By Glenn Greenwald
A new and rapidly growing journalistic “beat” has arisen over the last several years that can best be described as an unholy mix of junior high hall-monitor tattling and Stasi-like citizen surveillance. It is half adolescent and half malevolent. Its primary objectives are control, censorship, and the destruction of reputations for fun and power. Though its epicenter is the largest corporate media outlets, it is the very antithesis of journalism.
I’ve written before about one particularly toxic strain of this authoritarian “reporting.” Teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s “media reporters” (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s “disinformation space unit” (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their “journalism” to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention). These hall-monitor reporters are a major factor explaining why tech monopolies, which (for reasons of self-interest and ideology) never wanted the responsibility to censor, now do so with abandon and seemingly arbitrary blunt force: they are shamed by the world’s loudest media companies when they do not.
Just as the NSA is obsessed with ensuring there be no place on earth where humans can communicate free of their spying eyes and ears, these journalistic hall monitors cannot abide the idea that there can be any place on the internet where people are free to speak in ways they do not approve. Like some creepy informant for a state security apparatus, they spend their days trolling the depths of chat rooms and 4Chan bulletin boards and sub-Reddit threads and private communications apps to find anyone — influential or obscure — who is saying something they believe should be forbidden, and then use the corporate megaphones they did not build and could not have built but have been handed in order to silence and destroy anyone who dissents from the orthodoxies of their corporate managers or challenges their information hegemony.
Oliver Darcy has built his CNN career by sitting around with Brian Stelter petulantly pointing to people breaking the rules on social media and demanding tech executives make the rule-breakers disappear. The little crew of tattletale millennials assembled by NBC — who refer to their twerpy work with the self-glorifying title of “working in the disinformation space”: as intrepid and hazardous as exposing corruption by repressive regimes or reporting from war zones — spend their dreary days scrolling through 4Chan boards to expose the offensive memes and bad words used by transgressive adolescents; they then pat themselves on the back for confronting dangerous power centers, even when it is nothing more trivial and bullying than doxxing the identities of powerless, obscure citizens.
But the worst of this triumvirate is the NYT’s tech reporters, due to influence and reach if no other reason. When Silicon Valley monopolies, publicly pressured by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other lawmakers, united to remove Parler from the internet, the Times’ tech team quickly donned their hall-monitor goggles and Stasi notebooks to warn that the Bad People had migrated to Signal and Telegram. This week they asked: “Are Private Messaging Apps the Next Misinformation Hot Spot?” One reporter “confess[ed] that I am worried about Telegram. Other than private messaging, people love to use Telegram for group chats — up to 200,000 people can meet inside a Telegram chat room. That seems problematic.”
These examples of journalism being abused to demand censorship of spaces they cannot control are too numerous to comprehensively chronicle. And they are not confined to those three outlets. That far more robust censorship is urgently needed is now a virtual consensus in mainstream corporate journalism: it’s an animating cause for them.
“Those of us in journalism have to come to terms with the fact that free speech, a principle that we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism,” complained Ultimate Establishment Journalism Maven Steve Coll, the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a Staff Writer at The New Yorker. A New Yorker and Vox contributor who runs a major journalistic listserv appropriately called “Study Hall,” Kyle Chayka, has already begun shaming Substack for hosting writers he regards as unacceptable (Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss). A recent Guardian article warned that podcasts was one remaining area still insufficiently policed. ProPublica on Sunday did the same about Apple, and last month one of its reporters appeared on MSNBC to demand that Apple censor its podcast content as aggressively as Google’s YouTube now censors its video content.
Thus do we have the unimaginably warped dynamic in which U.S. journalists are not the defenders of free speech values but the primary crusaders to destroy them. They do it in part for power: to ensure nobody but they can control the flow of information. They do it partly for ideology and out of hubris: the belief that their worldview is so indisputably right that all dissent is inherently dangerous “disinformation.” And they do it from petty vindictiveness: they clearly get aroused — find otherwise-elusive purpose — by destroying people’s reputations and lives, no matter how powerless. Whatever the motive, corporate media employees whose company title is “journalist” are the primary activists against a free and open internet and the core values of free thought.
The profound pathologies driving all of this were on full display on Saturday night as the result of a reckless and self-humiliating smear campaign by one of The New York Times’ star tech reporters, Taylor Lorenz. She falsely and very publicly accused Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen of having used the “slur” word “retarded” during a discussion about the Reddit/GameStop uprising.
Lorenz lied. Andreessen never used that word. And rather than apologize and retract it, she justified her mistake by claiming it was a “male voice” that sounded like his, then locked her Twitter account as though she — rather than the person she falsely maligned — was the victim.
But the details of what happened are revealing. The discussion which Lorenz falsely described took place on a relatively new audio app called “Clubhouse,” an invitation-only platform intended to allow for private, free-ranging group conversations. It has become popular among Silicon Valley executives and various media personalities (I was invited onto the app a few months ago but never attended or participated in any discussions). But as CNBC noted this week, “as the app has grown, people of more diverse backgrounds have begun to join,” and it “has carved out a niche among Black users, who have innovated new ways for using it.” Its free-speech ethos has also made it increasingly popular in China as a means of avoiding repressive online constraints.
These private chats have often been infiltrated by journalists, sometimes by invitation and other times by deceit. These journalists attempt to monitor the discussions and then publish summaries. Often, the “reporting” consists of out-of-context statements designed to make the participants look bigoted, insensitive, or otherwise guilty of bad behavior. In other words, journalists, desperate for content, have flagged Clubhouse as a new frontier for their slimy work as voluntary hall monitors and speech police.
Fulfilling her ignoble duties there, Lorenz announced on Twitter that Andreessen had said a bad word. During the discussion of the “Reddit Revolution,” she claimed, he used the word “retarded.” She then upped her tattling game by not only including this allegation but also the names and photos of those who were in the room at the time — thus exposing those who were guilty of the crime of failing to object to Andreessen’s Bad Word.
Numerous Clubhouse participants, including Kmele Foster, immediately documented that Lorenz had lied. The moderator of the discussion, Nait Jones, said that “Marc never used that word.” What actually happened was that Felicia Horowitz, a different participant in the discussion, had “explained that the Redditors call themselves ‘retard revolution’” and that was the only mention of that word.
Rather than apologizing and retracting, Lorenz thanked Jones for “clarifying,” and then emphasized how hurtful it is to use that word. She deleted the original tweet without comment, and then — with the smear fully realized — locked her account.
Besides the fact that a New York Times reporter recklessly tried to destroy someone’s reputation, what is wrong with this episode? Everything.
The participants in Clubhouse have tried to block these tattletale reporters from eavesdropping on their private conversations precisely because they see themselves as Stasi agents whose function is to report people for expressing prohibited ideas even in private conservations. As Jones pointedly noted, “this is why people block” journalists: “because of this horseshit dishonesty.”
One reporter, Jessica Lessin, recently complained she was blocked by Andreessen from his Clubhouse discussions — as if she has the divine right to monitor people’s communications. And Lorenz herself has been obsessed with monitoring Clubhouse discussions in general and Andreessen in particular for months, mocking him just last week when she obtained a fake credential to enter:
Just take a second to ponder how infantile and despotic, in equal parts, all of this is. This NYT reporter used her platform to virtually jump out of her desk to run to the teacher and exclaim: he used the r word! This is what she tried for months to accomplish: to catch people in private communications using words that are prohibited or ideas that are banned to tell on them to the public. That she got it all wrong is arguably the least humiliating and pathetic aspect of all of this.
Beyond all this, what if he had used the word “retarded”? What would it mean? If someone uses that term maliciously, as a slur against others to mock their intellect, it is certainly reasonable to condemn that. Used with that intent and in that context, it is unnecessarily hurtful for people who suffer diseases of cognitive impairment.
But that is not remotely what happened here. Anyone who spent any time at all on the sub-Reddit thread of r/WallStreetBets knows that “retards” was the single most common term used by those who short-squeezed the hedge funds invested in the collapse of GameStop. It is virtually impossible to discuss the ethos of that subculture without using that term. This was one of their most popular battlecries:
“We can stay retarded longer than you can stay solvent.”
And the use of that term in the sub-Reddit was not just ubiquitous but fascinating: layered with multiple levels of irony and self-deprecation. Sociologists could, and should, study how that term was deployed by those Redditors and what role it played in forming the community that enabled them to strike a blow against these hedge funds. It reflected their self-perceived place at the bottom of social hierarchies, expressed the irony that they as unsophisticated investors were defeating self-perceived financial wizards, and marked their culture and community as transgressive. Did some use it with malice? Maybe. But there was vast complexity to it.
To declare any discussion of that term off-limits — as Lorenz tried to do — is deeply anti-intellectual. To pretend that there is no difference in the use of that term by the Redditors and its discussion in Clubhouse on the one hand, and its malicious deployment as an insult to the cognitively disabled on the other, is dishonest in the extreme. To publicly tattle on adults who utter the term without any minimal attempt to understand or convey context and intent is malicious, disgusting and sociopathic.
But this is now the prevailing ethos in corporate journalism. They have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies, the corrupted and lying corporate media outlets they serve. So settling on this penny-ante, trivial bullshit — tattling, hall monitoring, speech policing: all in the most anti-intellectual, adolescent and primitive ways — is all they have. It’s all they are. It’s why they have fully earned the contempt and distrust in which the public holds them.
The same stunted mentality just resulted in the destruction of the career and reputation of Lorenz’s far more accomplished colleague, science reporter Donald McNeil. On a 2019 field trip for rich high school kids to Peru, he used the “n-word” after a student asked him whether he thought it was fair that one of her classmates was punished for having used it in a video. McNeil used it not with malice or as a racist insult but to inquire about the facts of the video so he could answer the student’s question.
After New York Times senior editors — including African-American editor-in-chief Dean Baquet — investigated and concluded that “only” a reprimand was appropriate — “it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” said Baquet — dozens of McNeil’s colleagues wrote a furious letter demanding far more severe punishment. “Our community is outraged and in pain,” said the 150 Times employee-signatories, adding: “intent is irrelevant.” Intent is irrelevant when judging how harshly to punish this storied journalist for uttering this word.
They got what they wanted. McNeil wrote a grovelling, abject apology, and then the Times announced he was gone from his job after forty-five years with the paper, including for COVID reporting over the last year that the paper had submitted for a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Just think about that: New York Times employees, who are unionized, demanded that management punish a fellow union member more harshly than management wanted to. In 2002, McNeil won the 1st place prize from the National Association of Black Journalists for excellence in his reporting on how the AIDS crisis was affecting Africa. Now his forty-five-year career and reputation are destroyed — at the hands of his own colleagues — because “intent is irrelevant” when using off-limit words.
The overarching rule of liberal media circles and liberal politics is that you are free to accuse anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy of any kind of bigotry that casually crosses your mind — just smear them as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, etc. without the slightest need for evidence — and it will be regarded as completely acceptable. That is the rubric under which the most famous lawyer of the ACLU, an organization once devoted to rigid precepts of due process, decided on Saturday to brand two of his ideological opponents as “closely aligned with white supremacists.” Fresh off being named by Time Magazine as one of the planet’s 100 most influential human beings — this is someone with a great deal of power and influence — trans activist and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio decided to spew this extremely grave accusation about J.K. Rowling and Abigail Shrier, both of whom oppose the inclusion of trans girls in female sports.
As I’ve written before, I’m not in agreement with those who advocate this absolute ban. I’m open to a scientific consensus that develops hormonal and other medicinal protocols for how trans girls and women can fairly compete with CIS women in sporting competitions. But that does not entitle you — especially as an ACLU lawyer — to just go around casually branding people as “closely aligned to white supremacists” who have never remotely demonstrated any such affinity, just because you feel like it, because you crave the power to destroy your adversaries, or are too slothful to engage their actual views.
But this is absolutely acceptable behavior in mainstream and liberal circles. I just spent the week being widely branded by these kinds of people as a “misogynist” — someone who hates women — because I criticized and mocked Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez for her scornful rejection of the offer from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to work with her to investigate Robinhood’s conduct in the GameStop affair. I particularly critiqued her ludicrous accusation to Cruz that “you almost had me murdered” — a claim that even CNN’s “fact-checker” Daniel Dale, who would rather poke out his own eyes than conclude that a popular Democrat has lied — said was without evidence because “Cruz did not advocate violence against Ocasio-Cortez, much less call for her murder.”
AOC is a popular and powerful politician, and journalists are allowed to criticize and mock such people. It’s our job. Yet for doing mine, I was casually and widely cast as a sexist hater of women (ironically, an old homophobic trope long deployed against gay men) by the likes of Ashley Reese (“just baldly misogynistic”) of Jezebel (which really ought to just change its name to You’re a Misogynist, since it has no other content) and long-time Media Matters and David Brock smear artist Eric Boelhert (“Greenwald’s hatred of women knows no bounds”).
That I was one of AOC’s first and most active supporters back in 2018 when she ran against incumbent Joe Crowley — when people like Reese and Boelhert had not even heard of her — and that I have defended her more times than I can count, while also criticizing her on occasion, obviously goes unmentioned and does not matter (for those asking why I supported her, I interviewed AOC during her primary run and she gave impressive answers now unrecognizable from her politics). My support of AOC in 2018 was simultaneous with my misogynistic support for Cynthia Nixon for New York Governor and Zephyr Teachout for Attorney General. Was my misogyny hidden then, or did it just recently develop? There’s no reason to interrogate any of this. It does not deserve that. There’s zero rationality let alone evidence to this tactic. It’s just driven by spite and stupidity and vindictiveness.
I can ignore these kinds of accusatory smears, or scorn and ridicule them and their practitioners — and I do — because they have no power over me. But consider how many people in journalism or other professions whose positions are less secure are rightly terrorized by these lowlife tactics, intimidated into silence and conformity. They know if they express views these Stasi agents and their bosses dislike, their reputations can be instantly destroyed. So they remain silent or pliant out of necessity.
That’s the purpose, the function, of these lowly accusatory tactics: to control, to coerce, to dominate, to repress. The people who engage in these character-assassinating, censorship-fostering games — especially those who call themselves “journalists” — deserve nothing but intense scorn. And those who are free from their influence and power have a particular obligation to heap it on them. Aside from being what it deserves, that scorn is the only way to neutralize this tactic.
Glenn Greenwald is an investigative journalist and author who focuses on civil rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech issues. He is also an attorney who has represented clients in civil rights cases.