Media

Journalists Turn on Free Expression

Steve Coll, Dean of Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for The New Yorker appears at a news conference in New York, April 6, 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Mainstream journalists have used their access to a massive audience to mislead the public in many ways, but this isn’t a free-speech problem.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, The New Yorker’s Steve Coll contends that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “profound” support of free speech — oh, how I wish that were true — is problematic because “free speech, a principle that we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism.”

Journalism has turned on free speech, the one belief that had been somewhat impervious to the ideological tendencies of most editors and reporters. There’s absolutely nothing in Coll’s comments — nor in Hunt’s begging a question about the alleged corrosive effects of unfettered speech — which demonstrates that either are particularly concerned about the future of free expression, much less that either hold the principle as “sacred.”

The notion that Facebook’s reluctance to limit users is akin to neglecting efforts to “preserve democracy,” as Coll ludicrously suggests, is also another example of how the contemporary usage of “democracy” means little more than “fulfilling the wishes of liberals.”

If you believe Americans are too stupid to hear wrongthink, transgressive ideas, and, yes, fake news, you’re not a fan of the small-l liberal conception of free expression. That’s fine. Those ideas seem to be falling into disfavor with many. But the sanctity of free speech isn’t predicated on making sure people hear the right things, it’s predicated on letting everyone have their say. Because as always, the question becomes who decides what expression is acceptable. I’m not keen on having the fatuous media reporters at CNN or activist “fact-checkers” at the Washington Post adjudicating what is and isn’t permissible for mass consumption.

Facebook, of course, has no duty to provide us with a platform. It was Coll, however, who brought up free speech as “a principle.” And this obsession among journalists with pressuring platforms into limiting speech exposes their illiberal inclination. Speech is a neutral principle — universal, fundamental, and unassailable. A Facebook user no more “weaponizes” speech than a criminal weaponizes due process.

Then again, this kind of selective esteem for sacred ideals is becoming popular on the contemporary Left. Religious freedom is wonderful when the government protects Native Americans who want to smoke peyote, but it is “weaponized” when an order of nuns decides it’s not interested in chipping in for condoms or an Evangelical business owner decides he’d rather not participate in a gay marriage. Due-process rights are foundational to American life, unless they are being weaponized by college students accused of sexual assault.

Everything Coll praises in the clip encompasses some limitation on free expression, and everything he believes is a hindrance to society — capitalistic “structures” such as Facebook — are dangerous. From what I can tell, it’s become conventional wisdom among the Fourth Estate, no longer able to monopolize and curate the news we consume, that too much speech and too much equal time is bad for our institutions.

For one thing, I wish I could believe they cared. For four years, journalists acted as if Donald Trump was an existential threat to free expression because he berated and insulted reporters. Trump’s tone was certainly unpresidential, but it needs to be said that he did absolutely nothing to hinder anyone from criticizing him or reporting about him. Contra the self-canonized Jim Acosta, it was not a particularly dangerous time to tell the truth. Indeed, reporters were not only free to accuse the president of being a fascist, they could concoct entire fake scandals surrounding the Russians, and Trump was powerless to stop them.

(You might remember the panic over the Cambridge Analytica–Facebook whistleblower scandal. This was one of the stories that convinced Democrats that social-media giants were attacking our democratic institutions. At the time, Bloomberg breathlessly noted that “revelations of the apparent skulduggery that helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election keep sending shock waves across the political landscape.” After a three-year investigation, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office uncovered no skullduggery from Facebook. Chances are, you didn’t hear about that.)

In any event, if journalists thought free expression was a “sacred principle,” they would also likely have been up in arms about the Obama administration spying on dozens of Associated Press reporters and using the Espionage Act to file criminal charges against then-Fox News reporter James Rosen. For the most part, they were not.

They would also be up in arms about Joe Biden’s appointment of Rick Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine, who takes to the pages of our most prestigious newspapers to advocate that the government ban offensive speech. They would be upset about Biden’s appointment of California attorney general Xavier Becerra, who brought 15 felony charges against a pro-life activist named David Daleiden for reporting on Planned Parenthood’s ethical abuses, using the same methods and functioning under the same standards journalists have employed for decades. There will be no anger, because abortion is “sacred” in a way that free expression is no longer.

Now, I happen to believe mainstream journalists have used their access to a massive audience to mislead the public into needless wars, into destructive presidencies, and into counterproductive economic decisions. They regularly spread unscientific, indecent, and misleading ideas about the world. It’s a price we pay for being free. But that’s not a free-speech problem, it’s a journalist problem.