Opinion/Column: Censors Can’t Shut Down Media Platforms |
WASHINGTON — The slow-motion attempt to cancel Joe Rogan is interesting primarily because of the time it takes and the amount of money at stake for Spotify. Otherwise, it’s another minor variation on a familiar theme – “The fight to the death for control of the information landscape”.
This war long predates Rogan, or even the Internet; I witnessed my first skirmish 30 years ago, when a classmate confidently asserted that the Federal Communications Commission should ban Rush Limbaugh.
Wasn’t that censorship, someone whispered. Our classmate retorted that we obviously didn’t realize Limbaugh had a huge following.
“These people listen to him and they believe him,” she told us. “We have to stop it.”
I can still hear the way she said these people, with a contempt usually reserved for small invertebrates. Update the name and you have, in essence, the argument to misrepresent Rogan, or one of dozens more over the past few years.
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And you also have the reason why the deplatformers failed, even though they insist that the layoffs continue until morality improves. The very processes that have strengthened their independent censorship have cut them off from the audiences they are trying to influence and have created endless new channels for the people and opinions they are trying to suppress.
That stuffy Limbaugh might have been arrogant, but at least she was living in 1992, when most Americans got their news from a handful of outlets, and the FCC had the practical ability — if not the constitutional authority — to separate the media star from his audience.
Where that kind of power exists, people will want to use it. So we – the educated elite who populate the information industries such as the media and academia – have been constantly pressured to stop flattering these people. Instead, we have been urged to avoid the “false balance” in favor of “moral clarity,” to become “open and forthright advocates of social justice.”
It worked, in a way: Academic disciplines gradually shifted to the left, and under former President Donald Trump, my profession purged journalists who violated progressive sensibilities, and we frequently paused to remind readers that the president was a racist liar.
Fortunately, most of our readers agreed with us. But then they agreed before we said it, which is a major problem with all theories about creating social change by controlling the language of the educated elite. By the time the idea-mongers were ready to act on these theories, we weren’t so much speaking truth to power as preaching to a modestly sized choir.
It would have been reasonable to imagine saving democracy in 1992, or better yet, 1952, when most Americans got their news from even fewer outlets. This select group helped maintain and shape a mass culture where two-thirds of Americans viewed newspapers and networks as generally fair.
But the price of this influence was high. Their power was, after all, born of quasi-monopolies in the media and elsewhere: three networks, three car manufacturers, a telephone company, a local newspaper or two. Sheltered from upstart competition, each has maximized its profits by maximizing its markets: striving to appear neutral on controversial issues and appealing to the lowest common denominator. It meant deferring to public consensus as much or more than they actively tried to shape it, including reflecting views on race, gender, and sexual identity that we now consider abhorrent.
Activists somehow imagine themselves wielding that kind of influence without making those kinds of concessions — and moreover, doing it somehow in a media market that technological change has torn to shreds. . America may no longer have a “mainstream” culture, but if it does, “mainstream” journalists rarely talk about it; our audience has shrunk ideologically and demographically. As for the rest of the United States, only 21% of Americans say they have a great deal of trust in newspapers today, and television news fare even worse.
This more selective audience has advantages; it gives us the freedom to morally clarify issues of social justice. But by the same token, our bugle call to the nation is in practice more of a pep rally for the local Boosters Club. The minds we aspire to change have abandoned us for Rogan or Fox News.
Instead of conceding to this reality, frustrated activists have simply shifted editorial pressure and deplatforming efforts “down the pile” to unedited platforms like Spotify and Facebook, and payment processors and hosting services. which only push the electrons. So the drive to ban Rogan, even though that might just mean he ends up with an even bigger audience and a hefty chunk of Spotify’s money.
At no time does anyone seem to have considered that the power they fought so hard to seize would simply have disappeared into the grasp – which the very forces that had amplified their own power had made it even easier for these people to take it. access to content. that we’d rather they didn’t hear.
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