We have seen in the last four years how rage has replaced reason for many experts. Legal experts who long defended criminal defense rights have suddenly become advocates of the most sweeping interpretations of criminal or constitutional provisions while discarding basic due process and fairness concerns. Academics who teach journalism have called for an abandonment of neutrality and objectivity. The Democratic Party itself has become the champion of censorship. Even in this company, CNN’s media expert Brian Stelter is a standout. Stelter has been regularly criticized for alleged bias but this week Stelter offered an argument for limiting both free speech and the free press that would have kept George Orwell up at night. Stelter told his viewers that they really do not have to talk about censorship and simply should refer to reductions of free speech as “a harm reduction model.”
Stelter mocked those who have raised concerns over censorship and assured CNN’s viewers that there is nothing to fear from campaigns to censor and ban speakers. In addition, he appeared to defend campaigns to have Fox News dropped from cable carriers. (For the record, I recently joined Fox as a contributor).
Stelter explained “Reducing a liar’s reach is not the same as censoring freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is different than freedom of reach — and algorithmic reach is part of the problem.” He further explained that it is simply an effort toward “reducing information pollution” and should be referred to as a “harm reduction model.”
The distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of reach is an obvious effort to repackage anti-free speech efforts in a less offensive light. Indeed, it sounds like a media version of the “Green New Deal” to cut back on viewpoint “pollution.” It is like saying that you are not denying the freedom of travel, just the means of travel. It is all meant to assure viewers that they are not bad people for wanting to silence others. Indeed, it is commendable to limit free speech, which is now treated as nothing more than “pollution” when used by some on the right.
Stelter also brushed aside the facts on the recent campaign against Fox. He assured CNN viewers that “Most of the criticism of Fox News is not aimed at shutting it down, which will never happen anyway.It’s about making Fox better. Putting the news back in Fox News. They keep going the other way. If Fox is gonna keep transitioning into the ’24/7 Tucker Channel,’ then maybe it belongs next to SciFi on your channel lineup, not MSNBC.”
Stelter is just trying to “make Fox better” . . . and more like CNN.
In reality, there is an effort to pressure cable carriers to drop Fox. This includes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who insisted that “cable providers should be asked why they distribute channels that peddle lies.” Washington Post columnist and CNN analyst Max Boot also wrote that cable providers should “step in and kick Fox News off.” He added that it may be necessary to also block Newsmax and One America News Network.
The campaign is not surprising for those in the free speech movement. I have long opposed the calls for censorship under the pretense of creating “an honest Internet.” We have have been discussing how writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. The erosion of free speech has been radically accelerated by the Big Tech and social media companies. The level of censorship and viewpoint regulation has raised questions of a new type of state media where companies advance an ideological agenda with political allies.
It is a familiar pattern. It is not enough to control speech on many platforms if there remains an alternative source of information. If you want to control speech, you have to not only regulate viewpoints but eliminate alternative sources for viewpoints. For example, when Twitter blocked the Hunter Biden story before the election, it was only partially successful since viewers could turn to the New York Post or Fox for the story.
Ironically, Stelter may be correct that shutting down “the reach” of opposing viewpoints would reduce the harm of free speech for many like Stelter. Stelter has been repeatedly criticized for ignoring stories that were harmful to the Biden campaign or CNN itself. Such echo-chamber coverage works so long as no one leaves the echo chamber. For many on CNN and MSNBC, there is little danger. Viewers tune into some networks on the assurance that they will not be challenged outside of their political comfort zone. The Washington Post and other outlets have not corrected clearly false accounts and it is not even clear that readers want to see such corrections. It is the sad reality of siloed news in our new age of yellow journalism. While faith in the news is at an all-time low, the echo journalism preserves a loyal viewer or reader base. Experts assure them that Trump can be easily convicted or impeached. Constitutional scholars insist that long-standing questions are in fact absolutely clear and unambiguous. However, that system works best when there is not readily available alternatives for news.
There was a day when a journalist would be widely condemned for seeking to curtail access to other media outlets. I would be the first tpo object to such a campaign against CNN or MSNBC. Yet, Stelter’s comments are applauded as many in the media eagerly saw away at the limb upon which they are sitting.