After the 1967 summer of riots, journalists, politicians, and sociologists spent many words and dollars trying to find and cure the “root cause” of the racial unrest. They failed, but eventually a solution did emerge. The root cause of riots turned out to be rioters. Peace returned to the streets once police adopted new crowd-control tactics and prosecutors cracked down on lawbreakers. Mob violence came to be recognized not as an indictment of American society but as a failure of policing.
That lesson was forgotten last year, when police were lambasted for trying to control violence at Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests. Journalists disdained tear gas and arrests in favor of addressing the “systemic racism” supposedly responsible for the disorder. After the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some raised questions about police failure to stop the mayhem, but once again, progressive journalists are focusing elsewhere. They’ve identified a new root cause of mob violence: free speech.
They’ve cheered the social-media purge of conservatives and urged further censorship of “violent rhetoric” and “disinformation.” It’s a remarkably self-destructive move for a profession dependent on freedom of speech, but the journalists now dominating newsrooms aren’t thinking long-term—and can’t imagine being censored themselves. The traditional liberal devotion to the First Amendment seems hopelessly antiquated to young progressives convinced that they’re on the right side of history.
When I wrote in 2019 about journalists’ new antipathy to free speech, it seemed bad enough that they were targeting rivals in their own profession with advertising boycotts and smear campaigns that led to conservative journalists being fired and banished from social media. But since the Capitol riot, they’ve gone beyond “de-platforming” individual heretics. Now they want to eliminate the platforms, too.
It wasn’t enough to ban Donald Trump from Facebook and Twitter if he and his followers could move to Parler—so Parler had to be shut down, too. Big Tech obliged, succumbing to pressure from the media and their Democratic allies in Congress. (Google and Apple removed Parler from their app stores, and Amazon forced Parler offline by booting it off its web servers.) This unprecedented suppression was denounced by conservative and libertarian publications like the Wall Street Journal and Reason, and by a few independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald, but the usual solidarity among the press against censorship was missing.
The Washington Post headlined an editorial, “Parler deserved to be taken down.” The Guardian called for still-harsher censorship through federal regulation that would restrict “online harms” and promote “social values such as truth telling.” At MSNBC and CNN, commentators longed for more government action—a new equivalent of the 9/11 Commission to investigate the Capitol riot—and further corporate censorship.
CNN’s senior media reporter, Oliver Darcy, called for telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to stop providing platforms for the distribution of “lies” and “conspiracy theories” by conservative channels like Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network. On his CNN show Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter discussed further steps to “curb” the “information crisis,” and he offered no objection to the solution offered by a former Facebook executive: “We have to turn down the capability of these conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences.”
A few mainstream journalists expressed mild reservations about the Parler shutdown—the Los Angeles Times called it “troubling” though also “understandable”—but most didn’t even bother taking a position. Their attitude was nicely captured by the fictional Titania McGrath, the satirically woke character on Twitter created by British comic Andrew Doyle. “If you don’t like our rules, just build your own platform,” she tweeted. “Then when we delete that, just build another one. Then when we delete that, just build your own corporate oligopoly. I really can’t see the issue.”
In the short term, silencing conservative outlets benefits mainstream journalists in the same way that the Parler shutdown benefits Facebook and Twitter: by eliminating competition. But the zeal for censorship isn’t just cynical self-interest. Progressive journalists have been in an ideological bubble so long that they’ve come to believe their own hype about the right-wing menace—and they’re oblivious to their blatant double standards.
They pretended that riots across the United States last year were “mostly peaceful protests,” while the one at the Capitol was a historic “insurrection” and “attempted coup” that put “democracy in peril.” Its symbolism made the Capitol riot a singularly horrifying spectacle on television, but the actual toll in life and property was much smaller than that of last year’s mob violence, which claimed at least 15 lives and caused more than $2 billion in damage.
Yes, the mob at the Capitol had been fed lies and conspiracy theories about election fraud, and some of the organizers had used social media—including not just Parler but also Facebook and Twitter—to enrage the protesters. It’s no surprise that Joe Biden and other Democrats are denouncing this “Big Lie” and promising to fight “domestic terrorism” by imposing new restrictions on social-media platforms. Politicians are always eager for more power.
But why would any sensible journalist go along with them? Their own profession’s freedom rests on the First Amendment, which allows them to print information no matter how misguided it’s deemed by others, and on landmark Supreme Court decisions protecting even speakers who make generalized calls for violence. That freedom allowed journalists to spend two years promoting a conspiracy theory about Russia collusion, a falsehood that did far more far to cripple the federal government than the Capitol riot. They encouraged last year’s riots by convincing the public, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that black men were being disproportionately killed by white police officers.
The promoters of those “Big Lies” assume that they won’t be censored as long as Democrats rule Washington and Silicon Valley, but the precedents being set will give Republicans weapons for payback when they return to power. The eventual result will be bipartisan censorship. Far better to let police and courts deal with rioters—and leave Americans free to say what they want.
Editors’ note: In the opening sentence, the year “1968” has been corrected to “1967.”