The war on free speech is about to get a lot uglier – Reason.com
A week after being trapped inside the United States Capitol as thousands of pro-Donald Trump marauders attempted to forcefully “stop the theft” of the presidential election, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D -NY) suggested a possible response from the federal government: convene a national commission on media education.
“We’re going to have to figure out how we control our media environment so that you can’t just spit out misinformation and misinformation,” Ocasio-Cortez told his followers in a video message. “It’s one thing to have differing opinions, but quite another to just say the wrong things.”
The road to restrictive speech is paved with political rhetoric about protecting the proletariat against lies. Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán cited the potentially deadly dangers of “fake news” while pushing through a law punishing coronavirus disinformation with up to five years in prison. Holocaust denial is illegal in more than a dozen European countries, in the name of safeguarding Jewish minorities. Donald Trump, before being elected president, pledged to “open our libel laws” as a remedy for “negative, horrible and false articles”.
Thankfully, Trump’s implausible threat – there are no federal libel laws, to begin with – was founded on the same rocks that will thwart any attempt by Ocasio-Cortez to have the lies arbitrated by the federal government and to “curb” free expression. America’s legal and cultural linguistic traditions are the strongest on the planet, and the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts has vigorously defended the First Amendment.
Add to that legal roadblock a more temporal obstacle to Ocasio-Cortez’s political agenda: The 117th Congress legislation will be shaped much more by the more conservative Democrats in the 50-50 Senate than by the loudest Socialists in the House.
But that doesn’t mean AOC-style censorship will be cauterized in the post-Trump era. On the contrary.
The terrible events of January 6 accelerated trends in center-left circles, especially within media and tech companies. Shocked at the sight of a violent crowd lending muscle to the streets of a lame president’s conspiracy theory, reporters, academics and social media companies immediately seemed to agree on a two-pronged strategy: use the most negative adjectives to describe the still important Trump rump and banishing the most deplorable figures of this bloc from all the platforms at hand.
It was first the sitting president who was sent to social networks in Siberia. Soon the Twitter site for Right-Handers Speaking found itself without web hosting services after Amazon, Apple and Google severed all commercial links within 48 hours. The day after the House impeached Trump for the second time, journalistic gossip courts redirected their outrage to Politics inviting conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to be a one-day guest editor of his flagship e-newsletter.
The deplatform mania was almost impressive to see. “You must be arrested! MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski fumed in the general management of Facebook. “No one needs what you have to offer. You have destroyed this country.” Neoconservatives NeverTrumper and Washington post columnist Max Boot thundered that President Joe Biden “must reinvigorate the [Federal Communications Commission] to slow down the lies and sedition of Fox and other right-wing broadcasters. Otherwise, Boot warned, “the terrorism we saw on January 6 may just be the beginning, rather than the end, of the plot against America.” The press sent this chilling headline to its more than 1,300 media industry subscribers: “Extremists are exploiting a loophole in social moderation: podcasts.
Among the test balloons that took off at this difficult time, there was a national commission. Philadelphia Investigator columnist Will Bunch has suggested a South African-style truth and reconciliation process “to fight the lies and undemocratic policies of the Trump years.” It would be “a chance to find a common national history, an amnesty and a fresh start,” Bunch said, adding worryingly: “I would be shocked if this happened, but I know of no other peaceful path to follow.”
This is not the first time that the country’s intellectual and political guardians have found themselves mobilized for collective action after a traumatic explosion of right-wing violence. In 1995, when Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people with a fertilizer bomb in a federal building in Oklahoma City, President Bill Clinton partly blamed the “loud and angry voices” for “spreading hatred” on conservative radio stations. , as well as anyone else who believes the greatest threat to their freedom is from the US government. “There have been violators among those who espouse your philosophy,” he admonished the latter group.
But a more interesting antecedent to the journalistic consensus of 2021 began in 1944, when, as part of elite introspection into America’s initially slow response to the global threat of fascism, Time Publisher Henry Luce has asked University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins to convene a special commission on press freedom. The Hutchins Commission, made up of more than a dozen academics and revolving-door government workers, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger and Archibald MacLeish, in 1947 produced one of the most influential documents in history. of modern media theory, entitled A free and responsible press.
Vibrating with disgust at the sordid and corrupt excesses of tabloid journalism, the report denounces sensationalism, warns against “hate speech” (hilariously, the word bureaucratic was cited as an example) and called for the creation of a national information council to establish and enforce professional standards. As media scholar Stephen Bates dryly noted in a 2018 article, “While it may seem difficult to remove the news from the news, the commission tried. “
At the heart of the project was a paternalistic loathing that consumers choose the media poorly, that press barons build fortunes by bowing to basic tastes, and that, as a result, the American experience of self-government is undermined. inside. The media “can spread lies faster and further than our ancestors dreamed when they enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution,” lamented the report’s authors. “The press can be inflammatory, sensational and irresponsible. If so, it and its freedom will fall into universal catastrophe.”
Unsurprisingly, this elitist message landed like a stink bomb in smoky 1940s newsrooms. “‘A Free Press’ (Hitler Style) Wanted for America,” Colonel Robert McCormack’s unsubtle headline read Chicago Tribune.
But then a funny thing happened. As radio and television killed afternoon papers and newspaper wars reduced options in most major cities to a single large-format monopoly, owners found Hutchins’ model of professionalization useful. to attract a readership of all political persuasions and to build their own personal prestige. Newsrooms have fattened themselves to a historic degree. Until technology allowed their captive audience to flee.
It turns out that people, now and then, still want to read about local crime, assimilate different political views, and consume the media in ways that journalistic elites find sordid. And unlike 1947, those trying to shape the discourse in 2021 don’t bother trying to push a national regime into a common public square. Instead, like bouncers working the velvet rope, they control who can be in the club and how they should behave once inside. This development, in our time of extreme and sporadically violent polarization, threatens to worsen both journalism and politics, assuming it is possible.
Consumers of political illusions have only themselves to blame for their behavior on January 6. But by expelling them rather than interacting with them, elite journalism threatens to make itself more susceptible to confirmation bias and hyperbolic error. Who will be the first virtuous enough to break this vicious circle?