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This Week in Censorship | January 29 – February 4

This week in censorship began with Frank Miele’s excoriation of Rachel Maddow and ends with the Murthy v. Missouri upcoming argument.

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Shake hands with censorship at MSNBC and in other media

This week’s curation on the RealClear Public Affairs Censorship page began with Frank Miele’s columnSuddenly The News Gatekeepers ARE the News” in our Politics vertical, a takedown of MSNBC’s decision not to air Donald Trump’s victory speech after a resounding win in the Iowa Republican primary. When the race was called, Rachel Maddow announced that the network, without spite, would not be turning to Mr. Trump’s speech so as to avoid broadcasting “untrue things.” Miele catalogs a number of instances in which MSNBC and other mainstream networks were far less delicate with their editorial scruples, including a CNN segment where a Democratic representative was permitted to falsely claim that Donald Trump had instructed the country to “inject bleach” to fight Covid-19.

To his list I could add one more: Maddow’s credulous take on the now-disgraced Steele Dossier in 2017. “A number [of the dossier’s elements] remain neither verified nor proven false,” she said, live on air, “but none so far have been publicly disproven.” Buzzfeed, when initially publishing the documents, warned that most of it was unsubstantiated. Steele’s report has since been revealed to be a Clinton campaign- and DNC-funded piece of opposition research, almost wholly discredited. I tend to favor publishing over not publishing—get it all out there and keep us apprised of the updates as they come. Unfortunately, such blatant asymmetries in how and where these editorial judgments are made will only make the process of public sense-making more difficult.

Gabe Kaminsky at the Washington Examiner has produced consistently strong journalism on the nature of the government’s relationship with the disinformation industry. Exactly a year ago he reported on the U.S. State Department’s funding of the Global Disinformation Index, a revelation that now informs an entire subfield of journalistic inquiry into the private sector’s role in federal government censorship strategies. This week, Kaminsky reported that the GDI, in documents supplied to the Examiner, has redacted key aspects of its 2022 tax filings “such as its board members and who prepared the documents.” One of the criteria by which the GDI judges and subsequently blacklists news outlets is “opaque ownership structures.”

The Global Disinformation Index is currently the subject of a congressional investigation and is also cited in a lawsuit filed against the Global Engagement Center (the body that directly supplied $100,000 to GDI) by the state of Texas, as well as conservative outlets the Daily Wire and the Federalist. The three plaintiffs accuse Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other State Dept. officials as having engaged in “one of the most egregious government operations to censor the American press in the history of the nation.”

Perhaps the most dramatic news event this week was the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis. Executives from Meta, TikTok, X and Snap were present for questioning, along with dozens of families of children who had suffered abuse or harm as a result of their activity on social media. The atmosphere was combative; Senator Josh Hawley at one point hectored Mark Zuckerberg into an awkward standing apology to the parents behind him.


Writing in Reason, Robby Soave makes the crucial distinction, codified in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, between the platform and the user. In this country, we do not hold media platforms liable for the content they host. There’s no question that social media platforms engender a toxicity in our culture and politics, and there’s no question that people have suffered for it. “But,” Soave writes, “the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not the protection of children—it’s greater control over dissident speech.”

Emily Jashinsky and Krystal Ball provided commentary on the hearing during a segment for Breaking Points that we republished on Thursday. Jashinsky points out that these hearings were largely “stunt-making for the sake of power grabs” and intended only to lay groundwork for legislation that will empower the government to hold these platforms legally responsible for the speech they publish. Indeed, politicians from both parties—including Josh Hawley, Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz and former president Trump—have in recent years proposed changing or even repealing section 230.

More than anything, the episode served as a chilling reminder that censorship efforts in the federal government are uniquely bipartisan. As Ball said on Breaking Points, “from a whole variety of directions…from the left, the right, the center, they’re pushing for more censorship.” The left tends to fault these platforms for not doing enough “content moderation,” while the right tends to complain about heavy-handed and biased moderation. Both grievances have found common cause in a campaign against the free speech protections we grant media publishers. Changing this would do grave harm to the freedom of the press in this country.

In the courts this week, a long-brewing defamation case between conservative pundit Mark Steyn and climate scientist Michael Mann reached a minor milestone. Mann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sued Steyn in 2012 over a blog post published on the National Review’s website, in which Steyn called Mann’s research “fraudulent” and blamed him for having popularized the so-called “hockey-stick graph” of global temperature rise. Mann had initially filed suit against Steyn, National Review and two other parties; National Review maintained that Steyn’s comments were protected under the First Amendment, and the outlet was dropped from the lawsuit in 2021. This week the plaintiff, Mann, rested his case against Steyn.

Francis Menton at the Manhattan Contrarian provided expert commentary on the developments. It appears that Mann had overestimated his damages to the court in 2020, and then amended them with supplemental documentation in 2023. Remarkably, one estimate of a lost grant had changed from $9 million to $100,000—“exceedingly strange,” according to Menton. Steyn’s defense also called their first witness, a statistician at Wharton who characterized Mann’s climate temperature reconstruction methodologies as “manipulative” and his conclusions “misleading.” National Review supplied their own coverage of the trial this week as well, noting that Mann had expressed his hope to “ruin this pathetic excuse for a human being,” referring to Steyn, in a 2012 email.


Other items on the page this week include an addition to our new FOIA section, which, going forward, will serve as an index of important documents obtained from public records or Freedom of Information Act requests. Jimmy Tobias received a new, heavily redacted tranche of emails from the NIH on the last day of January. One interesting discovery was a series of questions posed by David P. Cleary, then-Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) to the NIH, one of which noted that a “year four progress report” from EcoHealth Alliance had been edited before the committee received it. This is notable because the year four report would have included information relevant to EcoHealth’s (an NIH-funded nonprofit) work on gain-of-function coronavirology at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Tobias has been a tireless FOIA gadfly for the NIH since his groundbreaking report last year on the agency’s attempts to squelch opinion about a potential SARS-CoV-2 lab origin.

Over the next few weeks, we can hope to see more attention to the current Supreme Court docket, which includes at least two cases pertinent to social media, censorship and the First Amendment. NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton will consider whether the First Amendment prohibits laws restricting websites from “engaging in editorial choices about whether, and how, to publish and disseminate speech.” The case will be argued on February 26. Murthy v. Missouri (formerly Missouri v. Biden) will consider whether federal government communication with social media companies about content moderation constituted a violation of the First Amendment. Arguments will be heard in March, and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya—the Stanford epidemiologist censored on Twitter for expressing skepticism about pandemic lockdown policies—is one of many plaintiffs.

This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs and made available via RealClearWire.

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Charlie Tidmarsh writes for Real Clear Public Affairs


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