by MATT TAIBBI
That interview says it all, doesn’t it?
Not long ago I was writing in defense of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When she first entered Congress as an inner-city kid who’d knocked off longtime insider Joe Crowley with a Sandersian policy profile, her own party’s establishment ridiculed her as a lefty Trump. Nancy Pelosi scoffed that her win just meant voters “made a choice in one district,” so “let’s not get carried away.” Ben Ritz, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, an offshoot of the old Democratic Leadership Council, groused, “Oh, please, she just promised everyone a bunch of free stuff.”
This was before AOC decided to be the next Pelosi, instead of the next Sanders. The above sit-down on MSNBC shows the transformation. Having shed the mantle of an outsider who shook the old guard with online savvy, she appeared in soft light for a softball “interview,” by a literal Biden official (Inside With Jen Psaki is as close as you can get to a formal dissolution of the line between White House and media). In it, she seemed to argue for the outlaw of Fox News. “We have very real issues with what is permissible on air,” she said, adding people like Tucker Carlson are “very clearly” guilty of “incitement to violence,” a problem in light of “federal regulation in terms of what’s allowed on air and what isn’t.”
I was attracted to liberalism as a young person precisely because it didn’t want to ban things. Every liberal morality play in the seventies, eighties and nineties featured a finger-wagging moralist who couldn’t stomach an obscene joke (Jerry Falwell, over a Hustler parody), “obscene” art (Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos), “objectionable” music (Tipper Gore, in the now-seems-tame record-labeling furor), or unpredictable humor (NBC, in its attempts to put Richard Pryor on tape delay for Saturday Night Live). Pryor’s favored writer Paul Mooney objected so much to all the hoops they had to jump through to be allowed on air, he ended up writing a parody “job interview” skit that sent SNL’s ratings soaring, though ironically it would probably never air today:
Hollywood made self-congratulating feature films about nearly every one of those speech clashes, from The People vs. Larry Flynt to Dirty Pictures (starring James Woods, about the Cincinnati episode!) to Parental Advisory. The movie Field of Dreams features Ray Kinsella’s wife Annie telling off “IRATE MOTHER” in a school library debate about banning writer Terrence Mann, with Annie saying after: “Fascist. I’d like to ease her pain!” (The actual book Shoeless Joe featured J.D. Salinger, one of America’s most-censored authors). From To Kill a Mockingbird to Dead Man Walking liberalism celebrated the belief that truth, tolerance, and forgiveness are the way to reach closed minds. I mentioned this before, but Rob Reiner’s The American President — a naked hagiography of Clintonian politics — came to a climax with “President Andrew Shepherd” defending his flag-burning girlfriend’s honor, saying:
You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing…
That scene, which sounds like it should apply to any Democrat thinking about someone like Carlson, would become ironic later. Back to AOC and Fox: like so many other things in America, the marketplace of ideas is no longer a market. Voices with organic appeal are artificially restricted. Watching “approved” news these days is like watching scab baseball: you know most of the players the crowds really want to see aren’t even in the dugout. By no means is this phenomenon confined to the right.
As far back as the spring of 2017, when Google introduced “Project Owl,” a new tool designed to “surface more authoritative content,” outlets like the World Socialist Web Site, Alternet, Truthdig, Democracy Now!, and Consortium News reported dramatic drops in audience. Wikileaks traffic plummeted (that site’s content is extremely difficult to access for a variety of reasons now). Years later, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google employed “maintainers” to tend to an “‘anti-misinformation’ blacklist” to prevent sites from “appearing in Google News and other products.”
The next big event was the removal of Alex Jones from Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify. No fan of Jones, I was struck by how quickly critics moved to looking around for the next targets. Rob Reiner, the “acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil” auteur, said on MSNBC, “You have Fox, Breitbart, Sinclair, and Alex Jones, which has now been taken off of Facebook, thank God…” Senator Chris Murphy said Jones was just the “tip of a giant iceberg” and “companies must do more than take down one website”:
Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted the Jones episode was not coordinated with the other firms, saying, “I’ve had no conversation. And to my knowledge, no one at Apple has.” Later stories like the Apple-Amazon squeeze of Parler ended the ruse that the major distribution platforms were not working together to create private agreements on speech, and the #TwitterFiles showed countless episodes of supposedly independent companies engaging in seeming anticompetitive behavior, coordinating on everything from election “misinformation” to pandemic messaging and holding regular “industry meetings” with government to discuss moderation issues.