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Journalists Mobilize Against Free Speech

A new generation of media crusaders clamor for government control over what you see, hear, and read—and for banning their competition

Armin Rosen
January 25, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

American journalism once thought of itself as being inherently and institutionally pro free speech. Visitors to the Newseum, the media industry’s temple of self-glorification on Constitution Avenue in Washington, were once greeted with the First Amendment inscribed across 74 vertical feet of lofty marble. The Newseum has been closed since late 2019, its operators having discovered the hard way that the public doesn’t share the media’s heroic level of regard for itself.

The museum was an anachronism in more ways than one: The idea that journalists themselves look upon the constitutional right to free expression with quasi-religious awe is nearly as quaint as the idea the media could be the basis for a major D.C. tourist attraction. A publicly beloved press that earnestly believes in free speech now feels like it belongs to some fictive era of good feelings. These days, the American public distrusts the media more than it ever has.

Confronted with this crisis of legitimacy, today’s corporate media increasingly advances ideas that would delight would-be power trippers of any party—like establishing novel forms of government control over what you can see, read, and hear and identifying people with a broad range of unpopular or unapproved views as domestic terrorists. Public discourse is now a “conflict space” with social media serving as an “information warzone,” the public intellectual Peter W. Singer declared in an essay published a few days after the alternately scary and farcical Trump riot on Capitol Hill, seamlessly adapting a framework of state-level physical violence to a discussion of constitutionally protected speech.

In recent years the United States has seen more severe acts of political violence and deadlier riots than the events at the Capitol—but American guarantees of free speech apparently should not survive the shocking image of Nancy Pelosi’s office being ransacked. The notion that free expression is sedition’s handmaiden or that the prevention of treason should be a higher goal than the open exchange or exposure of allegedly dangerous arguments are not controversial views anymore; they pop up frequently, among putatively liberal-minded commentators in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Media skepticism toward free expression actually began long before the Capitol riot – and before Trump was elected. The New Yorker’s Kalefa Sanneh anticipated the rising ambivalence toward the existing First Amendment regime when he likened “speech nuts” to “gun nuts” in a 2015 essay. Today, support for the mainstream American free speech norms of earlier, less-Trump-addled times is increasingly cast as a kind of sinister eccentricity, as when Slate declared in the days after the Capitol assault that “We have come to a moment in which one half of the country is fighting to be free of crippling, life-ending acts of stochastic terror, while another half of the same country is chillingly preoccupied with their right to just talk shit.”

How chilling, to be preoccupied with one’s individual rights—or at least to not understand that the legitimacy of one’s constitutionally guaranteed freedoms depends on the “moment” that “we” might be “in.” Sanneh wasn’t quite so sneering, and in the end he predicted that custom would override any late-breaking sense of national emergency: “Perhaps America’s First Amendment, like the Second, is ultimately a matter of national preference,” he mused. In any case, Sanneh wasn’t calling for anyone to suffer criminal penalties for protected speech.

Sanneh’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for fining or jailing people who disagree with him is getting less common among members of a media class determined to show that “enemies of the state” are its enemies, too. In a 2019 Washington Post opinion piece, Richard Stengel, the former managing editor of Time magazine and co-author of The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s now-classic autobiography, argued that the U.S. was in need of hate speech laws, contending that “the First Amendment ... should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.” As the Biden administration’s transition team leader for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, he will no doubt find plenty of support for his vision for state-regulated speech among a long list of regimes that journalists once professed to abhor.

Here’s a look at other outlets and media figures who have gone into hall monitor mode, revealing themselves to be skeptics of the very system of law and custom that enables their profession to exist in the first place.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: “It’s time for this question to be front and center: Should Fox News be allowed to exist?,” the author, MSNBC talking head, New York University journalism professor, and former New York Times writer, Vice talk-show host, and Aspen Institute fellow recently tweeted. “Brain-mashing as a business model shouldn’t be legal.”

He continued: “I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t understand why you’re not allowed to manufacture bucatini that doesn’t have a certain threshold of iron in it but you can broadcast brain-mashing falsehoods and goad people toward terrorism.” Shocking that Giridharadas is still permitted to roam free, given how “brain-mashing” I consider this entire line of reasoning to be (the Bill of Rights lacks a pasta standards amendment, for starters). But there’s an inherent arrogance, perhaps even an optimism, to pro-censorship arguments. No one ever expects their self-invented standards to be turned back against them.

STEVE COLL: There are few figures who can speak as a kind of one-person voice of all institutional journalism, but if the two-time Pulitzer winning dean of Columbia Journalism School can’t do it then no one can. It is a jarring development when someone in Coll’s rarefied position wonders whether this whole freedom of speech thing is really worth it anymore.

In a December appearance on MSNBC, Coll decried the wide latitude of political self-expression that Facebook permitted in the aftermath of a presidential campaign awash in conspiracy theories. “Those of us in journalism have to come to terms with the fact that free speech, a principle that we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism,” Coll warned.

The notion of a dichotomy between free speech and journalism is bizarre enough on its own; stranger still is the idea that in this totally invented standoff between “free speech” and “journalism” the latter should be given higher priority. When one considers Coll’s decadeslong history of contact with the CIA and other security agencies in the course of his prize-winning journalism, perhaps this dichotomy looks a little less weird.

Coll’s statement might have been logically and intellectually incoherent, but like Stengel’s piece it was at least an honest look into what various journalism popes are thinking these days: They’re thinking that it’s more honorable, and perhaps better for society at large, for the Fourth Estate to defend what it believes to be its prestige and its few remaining privileges than it is to uphold free expression, which isn’t the business these people are in anyway.

RICHARD STENGEL: Stengel’s argument for American hate speech laws is worth revisiting, since its author, unlike everyone else mentioned here, has a record of senior government service and is close with the people who have just won control of the American leviathan. “When I was a journalist, I loved Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion that the Constitution and the First Amendment are not just about protecting ‘free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate,’” wrote Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy during the second Obama administration. “But as a government official traveling around the world championing the virtues of free speech, I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier.”

True! Just listen to the leaders of states like China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, and many dozens of others, friend and foe. They’ll tell you how silly and dangerous the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is. Why should America insist on being some kind of weird exception to global norms? Besides, it’s so much easier and more pleasant to wield power without annoying little gnats contradicting you at every turn and printing baldfaced lies about people going hungry or books being banned or the Great Leap Forward being a failure—not that it could ever, ever get to be like that in the United States. Right?

“All speech is not equal,” Stengel writes. “And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails.” Given the almost limitless power of the executive branch under the current incarnation of the American constitutional system, it isn’t totally paranoid to think Stengel’s outlook could have something like the force of law sometime in the near future.

THE NEW YORKER: Masha Gessen and Andrew Marantz have become a veritable tag-team of free speech skepticism at one of America’s leading magazines. Gessen, an author and professor, looked with puzzlement and perhaps even alarm upon their college students’ soberly and sensibly non-instrumental view of the First Amendment and free expression in general. “The news media have traditionally borne the responsibility for insuring that the actual purpose of the First Amendment is fulfilled,” they write. “Yet Americans are content to leave this essential component of democracy to profit-driven corporations with next to no regulatory oversight.” Perhaps free speech can only fulfill its “purpose,” whatever Gessen thinks that might be, with the help of government coercion.

In the course of researching a book about internet-based radicalization, Marantz became convinced that “free speech absolutism” is akin to a civic suicide pact, and that a proper balancing of liberty and security must be introduced into the First Amendment as implemented. “His thesis was that free speech is good,” Marantz lamented about an address given by Mark Zuckerberg. “Of course, everyone apart from Kim Jong Un agrees with this; the question is whether free speech is the only good worth pursuing, and whether it leads inexorably to truth and progress.” Really? That’s the question?

EMILY BAZELON: America is “drowning in lies,” the essayist and journalist declared in the midst of a long piece in The New York Times Magazine last summer, titled “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation.”

Sure is! But whose lies, exactly? What are they? How can an average person be expected to tell lies from truth? Perhaps government censorship is the answer to this “problem.”

Like many of the other proponents of controlled speech mentioned here, Bazelon’s writing has a detectable winking quality to it: Don’t worry, dear reader, YOU’RE not the one who’s going to be censored. THEY are. In fact, the censorship, so-called, won’t even be that bad. You’ll hardly notice it.

One thing that people might not immediately recognize when they hear scary-sounding words like “censorship” is that the act of controlling other people’s speech can be gratifying, a psychic net-positive for those who dream of a purified information space. Supporting censorship even shows that you’re in touch with the most advanced currents of continental ideas. In Europe, they might have “more regulations on speech”—which is a nice way of saying that the government can fine or imprison you for speech that is constitutionally protected in the United States—but “these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be.” Thinking about censorship should inspire warm and cuddly thoughts, perhaps of sipping gluhwein up in a schloss, or digging into a plate of steaming oliebollen beside a canal.

By contrast, America suffers from a predictably gross excess of speech. “Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes,” Bazelon writes. “But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.” We simply can’t have a First Amendment with so much truth being distorted by people who disagree with us, can we?

BILL ADAIR: Although he founded Politifact, the Duke University journalism professor now realizes that a mere website can’t go far enough in protecting the public from the dread disease of misinformation—which is this month’s successor to “disinformation,” a foreign-threat-oriented term that is apparently being retired now that Russia and China are threatening to become models for the U.S. Why should weak, pitiful facts be forced to do battle against error without American government forces to back them up?

In an op-ed co-written with Stanford professor Philip M. Napoli, Adair, gravely noting that “fact-checking didn’t persuade the mob that stormed the Capitol,” called for “a bipartisan commission to investigate the problem of misinformation and make recommendations about how to address it,” perhaps through “regulations and new laws.”

Adair and Napoli’s essay traces a subtle redefinition of the terms of the censorship debate. Back in the more innocent world of the first Trump electoral campaign, the alleged civilizational scourge of “fake news,” a term originally invented by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to describe accusations made against her by Donald Trump which was then gleefully appropriated by Trump to describe the entire mainstream American news media, generally referred to stories that were entirely fabricated, or that had been pushed out through verifiably state-controlled information channels. “Fake news” later morphed into “disinformation,” or information that someone believes was intentionally meant to mislead. The prime suspects were usually the Moscow-based lords of the American information ecosystem, with the all-powerful Russians working in presumed collaboration with prime fake news purveyor and accuser Donald Trump.

The new enemy is no longer “disinformation” but “misinformation,” or information that somebody, somewhere—perhaps a presidential commission, perhaps an FCC bureaucrat, perhaps a faceless content moderator, perhaps a college professor with a website—deems punishable by virtue of its allegedly being untrue, or not true enough. The “mis” in “misinformation” is a conveniently slippery and expansive term that can include things that might be conventionally regarded as “true,” and in fact are true, but might lead someone to conclusions that fail to conform to a higher truth and are therefore undesirable. What are facts, anyway?

PETER W. SINGER: For Adair, public discourse was swept with a “tidal wave of misinformation” prior to the Capitol attack. The metaphor of choice from Singer, a trendy big-thinker with a nifty title at the New America Foundation—Strategist!—is actual warfare. That’s right: Words aren’t just violence, but violence in its most organized and systematized form, violence on an industrial scale. “They are not just tech creators or even the equivalent of news-media editors,” Singer wrote of social media companies a few days after the Capitol siege in the Atlantic Media-owned national-security-industry-focused publication Defense One. “After years of dodging it, they get that they are running information warzones. And there is a key change that comes from understanding that social media is not just a communication space but a conflict space. In Clausewitzian terms, the forces of toxicity now face a whole new type of ‘friction.’”

That’s mongo kinetic, brah! By the way, incidentally or maybe not so incidentally, Singer has been a member of both the National Security Agency’s advisory council and of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy.

CNN: The network that arguably did more than even Fox to turn cable news into an infotainment-powered anger binge, radicalizing middle-aged centrists and stranded air travelers the country over, now has second thoughts about its particular racket, or at least it has second thoughts about other people participating in its racket now that Donald Trump isn’t around anymore to goose its ratings. Clearly what the 24-hour news network needs to preserve its business is to get better at its job of breaking news—or else, to pick up new viewers by having its weaker competitors in the cortisol-boosting industry run off the air.

“Just a reminder that neither @Verizon, @ATT, nor @comcast have answered any questions about why they beam channels like OAN & Newsmax into millions of homes,” media reporter Oliver Darcy recently tweeted, in promoting a CNN segment dedicated to the urgent issue of throwing other cable networks off television. “Do they have any second thoughts about distributing these channels given their election denialism content? They won’t say.”

One wonders if CNN has second thoughts about carrying nearly every single lie-filled Trump rally live during the 2016 presidential election campaign, including during the primaries, an in-kind donation the network made to no other candidate—or any second thoughts about its breathless wall-to-wall Russiagate coverage, which accused literally hundreds of people of various crimes based on anonymous sources, some of whom seem to have been deliberately lying. Probably not: The drama of the Trump era, which CNN had no small hand in creating, was very good for the channel’s bottom line.

PROPUBLICA: Isn’t it strange, the nonprofit newsroom wondered in a Jan. 19 article that required four reporters , that former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon has been kicked off of Facebook and YouTube, while Apple persists in carrying his podcast? Right?

Well, no, it’s really not that strange: Apple delisting Bannon from its podcast app would mean making a series of tricky judgment calls about what exactly constitutes an exhortation to committing real-world acts of violence, creating a range of legal and moral and practical dilemmas for the conflict-averse tech company. Even so, the story expresses a clear hope that Apple and other formerly neutral content carriers will apply sweeping and politically motivated content tests to the material they carry. What could be better, right—especially in a democracy that is in obvious need of strengthening.

“Audio files themselves are supported by a much more fragmented network of hosting services—which costs money, unlike simply being catalogued by a portal like Apple’s,” the article warns. Bannon’s podcast, for instance, “is hosted by Podbean, which did not return a request for comment. Its terms of service forbid content that is ’malicious, false, or inaccurate.’”

There is something unsettling about journalists exhibiting this kind of enthusiasm for corporate censorship and citizen snitching.

THE WASHINGTON POST: The 1798 Sedition Act is traditionally looked upon as a low point in the history of the early republic, single-handed proof that something like the First Amendment had been necessary in order to prevent the new United States from lapsing into European-style despotism.

Well, not anymore: On Jan. 14, the air still pungent with smoke from the smoldering Capitol , Notre Dame history professor Katlyn Marie Carter informed readers of the Washington Post that maybe the Act had an idea or two worth considering after all. Maybe the Sedition Act was actually a missed opportunity to make our democracy better through government censorship, especially when it came to the horror of rhetorical attacks on government office holders.

True, Carter noted, “the legislation has long been vilified as a partisan ploy to suppress the Federalist Party’s political opponents … But that partisan weaponization shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Sedition Act was also advanced as a response to a perceived crisis of misinformation and its potential to undermine trust in elected officials.” For Carter, “Proponents of the Sedition Act did something important. They highlighted the real threat misinformation posed—and still poses—to democracy and recognized that people are often either unable or unwilling to arrive at the truth amid a deluge of material.”

Like a lot of censorship fans, Carter doesn’t define the exact legal remedy for speech she finds unacceptable, or define notably elastic terms like “undermin[ing] of trust in elected officials.” But rest assured, some kind of remedy is needed to stave off the deluge. “Truth” must be protected by some external authority. Today, “the task of safeguarding the truth is functionally left up to profit-driven tech companies, which is no better a solution than that offered by the Sedition Act. Though social media giants seem to have finally awakened to the danger of misinformation spread on their platforms, it took a violent insurrection to spur meaningful action. It may be too little, too late.”

MAX BOOT: The S-word was also thrown around liberally in a post-Capitol siege column from the maverick foreign policy thinker turned repetitive center-left take-slinger, a pro-censorship broadside that was also published in The Washington Post—which is owned by arch-monopolist Jeff Bezos, who is contracted to provide secure cloud computing services for the CIA. Boot argues for legal and extra-legal consequences against “a whole infrastructure of incitement” guilty of aiding and abetting Trump’s grotesque riot. “We need to shut down the influencers who radicalize people and set them on the path toward violence and sedition” he wrote, in a sentence whose hilariously misplaced modifiers both he and his editors missed.

Tellingly, the “we” here includes “large cable companies such as Comcast and Charter Spectrum” who Boot believes should drop Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News. What’s a little censorship among friends? Surely, we won’t be censoring anything too important or vital to the healthy functioning of society by shutting down outlets that pander to the wrong half of American society—while we pander to the right half. Surely the very act of censorship won’t prove corrosive to the country’s civic and moral baseline, however evil these networks might be. The combined forces of The Washington Post and Comcast only have the public’s best interests at heart.

Boot helpfully notes, in a parenthetical, that he is “a global affairs analyst” at the aforementioned CNN, meaning that he is explicitly arguing for his personal competition to be thrown off the airwaves by the combined forces of government and corporate power.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Like ProPublica, the AP has discovered a shocking “loophole” exploited by ideological extremists: podcasts.

“Podcasts made available by the two Big Tech companies let you tune into the world of the QAnon conspiracy theory, wallow in President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and bask in other extremism,” reports the AP, warning that “Podcasting ‘plays a particularly outsized role’ in propagating white supremacy,” according to “a 2018 report from the Anti-Defamation League.” Has anyone investigated comic books yet? The lyrics of rap songs? If you haven’t noticed yet, seditious, violence-inducing content is everywhere.

The lone and very much welcome note of balance comes from Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who observes that censorship “goes with the tide against what’s popular in any given moment.” Today, people considered part of the radical right are targeted. “Tomorrow,” she cautions, “the tide might be against opposition activists.”

For the rising, pro-censorship voices in media and beyond, history has no tides, just correct answers. What objection will today’s anti-speech intellectuals mount if someone in power decides they’re the ones who have it all wrong?

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.