 having voted.

Thanks for watching. See you next week.