For all his twits about Fake News and “Enemy of the People,” Trump hasn’t done more than make noise. Offensive as it may be to denigrate the Fourth Estate as evil, even a president gets to complain about things he dislikes, even if he does so in a way they dislike.
And in fairness, the media hasn’t always helped itself, replacing factual reporting with “advocacy journalism,” the mechanism of telling the news in such a way as to include only those parts that lead the public to the conclusion members of the media believe are “right.” Sometimes this means omitting inconvenient facts. Sometimes it means outright lying. In their defense, advocacy journalists argue that they don’t lie as much as Trump, and their cause is “just,” so no harm, no foul. But it’s not news. It’s not journalism. And Trump does it too.
Democratic candidate for president, Andrew Yang, whose big issue is Universal Basic Income of $1000 per month, payable in dollars rather than Cheetos, has come up with a new proposal: the creation of a position of News and Information Ombudsman. Apparently, the days of calling someone the Czar are over, and Ombudsman seems softer, kinder, as they wield the Ax of Truth.
“Fake news” is a rampant problem. Online media market incentives reward ‘clickbait’ and controversy even as our social media feeds send us more and more outrageous stories to incite a reaction.
The rewards for publishing inflammatory content are high with no real penalty. At the extreme end, those who wish to misinform the American public can do so with little fear of repercussions. The lack of trusted news increasingly isolates us in information silos that hurt our democracy.
The key phrase in there is “with no real penalty.” After all, it’s uncontroversial to say “fake news” is a problem, but is the solution to impose a “real penalty”?
We must introduce both a means to investigate and punish those who are seeking to misinform the American public. If enough citizens complain about a particular source of information and news is demonstrably and deliberately false, there should be penalties. I will appoint a new News and Information Ombudsman with the power to fine egregious corporate offenders. One of the main purposes of the Ombudsman will be to identify sources of spurious information that are associated with foreign nationals. The Ombudsman will work with social media companies to identify fraudulent accounts and disable and punish responsible parties. The Ombudsman will be part of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
There are two curious components to this proposal. The first is obvious, the idea that the government will be in charge of deciding “true news” from “fake news” at all. Yang graduated from Columbia Law School in 1999, so he must have taken Con Law and, presumably, was there the day they talked about the First Amendment. Of course, he may be of the living Constitution view, so that the freedom of the press is inviolate as long as it’s the right press, because why would the First Amendment protect news that was just wrong?!?
But the second curious piece is that this New Czar (sorry, old habits die hard) wouldn’t require a new law, a new federal agency, any approval of Congress whatsoever. It would be created with the stroke of a pen, maybe a text message, within the existing agency, the Federal Communications Commission. There are already tons of rules and regs, all enforceable at the end of a gun, and surely they could shoehorn the Censor in Chief in there somehow.
Bad idea? Silly idea? Of course it is, and nobody except the kids in the basement eating Cheetos would ever consider Andrew Yang for president, so who cares what he proposes? But this isn’t about Yang getting the nod, or the imminent creation of a New Czar. This is about the Overton Window.
The Overton window is the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse,
For a few years now, the attack on speech has been waged with astounding success. The low-hanging fruit went first, with “hate speech” being the easiest sell, but also tiny slices like “harassment” and “revenge porn” being peeled off by claims of how hurt feelings are traumatic, so something must be done. In other words, this has been building, normalizing, for years.
And finding acceptability on a piecemeal basis, for anyone who would question the criminalization of such horrifying and socially damaging speech is relegated to the Nazi side of the binary. There is no spectrum, anymore, as you’re either a social justice warrior or a racist, sexist, etc. Are you one of those awful “free speech absolutists” who run around using horrible words?
But this is just some whackadoodle named Yang, one of the 435 candidates running for the Dem nomination, so who cares? First, that a proposal of such outrageously unconstitutional dimensions would find its way into a candidate’s platform speaks to where the Overton Window is today. Censorship has gained respectability, at least sufficiently to be part of acceptable political discourse.
But second, it’s not just Yang plus a few crazies with their respective axes to grind. In the New York Times, Sarah Jeong* writes about how Mark Zuckerberg is ready to hand over the “trash button” at Facebook to someone getting a government paycheck, thus taking the burden off him to do the dirty work and, far more importantly, removing his platform from the line of fire for whatever censorship comes of it. After all, Zuck doesn’t care what gets censored, as long as you keep using Facebook, he gets his ad revenue and he doesn’t have to appear before Congress to explain why he didn’t do more to prevent the Ruskies from buying ads.
Jeong says it’s not going to happen in the United States, even as it’s happening in Europe already, where there is no First Amendment equivalent.
We’re not likely to see a Facebook Supreme Court — not an American one, in any event. The Hays Code died after the First Amendment was extended to movies; a Hays Code for the internet will probably be dead on arrival.
Much as Jeong’s capacity to reason hasn’t improved with her new job, not only is her leap of faith suspect, but her blithe dismissal of a future where some analogue of the the Hays Code isn’t instituted, but applauded by the woke, may be wishful thinking. If the notion of a Censorship Czar can be part of reasonable political discourse, and the powerful like Zuck support it due to enlightened self-interest, not only is it possible, but respectable. After all, you’re not one of those Free Speech Absolutist Nazi racists, sexists who supports hate speech and white supremacy, are you?
*Is this her first by-lined op-ed since her hiring as a member of the Editorial Board, and subsequent castigation for the revelation of her performative twitting about how she hates white men?