Reporters become scolds and censors

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A new and rapidly growing journalistic “beat” has arisen over the last several years that can best be described as an unholy mix of junior high hall-monitor tattling and Stasi-like citizen surveillance.

It is half adolescent and half malevolent. Its primary objectives are control, censorship, and the destruction of reputations for fun and power. Though its epicenter is the largest corporate media outlets, it is the very antithesis of journalism.

Teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s “media reporters” (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s “disinformation space unit” (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their “journalism” to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention).

These hall-monitor reporters are a major factor explaining why tech monopolies, which (for reasons of self-interest and ideology) never wanted the responsibility to censor, now do so with abandon and seemingly arbitrary blunt force: they are shamed by the world’s loudest media companies when they do not.

Oliver Darcy has built his CNN career by sitting around with Brian Stelter petulantly pointing to people breaking the rules on social media and demanding tech executives make the rule-breakers disappear.

The little crew of tattletale millennials assembled by NBC — who refer to their twerpy work with the self-glorifying title of “working in the disinformation space”: as intrepid and hazardous as exposing corruption by repressive regimes or reporting from war zones — spend their dreary days scrolling through 4Chan boards to expose the offensive memes and bad words used by transgressive adolescents; they then pat themselves on the back for confronting dangerous power centers, even when it is nothing more trivial and bullying than doxxing the identities of powerless, obscure citizens.

But the worst of this triumvirate is the NYT’s tech reporters, due to influence and reach if no other reason. When Silicon Valley monopolies, publicly pressured by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other lawmakers, united to remove Parler from the Internet, the Times’ tech team quickly donned their hall-monitor goggles and Stasi notebooks to warn that the Bad People had migrated to Signal and Telegram.

This week they asked: “Are Private Messaging Apps the Next Misinformation Hot Spot?” One reporter “confess[ed] that I am worried about Telegram. Other than private messaging, people love to use Telegram for group chats — up to 200,000 people can meet inside a Telegram chat room. That seems problematic.”

These examples of journalism being abused to demand censorship of spaces they cannot control are too numerous to comprehensively chronicle. And they are not confined to those three outlets. That far more robust censorship is urgently needed is now a virtual consensus in mainstream corporate journalism: it’s an animating cause for them.

“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,” complained Ultimate Establishment Journalism Maven Steve Coll, the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a Staff Writer at The New Yorker.

A New Yorker and Vox contributor who runs a major journalistic listserv appropriately called “Study Hall,” Kyle Chayka, has already begun shaming Substack for hosting writers he regards as unacceptable (Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss). A recent Guardian article warned that podcasts was one remaining area still insufficiently policed.

ProPublica on Sunday did the same about Apple, and last month one of its reporters appeared on MSNBC to demand that Apple censor its podcast content as aggressively as Google’s YouTube now censors its video content.

Thus do we have the unimaginably warped dynamic in which U.S. journalists are not the defenders of free speech values but the primary crusaders to destroy them. They do it in part for power: to ensure nobody but they can control the flow of information. They do it partly for ideology and out of hubris: the belief that their worldview is so indisputably right that all dissent is inherently dangerous “disinformation.”

And they do it from petty vindictiveness: they clearly get aroused — find otherwise-elusive purpose — by destroying people’s reputations and lives, no matter how powerless. Whatever the motive, corporate media employees whose company title is “journalist” are the primary activists against a free and open Internet and the core values of free thought.

This is now the prevailing ethos in corporate journalism. They have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies, the corrupted and lying corporate media outlets they serve.

So settling on this penny-ante, trivial bullshit — tattling, hall monitoring, speech policing: all in the most anti-intellectual, adolescent and primitive ways — is all they have. It’s all they are. It’s why they have fully earned the contempt and distrust in which the public holds them.

The same stunted mentality just resulted in the destruction of the career and reputation science reporter Donald McNeil. On a 2019 field trip for rich high school kids to Peru, he used the “n-word” after a student asked him whether he thought it was fair that one of her classmates was punished for having used it in a video. McNeil used it not with malice or as a racist insult but to inquire about the facts of the video so he could answer the student’s question.

After New York Times senior editors — including black editor-in-chief Dean Baquet — investigated and concluded that “only” a reprimand was appropriate — “it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” said Baquet — dozens of McNeil’s colleagues wrote a furious letter demanding far more severe punishment. “Our community is outraged and in pain,” said the 150 Times employee-signatories, adding: “intent is irrelevant.”

Intent is irrelevant when judging how harshly to punish this storied journalist for uttering this word.

They got what they wanted. McNeil wrote a grovelling, abject apology, and then the Times announced he was gone from his job after forty-five years with the paper, including for COVID reporting over the last year that the paper had submitted for a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Just think about that: New York Times employees, who are unionized, demanded that management punish a fellow union member more harshly than management wanted to.

In 2002, McNeil won the 1st place prize from the National Association of Black Journalists for excellence in his reporting on how the AIDS crisis was affecting Africa. Now his career and reputation are destroyed — at the hands of his own colleagues — because “intent is irrelevant” when using off-limit words.

The overarching rule of liberal media circles and liberal politics is that you are free to accuse anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy of any kind of bigotry that casually crosses your mind — just smear them as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, etc. without the slightest need for evidence — and it will be regarded as completely acceptable.

Consider how many people in journalism or other professions whose positions are less secure are rightly terrorized by these lowlife tactics, intimidated into silence and conformity. They know if they express views these Stasi agents and their bosses dislike, their reputations can be instantly destroyed. So they remain silent or pliant out of necessity.

That’s the purpose, the function, of these lowly accusatory tactics: to control, to coerce, to dominate, to repress. The people who engage in these character-assassinating, censorship-fostering games — especially those who call themselves “journalists” — deserve nothing but intense scorn. And those who are free from their influence and power have a particular obligation to heap it on them. Aside from being what it deserves, that scorn is the only way to neutralize this tactic.

Adapted with permission from greenwald.substack.com.

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