The Twitter Files: So-called journalists ignore the obvious threat to their own industry and the First Amendment

The recent anti-Musk rants studiously avoid the blatant censorship of The New York Post under false pretenses in the middle of an election, which should be the centerpiece of any reasoned concerns about free speech and the free exchange of ideas.  Instead, propagandists vent their outrage at the messenger.

The New York Post is the nation’s oldest newspaper.  Founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton himself, one of the chief architects of our republic, the publication was intended as a counterbalance to the election of Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the fledgling Democratic-Republican Party.  Throughout the 19th century, under the leadership of poet and editor William Cullen Bryan and Willam Legget, the New-York Evening Post, as it was known until 1934, took difficult stands against slavery and in favor of union organizing in the early days of the industrial revolution, earning praise of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill.  The paper was owned by a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, Oswald Garrison Villard, between 1897 and 1918.  By the middle of the 20th century, the Post featured some of the most popular columnists of the day including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and had developed a reputation for advancing classically liberal ideas.  The Australian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, took ownership in November 1976 when it was the only surviving afternoon daily in New York City.  Since then, the Post has revised its format, adopted a morning publishing schedule, and become more traditionally conservative as the rest of the media has continued to drift leftward.  This tension has been a target for some time. As early as 1980, Columbia Journalism Review claimed the “New York Post is no longer merely a journalistic problem. It is a social problem—a force for evil.”  Regardless, the paper continued to enjoy a reasonably high circulation despite challenges facing other media organizations.  As of 2017, the Post was the fourth largest newspaper in the United States, outcompeting arch-rival The Daily News which was ranked eighth on the same list.  Despite criticisms from the likes of Columbia Journalism Review and others, there is no doubt the Post is a reputable publication with a rich history, serving a valuable conservative-niche in a media market dominated by paper’s with a more liberal slant.  There is also no reason to believe they do not properly source and vet their stories as rigorously as any other publication.  Putting this another way, The New York Post deserves to be given the same benefit of the doubt extended to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and others.  Everyone understands that the first draft of history can suffer from mistakes, but the journalism industry operates under the assumption that reporters, editors, and associated staff do everything possible to ensure accuracy before going to print.

This underlying principle, what we might call the process and ethics of journalism independent of any political point of view, was completely demolished on October 14, 2020, when The New York Post published an expose on the laptop of then-Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, accusing the future President of using his position in the government for monetary gain.  In addition to the revelation itself,  the Post’s original reporting detailed how the laptop had come into the possession of a computer repair shop in Wilmington, DE in April 2019, and ultimately the FBI in December that same year.  According to the owner of the repair shop, he could not say for sure whether the laptop belonged to Hunter, but believed that was the case due to the contents and a sticker for the Beau Biden Foundation.  He was concerned enough about the material found on the laptop that he turned them over to the FBI and also made a copy.  The Post learned about the existence of the laptop from former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and received the copy from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.  This chain of custody and the receipt from the FBI itself was fully disclosed in the original reporting, making it relatively simple for other news organizations to validate their findings.  Contrary to popular belief, the Post did not report that the laptop appeared randomly in their mailroom, nor did they make any attempt to conceal how they came into possession of the device, revealing that it was provided to them by surrogates of Biden’s opponent.  Taken together, there was no reason to believe a reputable news organization that had been in existence for almost 220 years would publish anything this explosive without properly authenticating the details, especially when they shared the history of the materials for all the world to see.  Any media organization that doubted their reporting could easily have checked with the FBI to determine its veracity, but rather than engage with potentially inconvenient facts, both the media and the social media industry immediately took unprecedented efforts to spike the story and prevent it from reaching a large audience.  This put journalists, whose sole job is supposed to be to seek the truth, in the unfortunate position of manufacturing disinformation for political reasons, a sad state of affairs which continues over two years later.  At first, this misinformation came in the form of promoting propaganda from “intelligence officials” who fully admitted to not analyzing the materials in question, but still insisted the laptop must be Russian propaganda.  Politico reported this on October 19, 2020, while publishing a letter from 51 current and former officials.  “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement – just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.”  Others dismissed the story entirely claiming it was either thinly sourced or not real news.  The misinformation cover provided by this “reporting” empowered Twitter to take the unprecedented step of blocking all links to the story and suspending The New York Post’s account, claiming the materials violated their ban on the posting of hacked information.

Last weekend, Twitter’s new CEO, Elon Musk, partnered with contrarian journalist Matt Taibbi to publish internal communications during this period under a thread called “The Twitter Files,” which is expected to be the first in a series.  The details revealed have been covered extensively elsewhere, but a couple of things jump out for our purposes.  First, it does not appear that anyone in Twitter truly believed the materials were hacked.  The emails released by Mr. Musk and Mr. Taibbi reveal a company obviously scrambling to come up with some reason to suppress a potentially explosive story.  Twitter employees claim the decision regarding the hacked information policy was “just freelanced” and even “everyone knew” it was “fucked.”  “Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it,” explained an ex-employee.  “I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” questioned Trenton Kennedy, a communications official, in an internal email.  “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?” asked Twitter Vice President of Global Communications Brandon Borrman in another email.  The decision to keep the story blocked under the no-hacking policy seems to have been made by Deputy General Counsel, Jim Baker, a former FBI lawyer who served a critical role in the inappropriate and likely illegal wiretap of Trump campaign member Carter Page, which began the years’ long Russia collusion investigation.  Without any evidence, Mr. Baker claimed it is “reasonable” to assume the materials were hacked and that “caution is warranted.”  This claim, however, is utterly specious:  The Post explained exactly how they obtained the emails.  In order to claim they were hacked, you would need to insist a news organization was flat-out lying in print.  In addition, Twitter’s previous uses of Twitter’s hacking policy to block content normally occurred after an official finding by a court or law enforcement agency.  In this case, the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe stated that he believed the materials were genuine and the FBI, which had the laptop, said they had “nothing to add” to his remarks.  In other words, there was no reason for anyone to believe these materials were either hacked or Russian disinformation.  We also know this because no one in the emails released provides any evidence to that effect or seriously argues for that conclusion.  Instead, they say it’s “reasonable” to assume the materials were hacked, but why?  Second, somehow these momentous, unprecedented decisions were being made at Twitter without any involvement from their CEO at the time, Jack Dorsey.  Blocking legitimate news under false pretenses and temporarily suspending the account of a reputable news organization was undertaken entirely on the fly, apparently something the rank and file and legal teams felt they had the right to do on their own.

In any rational world, these revelations would provoke outrage from self-respecting journalists if only because of their own self interest.  If a social media company can shut down legitimate, properly sourced and vetted news under false pretenses, what is to stop them from doing the same to The New York Times or Washington Post?  Incredibly, Democrat Congressman Ro Khanna, perhaps the only person who comes out of this affair with their dignity intact, wrote Twitter about precisely this concern while they were actively blocking The New York Post.  As he put it, even if the material was hacked, “A journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack. So to restrict the distribution of that material, especially regarding a Presidential candidate, seems not in the keeping of the principles of NYT v Sullivan.”  He imagined a scenario where the Times was blocked from circulating a story about potential war crimes, noting “I say this as a total Biden partisan and convinced he didn’t do anything wrong.”  This has always been the crux of the matter:  Twitter is not a news organization.  The platform had no legitimate role to play in either fact-checking or ultimately censoring the media; to the extent they police speech, it should be for violations of the law, harassment, threats, and the like.  The idea that the company would feel it had the right to do both, entirely on its own and under false pretenses no less, should incense every single journalist in the world.  If it can happen to America’s oldest newspaper, it can certainly happen to them, especially as initial reporting is frequently found to contain any number of errors and inaccuracies.  With that in mind, journalists should be praising Mr. Musk and Mr. Taibbi for providing much needed transparency around an issue that cuts directly to the core of the American experiment and the role social media should properly play in news and the discussions surrounding it.  There is little more essential to the long-term health and wellbeing of a society based on free debate than attempts to prevent the open dissemination of the news.  If Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies continue to operate in an opaque manner regarding censorship in general, it is no exaggeration to claim that the future of the First Amendment is at stake.  As Law Professor and Constitutional Scholar Jonathan Turley put it, “Social media is now more popular as a form of communications than the telephone. Censoring communications on Twitter is more akin to the telephone company agreeing to cut the connection of any caller using disfavored terms.”

What did supposed journalists do when confronted with these facts?  Vent their outrage on the messenger, of course, revealing precisely where their loyalties lie.  Rather than engage with the very real danger of a small group of companies controlling access to information for the approximately 8 billion people on this Earth, they turned their fire on Mr. Taibbi, questioning his motivations, financial compensation, basically anything except for the actual story.  Wajahat Ali, a writer for The New York Times and The Daily Beast, posted on Twitter, “Matt Taibbi…what sad, disgraceful downfall.  I swear, kids, he did good work back in the day.  Should be a cautionary tale for everyone.  Selling your soul for the richest white nationalist on Earth.  Well, he’ll eat well for the rest of his life I guess.  But is it worth it?”  Mehdi Hasan from NBC News repeated a similar claim, “Imagine volunteering to do online PR work for the world’s richest  man on a Friday night, in service of nakedly and cynically right-wing narratives, and then pretending you’re speaking truth to power,” as did his colleague, Ben Collins, “Imagine throwing it all away to do PR work for the richest person in the world.  Humiliating shit.”  The only journalist leaping to Mr. Taibbi’s defense was fellow contrarian, Glenn Greenwald.  “The reason these people insist Taibbi’s story is trivial is they will not and cannot recognize any scandalous or improper behavior by leading Dem politicians.  Ask them to name any.  Any critique of leading Dems is automatically, to them, a  fraud, a ‘nothingburger.’  They’re Dems.”  Whatever they are, the episode reveals all too clearly that they are certainly not journalists by any reasonable definition of the term.  Whether you believe Mr. Taibbi’s revelations amount to a blockbuster expose on corruption in social media or merely a minor story of corporate confusion, a chance to glimpse the inner workings of a company that exerts extraordinary influence on our communications should be interesting in and of itself.  Instead, any stories that do not perfectly align with the needs of Democrat propaganda, are summarily dismissed and the messenger is attacked, frequently through the use of the misinformation they readily decry on a daily basis.  Remember, it was barely a week ago when some of the very same outlets were pushing stories about how the “gates of hell” were open at Twitter and misinformation was coming that was so dangerous it would cost people their lives.  This fog of misinformation served only one purpose:  Obscuring the truth of how Twitter takes an active role well beyond their purview in our public debates and electoral contests.  Everyone of the recent anti-Musk rants studiously avoids the censorship of The New York Post, which should be the centerpiece of any reasoned concerns about free speech and the free exchange of ideas.  Confronted with the facts less than a week later, they completely dismissed them as well.  Journalism is dead and they killed it.  You might say they sold their souls for political propaganda.

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