Part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Who Watches The Journalists: Journalists’ Freedom from Harassment or Social Criticism?

The author for this article

Ilan Hulkower

November, 2021

Corporate media has not been spared from public alienation in this populist age of discontent toward and disillusionment of America’s social and political institutions. This is evident from the fact that in the year 2021, the American people’s trust in the accuracy of reporting from corporate press reached its second lowest score on record- with only 36 percent of people placing their confidence in mass media. In effect, the majority of the American public do not trust their own corporate media. This has sparked a debate on whether the corporate press is fair and balanced in its coverage of issues of public concern and whether much of the criticism can be dismissed as coming from a malicious place. A recent policy change announced on October 13th by Facebook, a social media platform, that they will count political activists and journalists as “involuntary” public figures, entitling these figures to increased protections from bullying and harassment, touches a chord within this greater discussion. While bullying and harassment are obviously terrible things, such a policy could be abused to flag criticism of any kind as bullying and harassment. Under the current wording of how Facebook will purport to remove posts that they deem to be harassment, calling someone “a dirty ugly smear-merchant” could technically qualify as being removable due to using what could be negative physical descriptors (dirty or ugly) to attack someone as being dishonest. While one may find that such metaphors in this description are colorful or crude, supposing whether the person who is attacked engaged in unsavory or dishonest practices may give weight to such an accusation. Regardless of the particulars of the policy itself, the hypocritical notion that journalists themselves are immune from being effectively counted as public figure while they play a part in determining who is a public figure can be seen as problematic given the avenues of misuse and abuse that this policy invites.

That certain journalists have been caught doxing obscure private citizens on alternative social media outlets for posting what these journalists deem to be hateful memes and for using bad words while decrying that these social media spaces are not policed enough is concerning. After all, could not this breed of journalism, which is that of policing online discussions, be qualified as punching downward and as acts of bullying and malice themselves? Even the accusations by these journalists of the wrong think of the people they doxed have not always panned out. For instance, Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for the New York Times, doxed a Silicon Valley investor claiming that he once used the word “retarded” in an online discussion when it turned out he never did use that word. This reporter nevertheless claimed to be the victim of the situation and complained that she had faced online harassment for doing her job. The demand for de-platforming and censorship by this industry of journalists, who claim to be combatting misinformation and hate, even include preventing cash strapped criminal defendants, who fall on the wrong side of the political spectrum, from raising money from online donors for their own legal defense.

The attempt to smear or otherwise denigrate a person by journalists has therefore gone beyond the belief that others are saying bad words or sharing (what they deem to be) inappropriate memes. When the popular podcaster Joe Rogan shared that he was taking several drugs under the prescription of his doctor to combat the coronavirus, many news agencies singled out one of those medications, ivermectin, a renowned anti-parasitic drug that has application for both humans and animals, for ridicule. These news outlets loudly proclaimed that Joe Rogan was taking a discredited animal de-wormer to cure his illness. Such coverage led to ridicule by individuals who had ties to these same news outlets as being dishonest to the public. Indeed, when Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, was confronted by Joe Rogan about CNN’s coverage of the whole affair, he eventually admitted that CNN should not have said that Rogan was taking horse de-wormer.

Yet, those who advocate a greater degree of censorship over the internet seem to be gaining traction in politics. Francis Haugen, a former Facebook data engineer turned whistleblower, went so far as to say that her former company weakens democracy because it allows for misinformation to spread and charges that Facebook’s safeguards against misinformation were, in her view, prematurely turned off after the 2020 election. It is now known that Haugen herself sat on Facebook’s civil integrity unit, the body tasked with dealing with misinformation for the 2020 election, that was disbanded after the election. This unit was involved in Facebook’s decision to censor the New York Post's expose of the corruption of the Biden family as it was labelled misinformation. To be sure, Facebook was hardly unique in deciding to censor the story as other platforms pursued the same policy. National Public Radio, a publicly funded media organization, went so far as to release a statement to explain their non-coverage of the story stating that they regarded the story as a distraction.

While some might argue that this banning of the story was warranted due to a letter written by ex-members of the intelligence community, including a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who warned that the story might be Russian disinformation, there are problems with such a view. Firstly, even the signatories of this letter admitted that they did not know if the story was true or not and they did not have any evidence of Russian involvement. Secondly, the Director of National Intelligence at the time of the story’s release, as well as other intelligence and government officials, rejected such a claim of Russian interference. Finally, other news outlets like POLITCO have been able to verify elements of Joe Biden’s pay-to-play scandal and there is now evidence that suggest the current President shared a bank account with his scandal-ridden son. Indeed, in the case of Joe Biden, such allegations of inappropriate familial financial dealings had surfaced even before the New York Post’s story.

Nor is this the only time that something that was initially labelled as misinformation and censored by journalists turned out to be plausible. The Wuhan lab leak theory, where the coronavirus was theorized to have originated from a lab (and was possibly man-made) instead of a wet market, was similarly censored and proclaimed by the press as disinformation before being accepted as a possible explanation of the virus’s origin. Now corporate news outlets state that this theory should be taken seriously. At the same time, there have been claims that social media sites were involving in censoring sources that purport to debunk the Wuhan lab theory.

The notion that these journalists who have engaged in the censoring and shaming of others would now benefit from Facebook’s increased protections should give one pause. As noted by the cases cited in this article, this atmosphere of censorship, which was encouraged by said journalists who work for corporate media sites, does not guarantee the flow of accurate information, and has actually promoted disinformation of its own. Such practices of curation of information are often a source of outrage by the press when authoritarian states engage in it. That many in Western corporate media now push same policies of control of information that they would decry in dictatorial states underscores the damage that they are doing to the freedom of the press to report information that may conflict with their curated narrative. Furthermore, such an immunization of journalists from public criticism on account that some may refer to these journalists in colorful and/or crude terms, will only serve to deepen the popular distrust of mass media and give greater impetus for people to search elsewhere for uncensored news.

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