Accountability is Not Cancel Culture

Editors’ Note: Reposted from The Washington Post, January 31, 2021. Ms. Sullivan’s analysis is very instructive.

By Margaret Sullivan

According to the Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry, nothing less than a “social justice mob” descended on Politico after it gave a guest-editing slot to right-wing flamethrower Ben Shapiro.

Scarry mocked those, including many of Politico’s employees, who thought Shapiro never should have been put in charge of the site’s popular Playbook newsletter — even for a day.

Such objections are an effort to silence conservative voices, Scarry claimed in another piece: Liberal journalists “believe one side of the political spectrum to be legitimate, and the other should be given as few opportunities to have their opinions heard as possible.”

In other words, it’s all a part of “cancel culture” — the catchphrase for how the masses supposedly gang up to silence provocative voices.

I happen to think that the Politico staffers were right to oppose their news organization granting its imprimatur to someone with Shapiro’s history of performative bigotry.

But Scarry is entitled to his opinion.

So are the objectors at Politico.

And so is Shapiro, who tweeted this in 2010: “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” And who offered this view in 2019, after a Democratic presidential candidate proposed that colleges opposed to gay marriage lose their tax-exempt status: “Beto O’Rourke does not get to raise my child. And if he tries, I will meet him at the door with a gun.”

Yes, in America, all these people get to talk. Because of the First Amendment, the government won’t shut them down. That doesn’t mean they’re immune to other forms of accountability.

Yes, in America, all these people get to talk. Because of the First Amendment, the government won’t shut them down.

That doesn’t mean they’re immune to other forms of accountability, though. When Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri joined the Republican Sedition Caucus and supported overturning the presidential election a few weeks ago, Simon & Schuster decided it didn’t want to publish his book anymore.
Likewise, Twitter decided to permanently suspend President Donald Trump after he used the platform to spread damaging lies about the election and to fire up those who rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

There’s been plenty of criticism about these decisions, not one of which had anything to do with the First Amendment, which forbids the government — not Twitter or any other private entity — from shutting down speech except in the most dangerous cases.

But you’d never know it from all the bad-faith squealing, mostly from the right.

Night after night, Fox News offers prime-time viewers its “leftist-assault-on-speech” show. Hawley, who needed only a few days to find a new publisher for his book, subsequently blasted the “muzzling of America” in an opinion piece in the widely read New York Post. Have any of these people been silenced? Hardly.

Night after night, Fox News offers prime-time viewers its “leftist-assault-on-speech” show. Hawley, who needed only a few days to find a new publisher for his book, subsequently blasted the “muzzling of America” in an opinion piece in the widely read New York Post.

Have any of these people been silenced? Hardly.

As Parker Molloy of Media Matters put it: “Despite getting a spot on the front page of the fourth-largest newspaper in the U.S., coverage across the entire Fox News lineup, a new book deal, an audience of more than half a million followers on Twitter, and a lengthy list of credits on IMDb, Hawley would like you to believe that he is a man without a voice.”

And then there’s Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who ranted that the congressional efforts to hold Trump accountable for his role in the attempted insurrection at the Capitol are somehow sins against free expression:

“Impeachment is the zenith of cancel culture,” he tweeted, as if “cancel culture” were to blame for a constitutional remedy that dates back to the country’s founding.

I talked with a leading First Amendment lawyer and scholar, Jameel Jaffer, about all of this last week. Jaffer thinks a lot of these complaints are misguided. They spring, he said, from a misunderstanding (I would call it an intentional misunderstanding) of what the First Amendment is all about.

“The point of the First Amendment is to take these kinds of debates out of the hands of the government and put them in the hands of private citizens,” said Jaffer, a Columbia University law professor and director of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

It’s not subverting the First Amendment, therefore, to criticize a politician or a cable news host or a right-wing provocateur. “That’s the whole point of the First Amendment,” he said.

Nor is it a subversion of free-speech values for news organizations to make editing decisions or for social media platforms to make and enforce rules.

Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Trump, though, gives Jaffer pause. Given the outsize power of the tech platforms as speech gatekeepers and information distributors, he prefers to err on the side of letting people have their say. (When their say turns into dangerous incitement, he agrees it goes too far.)

These nuanced views don’t get much airtime in the outrage factories of cable news and talk radio.

“It’s important we should tolerate diverse views,” Jaffer said. “We benefit from a public square that includes ideas that make us uncomfortable.”

Late last week, progressive groups published an open letter asking news organizations to stop amplifying politicians who won’t publicly concede that the 2020 presidential election was legitimate.

“Every American is entitled to freedom of speech, but they are not entitled to appear on prestigious television programs or news outlets to spread demonstrable falsehoods that have already incited a murderous insurrection, and remain at the heart of an ongoing national security threat.

“Every American is entitled to freedom of speech, but they are not entitled to appear on prestigious television programs or news outlets to spread demonstrable falsehoods that have already incited a murderous insurrection, and remain at the heart of an ongoing national security threat,” the letter said.

Do these politicians run the risk of being “canceled”? I doubt it. They’ll find a way to get their messages out, just as Hawley is doing with such success.
It would help if journalists pushed back more effectively. CNN’s Pamela Brown gave a master class in her devastating interview with Madison Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from North Carolina. By the end, he had no defense left for his election denialism.

But, even if that sort of pushback becomes the norm, news organizations should be wary of handing these charlatans a megaphone.

You can call that cancel culture if you want. I call it responsibility.

The good news is that, in America, we get to argue about it.



Categories: FREE SPEECH, Issues, National, politics, press

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