The Twitter Files saga heated up once again on March 8. Two of the four individuals provided with internal Twitter communications showing an extensive operation to censor politically undesirable information on the platform testified before the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Independent journalist Matt Taibbi and author Michael Shellenberger faced hostility from Democrats as they described federal efforts to restrict the First Amendment rights of the press or anyone engaged in posting or sharing news reports and opinions the government wishes to keep out of the public eye.
The main point of contention between Democrats and Republicans – and between Democrats and the two witnesses responsible for publishing many of the Twitter Files – was whether the federal government had colluded with Twitter to stifle certain points of view and specific news reports. Also, whether First Amendment rights had been violated. Though Shellenberger and Taibbi have both extensively published emails and other documents that clearly show government officials deluging Twitter executives with censorship requests, subcommittee Democrats insisted no such collusion had taken place.
Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) thought it prudent to remind those present that “[O]f course we all believe in the First Amendment, but the First Amendment applies to government prohibition of speech – not to private companies.” This highlights the very purpose of the weaponization of government hearings; to determine whether the government is, in fact, working through private companies to prohibit or suppress speech.
Aside from that observation, Goldman mostly attempted to divert the focus of the hearing to the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump and the now-debunked Trump-Russia conspiracy theory. In his questioning of Taibbi and Shellenberger, Goldman tersely – and with a decidedly condescending tone – interrupted constantly to ensure that neither man could fully respond to any of his questions.
No Press Freedom on Capitol Hill?
Ranking Member Stacey Plaskett, who represents the United States Virgin Islands Congressional District as a non-voting delegate, grilled Taibbi on his contacts with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. Her angle appeared to be designed to get the journalist to admit that Musk was his source for the Twitter Files. Taibbi evaded, as one would expect any journalist to do in this situation.
Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas also tried to coerce Taibbi into revealing his source for the Twitter Files – a line of questioning that obviously stunned the journalist. Garcia asked him, “When was the first time that Mr. Musk approached you about writing the Twitter Files?” Taibbi replied, “Again, congresswoman, that would… “ Garcia cut him off with, “I just need a date, Sir.” The journalist declined to provide an answer because “this is a question of sourcing and I don’t give up my… I’m a journalist and I don’t reveal my sources.” The exchange continued as Garcia appeared to be pressuring Taibbi into admitting that Elon Musk was his source. “So, you’re not going to tell us when Musk first approached you?” she asked rhetorically. When Taibbi continued to avoid answering questions clearly intended to get him to reveal his source at Twitter, Garcia said, “So, then you consider Musk to be the direct source of all of this.” She went on in this vein, which directly infringes upon the First Amendment protections guaranteed to the press. Chair Jim Jordan responded to Garcia’s line of questioning:
“I do think it’s worth pointing out that I have cosponsored – I think some of my colleagues have cosponsored – the Shield Act, in previous Congresses, with Democrats, to protect what we see them trying to do today; protect journalists from having to reveal their sources to government. That used to be a shared position in the Congress. Unfortunately, as we are seeing now [on] multiple occasions, it’s not the position anymore.”
It is hard to ignore the impression, ironic as it is, that Democrats on this subcommittee seem quite concerned that Republicans, conservatives in general, and even journalists object to government attempts to influence the flow of information to the American people. Hearings like this one highlight a stark and disturbing difference in philosophy. The right – along with more traditional liberals like Shellenberger and Taibbi – believes the First Amendment is essential to a free society and should, therefore, be sacrosanct. The left thinks, or supposedly thinks, that ordinary Americans must be shielded from certain opinions – and even certain facts – for their own well-being. Even if one agrees with the latter view, there is a darker side. Protecting the public from certain views and certain truths is one thing – and that is Orwellian enough in itself – but seeking to silence, discredit, or even punish people from airing those truths and those views is quite another.
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