‘Morning Joe’ and the Mainstream Media’s Current Rage for Censorship

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, Columbia, SC, January 2016. (Daniel Huizinga via Flickr)
"Morning Joe" co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski demand the takedown of Facebook and Twitter over the Capitol riots, part of the MSM's ongoing mania for censorship.

Censorship is the mainstream media’s prescribed panacea for the Jan. 6 MAGA mob violence in Washington, D.C., the elites’ supposed cure for all that ails the American soul.

A recent episode of the MSNBC talk show, Morning Joe offers an example of this new zeitgeist, one that’s been dominant since the riot at the Capitol. During a Jan. 18 broadcast, the husband-wife team of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski blamed Facebook and Twitter for the rise of Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection, which led to five deaths and an FBI manhunt with more than 100 arrests and counting.

Brzezinski took the hardest line against the Silicon Valley giants, noting that a recent study claims “misinformation” about the election fell 73 percent after Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites booted Trump from their platforms for exhorting his followers to resist Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

The pair acted sputtering mad about statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company COO Sheryl Sandberg, in which Zuckerberg and Sandberg attempted to distance themselves from the siege at the Capitol, which reportedly was organized through several social media sites, including Facebook.

Brzezinski spewed:

“You have shown that you should have done this a long time ago. And perhaps there wouldn’t be people dead. Perhaps there wouldn’t be people following false scientific information about the coronavirus. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been some sort of insurrection at the Capitol that was promulgated all over your sites. Perhaps there wouldn’t be so much hatred and disinformation.”

Brzezinski’s solution? Shut it all down.

“All you’ve done is how impactful everything you’ve been doing so far has been in terms of spreading misinformation . . . The leadership of Facebook is pathetic! You’ve just shown why you should be shut down. You need to be shut down. Nobody needs what you have to offer. You have destroyed the country.”

About 3 billion active users worldwide might disagree with her assessment of Facebook’s value to the average person. And the hyperbole that Facebook “destroyed the country” because it didn’t silence Trump and his followers soon enough? This seems particularly misplaced given that, as National Review pointed out after their diatribe, both Brzezinski and Scarborough were early supporters of Trump and had him on “incessantly for the first half of the 2016 campaign.”

Scarborough responded to his wife by insisting that Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey were just as bad as Facebook. The ex-Republican Congressman proposed a fix offered by many in power these days: the revocation or rewriting of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the law that generally holds interactive websites and platforms immune from liability for third-party content posted to their sites by users.

The pompadoured news host compared Fox News favorably to the social media Goliaths, noting that Fox News had been sued for libel, so why not Facebook and Twitter, which spread “multitudinous more” misinformation? Such sites are “protected,” he claimed.

“Because for some reason Twitter and Facebook are able to write their own laws because they’re never regulated,” he harrumphed.

That’s an absurd contention. Twitter and Facebook were founded well after 1996, and Section 230 protects Fox News as well from being sued for content posted by others, such as in the free-wheeling comments section for its website. Ironically, Section 230’s safe-harbor provision allows social media sites to moderate their platforms, including removing world leaders if so desired.

But Brzezinski and Scarborough are hardly outliers in their demand for widespread censorship or their misunderstanding of Section 230.

As a candidate, Joe Biden referred to Silicon Valley satraps as “little creeps” and called for Section 230 to be “revoked,” which would likely mean the end of the internet as we now know it. Such a move by Congress could result in the elimination of wide swaths of free speech, hypothetically impacting and perhaps silencing millions if not billions of people.

But in the post-Jan. 6 world, mainstream commentators rationalize such censorship as necessary to protect the public from dangerous ideas, everything from QAnon conspiracy theories to delusions of a rigged presidential election, to direct appeals to Trumpism and even garden-variety racism.

All of which must be blocked from expression online for the good of the people, according to our self-appointed media guardians.

Brewing Censorship

The idea of clamping down on the internet and restricting its usage is not new. And as many advocates of censorship like to point out, even draconian self-moderation by private platforms does not trigger the First Amendment, which bars most government interference with free speech.

But as Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason argued in a 2019 piece, Section 230 is “the internet’s First Amendment” and has expanded both “innovation and individual free speech.” As a result,  it has garnered threats of extinction from “the illiberal right and the regressive left, both of which are now arguing that Section 230 gives tech industry giants unfair legal protection while enabling political bias and offensive speech.”

A reaction against America’s laissez-faire attitude toward offensive speech (the only kind that needs defending) has been building for some time on college campuses and among political and media elites, leading to the rise of “cancel culture” and the intolerance of any opinion that challenges progressive shibboleths.

Many leftist thinkers now consider old-school liberal tolerance for nonconformism to be passé. In a far-reaching essay in The New York Times that ran in October, legal journalist Emily Bazelon threw shade on the classic liberal idea that “more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible.”

Bazelon warned her readers that the republic faces an imminent threat from “the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.” She counseled the adoption of a more “European” approach of regulated speech to stop Americans from “drowning in lies.”

Like the invasion of Iraq, which was planned by the neocons far in advance of 9/11, the die seems cast when it comes to freedom of speech in the wake of Jan. 6, at least when it comes to the opinions of the pundit class. These gatekeepers are also reviving calls for mass surveillance, the expansion of FBI vetted no-fly lists and a new domestic terrorism law on par with the PATRIOT Act.

But while some liberals and progressives have objected to aspects of this civil liberties rollback, such as the domestic terrorism legislation on the incoming Biden administration’s agenda, the concept of curtailing freedom of speech is receiving less pushback.

A War on Free Speech

In a recent column for Substack, Glenn Greenwald predicts that the country is poised on the precipice of a new “war on terror” to rival the one pursued after 9/11. He cites “an orgy of censorship from Silicon Valley monopolies” with “calls for far more aggressive speech policing” and a militarized D.C. that boasts 15,000 National Guard troops for the inauguration.

He also notes the tsunami of “rhetoric” supporting a new attack on civil liberties, and he’s not exaggerating.

Consider the following:

The Washington Post, like many mainstream outlets, applauded the de-platforming of Trump and the eradication of the right’s Twitter copycat, Parler, which reportedly had 15 million users before Apple and Amazon pulled the plug on it.

• In addition to permanently suspending Trump’s Twitter account with its 88 million followers, Twitter enacted one of its periodic purges, removing 70,000 accounts supposedly linked to QAnon, with the usual approval from the mainstream.

• Progressive darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talked recently about the possibility of regulating speech in the post-Jan. 6 era.

“[W]e’re going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation,” she told her supporters in a video available online.

She added: “It’s one thing to have to different opinions, but it’s another thing entirely to say things that are false.”

(On the contrary, falsehoods and lies are often protected by the First Amendment, though certainly private platforms can censor such speech.)

• Hot off his successful campaign of demonizing PornHub, The New York Times’ Nick Kristof penned a Jan. 13 treatise on how to deal with these 75 percent of GOP voters who still approve of Trump.  Like Greenwald, he compared the situation to the period after the 9/11 attacks, where the U.S. “instinctively” reached for the “military toolbox.” But unlike Greenwald, Kristof embraced post-9/11 tactics with enthusiasm and advised a similar battle of ideas with recalcitrant Trumpers.

In Kristof’s equation, Fox News was akin to the “fanatical mosques” that fomented the Islamic extremism that led to the downing of the Twin Towers.

They have First Amendment rights, but not a right to advertising or to private platforms. So I’d like to see pressure on advertisers to withdraw from Fox News so long as it functions as an extremist madrasa, and cable providers should be asked why they distribute channels that peddle lies.

• And last but not least on the censorship parade, ABC News just nominated its next big source of misinformation and radicalism requiring a crackdown.

The looming threat to democracy? Podcasts.

Maher on Point

Leave it to Bill Maher to come to the rescue and offer a defense of free speech in the latest episode of his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. 

In a panel discussion with former Today show host Katie Couric and Matt Jones, founder of Kentucky Sports Radio and the author of Mitch, Please!: How Mitch McConnell Sold Out Kentucky (and America, Too), Maher discussed social media and Trump’s being kicked off Twitter.

“I’m a free speech person,” Maher said. “Fuck Trump, but when anyone, anywhere decides, you know, what speech is allowed and what isn’t, I don’t know…”

Maher remarked that he wasn’t the only one with these misgivings. He quoted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Tweet thread on the decision to remove Trump as saying that the step “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

Maher noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a longtime Trump critic, had called Trump’s Twitter ban “problematic,” and he quoted the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane, who stated that “it should concern everyone” when social media companies wield the “unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

Couric, on the other hand, opined that it might be necessary to “deprogram” people who had signed up for the “cult of Trump.” She suggested that there be some sort of “independent board” of “smart and principled” persons who would make decisions on policing social media giants like Facebook.

But Maher scoffed at Couric’s comment, wondering who these “mythical” board members would be. Jones didn’t like the proposal either.

Maher observed that such talk, along with kicking Trump off Twitter and Facebook, fed into the dark conspiracy theories believed by Trump’s minions.

Nor did Maher buy the theory that removing Trump from social media would act as some sort of reverse mind control.

“Do you think someone who can’t hear him for the next two weeks is going to go, `I didn’t hear Donald Trump’s message, I guess I’ll become a reasonable centrist now,'” Maher cracked to laughter from his COVID-sparse studio audience.

In his closing remarks, Maher predicted that living together in the post-Trump era was going to be a little more complicated than just trying to censor the speech you don’t like.

“Let’s not confuse 5,000 people with 74 million,” Maher said. “Yes, even supporting the insurrection in spirit is, well, deplorable. But there’s a difference between holding illiberal beliefs and acting violently on them.”

He added,

“At least that’s what they always told me about Islamic terrorism.”

And ICYMI, please read:
Some Libs Reject Calls for Civil Liberties Rollback in Wake of Capitol Hill Riot
Lacey/Larkin Rebut Prosecutors’ Arguments on Bid to Force Recusal of Judge Brnovich

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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