Call it Cooke’s First Law: Whatever the story, however complex its details, members of the American press will react by announcing who must be forbidden to speak going forward.
That is what too many journalists are now — not firefighters, not mediators, not conveyors of vital information, but zealous obscurantists staffing would-be censorship agencies. In comes the news, and, within minutes, out comes the latest justification for shutting everyone up. A mentally ill homeless man attacks Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer? That’s the Republican Party’s fault for running political ads against Pelosi — and it must stop. A disturbed man shoots up a gay club in Colorado Springs, Colo.? That’s the fault of Americans who object to drag shows for kindergartners — and they must be quiet. Elon Musk plans to moderate Twitter with a lighter hand? That will cause “havoc” and put lives at risk — and it must be prevented at all costs.
C. S. Lewis once observed that “it would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” So it is here. Yesterday’s bowdlerizers were at least open about the enterprise in which they were engaged. Today’s, by contrast, are pathologically determined to euphemize it. Because they are vaguely aware that there is something untoward about members of the press playing whack-a-mole with the national conversation, their rules come couched in the language of necessity. Once upon a time, everything was speech. Now, there is “speech” as classified and approved by media sentinels, and then there is “disinformation,” “hatred,” and even “stochastic terrorism.” One might sum the caprice with which free expression is now treated with one of those “irregular verbs” from Yes, Minister: “I report, you harass, he should go to jail for incitement.”
Worse still is the grotesque tendency for members of the press to cast their transparently self-serving determinations as raw scientific truths. It’s not the opinion of NBC, Axios, or the Washington Post that Twitter would be better left as is; it’s a fact — as determined by the “experts.” That these “experts” have been repeatedly proven to be full of it — remember when the entirely legitimate Hunter Biden laptop story was “a Russian disinformation campaign,” and therefore needed to be suppressed just before the election? — seems not to matter. Nor, indeed, does it seem to matter that a great many of our arbiters of truth are rank hypocrites and contemptible lunatics. The temptation to cast one’s preferences as fact is a remarkably strong one, and, for now at least, many modern journalists seem entirely incapable of resisting it.
How else might one explain the contemporary New York Times, which has gotten into the infuriating habit of simultaneously contributing to, and complaining about, America’s “speech problem”? Earlier this year, the Times’ editorial board complained that “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” This development, the editors concluded, was the inevitable product of “the political left and the right” being “caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture.”
Which . . . well, would that, by any chance, be the “condemnation and recrimination” of which the Times is routinely guilty itself? Last week, the Times’ Michelle Goldberg conceded at the outset of her piece on the shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs that “the police are still investigating the motive.” And then, having duly covered her ass with that caveat, she proceeded merrily along as if there were no need to wait for the facts of the case to be determined. Throwing caution to the wind, Goldberg proposed that because “we know that the suspect is facing hate crime charges, and that the attack took place in a climate of escalating anti-gay and anti-trans violence and threats of violence,” she could write the column she’d wanted to write all along. Among the causes of the “entirely predictable” massacre, Goldberg insisted, were “the right,” Chris Rufo, Florida legislators, “Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary,” “QAnon,” “Republicans and Republican-aligned groups,” the “Proud Boys and other demonstrators,” “Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert,” “The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh,” and “Ben Shapiro.” These people, groups, and phenomena, Goldberg concluded, “don’t get to duck responsibility if a sick man with a gun took them seriously.”
That “if” is pretty important, though, isn’t it? In the Times’ op-ed on free speech, the editors complained that “many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it.” And so they are! Which, in no small part, is because writers at outlets such as the Times feel entirely comfortable constructing lists of people who are presumptively to blame for crimes that do not, at the point at which those lists are constructed, even have a clearly established motive. If the editorial board of the Times really is as concerned about free expression as it insists it is, it will take the log out of its own eye and stop playing this game, for what Michelle Goldberg did last week was by no means an anomaly. In 2011, the Times repeatedly blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Gabby Giffords, only to discover later on that there was no connection between the two at all. In 2016, the Times pulled the same trick with the shooting at Pulse — among the attack’s contributing “factors,” the editorial board contended, was “a vicious and virulent homophobia” — only to learn that the killer had chosen the venue at random. The most recent editorial that the board has published — literally, the last thing it has said at the time I’m writing this — is that the 2022 “campaign season was marked by numerous incidents in which many Republicans used speech that has been linked to violence.” Linked, one must ask, by whom?
This is a pernicious practice. Now, as ever, America plays host to enough firebrand public speakers and enough unhinged criminal actors that it will always be possible for cynics to draw weak lines between the two. The most clear-cut connection between heated rhetoric and violent action in recent years was between the Democratic Party’s anti-Republican rhetoric and the attempted massacre of Republican lawmakers at a baseball field in Virginia. And do you know what that incident taught us? What it suggested about the Democratic Party? What it demanded of our political culture?
Nothing, that’s what. What happened in that case was the fault of the gunman, and the gunman alone. The United States is an enormous, diverse, rambunctious country, with a constitutional order that allows for vibrant civic debate, and to demand that the participants in that debate silence themselves because, somewhere out there, a madman may lie in wait, is to neuter free expression in the name of saving it. Once upon a time, American journalists understood that. Today, too many of them stand in line with the rest of the cynics and the poltroons, warning that it’s a bad idea to pick a fight with a man who buys red ink by the barrel.
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