When Rick Stengel left his job as managing editor of Time magazine to take the job of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 2013, he became the 24th journalist to officially join the Obama administration. The most notable of them was Jay Carney, the longtime Washington bureau chief for Time who would become director of communications for Joe Biden and then White House press secretary, but many journalists — and we’re not talking about pundits — took the short journey from political journalism to Democratic Party advocacy. And, as George Stephanopoulos can attest, if you’re a Democrat, there is always a road back into journalism.
This week, MSNBC cut ties with three contributors, Barbara McQuade, Ezekiel Emanuel, and Stengel, who landed at the network after serving in the Obama administration. This came after it was revealed that MSNBC’s censorious lefty historian, Jon Meacham, had failed to disclose that he was both writing Biden’s speeches and commenting on them.
Stengel is now on Biden’s transition team to the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which I just learned is an agency that oversees “public service media networks that provide unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted.”
Considering Stengel’s animosity towards free expression this seems quite a poor fit. You might remember his infamous 2011 Time cover piece, featuring a picture of the Constitution with the headline “Does It Still Matter?”
In it he argued:
We can pat ourselves on the back about the past 223 years, but we cannot let the Constitution become an obstacle to the U.S.’s moving into the future with a sensible health care system, a globalized economy, an evolving sense of civil and political rights. The Constitution does not protect our spirit of liberty; our spirit of liberty protects the Constitution. The Constitution serves the nation; the nation does not serve the Constitution.
This malleable view of foundational law, one that allows partisans to reimagine the Constitution in any way that suits them, is pretty popular these days. It is, in essence, an acknowledgment that the contemporary left-wing can’t function under traditional American principles.
Stengel went even further, arguing in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed that the state should begin policing speech:
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. Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?
Even sophisticated diplomats from Middle East theocracies and autocracies can’t wrap their minds around the principles of free expression! So, asks Stengel, why not be more like Saudi Arabia or Egypt? This is not exactly the reasoning you’d expect from a former journalist, though perhaps these days you should.
In any event, because I believe free expression is a neutral principle that applies to even the most noxious speech — and, also, because speech is unambiguously protected by the Constitution — I believe Stengel should be free to write his authoritarian rants. But he is certainly not a person who should be overseeing any agency that allegedly champions “unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted.”