Imagine you see a house on fire. Imagine you run to tell firemen, excitedly.
Imagine they simply reply ‘so?’
You’ve entered a world in which firemen no longer care about fires. The most basic thing most of us have always believed firemen are supposed to care about.
Reporter and civil liberties advocate Matt Taibbi now finds himself in a similarly bizarre universe, where his fellow journalists increasingly no longer value free speech and journalistic ethics. A new, strange world of media and politics that is fiercely antagonistic to some of the most basic precepts of civil society and the liberal order.
Speaking to Capitol Hill interns at a Capitol event on Thursday sponsored by the Fund for American Studies and Republican Senator Rand Paul, Taibbi explained his unexpected journey.
“In late November of last year I got a note inviting me to speak in San Francisco, to come to San Francisco, setting in motion a series of events that would come to be known as the Twitter Files…” Taibbi began.
The Twitter Files were a series of stories that broke late last year in which Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger and others were given access to the inner-company communications of Twitter’s old regime before billionaire Elon Musk purchased it, revealing that the company had suppressed news and opinion often at the behest of the U.S. government.
The Twitter Files exposed a vast and growing American censorship regime.
Taibbi said of his work on the project, “It’s a topsy-turvy story that has become sort of the bane of my existence but also the greatest thing that I’ve ever worked on in my life.”
“And very confusing,” he added.
“I’ve been in journalism for over 30 years, and until recently it was always understood that reporters were the champions of free speech,” Taibbi said. “That was uncontroversial. It was understood implicitly that without free speech there could be no democracy, and that reporters needed to be on the frontlines of that question because we were often the first affected.”
Taibbi then described his time living in Russia as a young reporter, witnessing what it was like working in an environment where free speech was not protected and exercising it could get you imprisoned or murdered.
He described returning to the United States, working for Rolling Stone and writing about the financial crisis of 2008. “For a time, I was relatively celebrated on the Left, going after both sides. Even though a lot of the reporting I did about the crash was not really complimentary to Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.”
“This was considered a virtue in a reporter at the time, this willingness to sort of go where the facts lead you no matter how they cut,” Taibbi explained.
“But it turned out that there was a clock on that phenomenon,” he said.
Taibbi described when journalism changed and began morphing into something that was not journalism.
“Five or six years ago there started to be a change in our business, and I first noticed it when I started working on a new subject that led me down the road that would lead to the Twitter Files.
That subject was Alex Jones—who Taibbi wasn’t a fan of—and how he could simply be removed from the internet.
“I remember that the way he was taken off the internet was remarkable and alarming,” Taibbi said. “Because you had a series of very powerful companies that essentially were kind of oligopoly controlling the distribution who decided, clearly, in concert just to remove this person who had a huge organic audience, that they were just going to take it away without any kind of due process.”
“Until that moment, reporters and media figures had always enjoyed a lot of protection in the United States,: he said. “This is something that I always thought really distinguished this country compared to other countries.”
Taibbi explained that once upon a time all good reporters “always believed that the night before you publish an important piece you don’t sleep very well because you were afraid of getting something wrong. That was a consistent feature of what journalism was for a very long time.”
Taibbi continued, “But that started to go away about five or six years ago after Trump got elected, there began to be this palpable change in the way that we covered the news. Instead of just calling things as we saw them, giving it to the audience and letting them decide,” there was sort of a new “phenomenon with reporting that I didn’t know what to make of at first.”
Taibbi recalled that after Alex Jones’ banishment, Facebook started to remove certain accounts that were thought to be bots, that were in fact mostly political dissident sites, Left and Right, but mostly Right. He found it “deeply troubling… I was surprised by how little people in the business seemed worried about this phenomenon, even people who I previously would have thought of as champions of speech.”
Taibbi mentioned the once-aspiring conservative alternative to Twitter, Parler, being deplatformed and the new precedent that set, but lamented, “But it was just impossible to get anyone in media interested in that story.” Worse, he said that the sense at Rolling Stone and throughout mainstream media seemed to be that Big Tech wasn’t censoring enough, particularly after Trump became president.
Disturbed by the new trend towards censorship by big corporations and the media, it troubled him that reporters just didn’t seem to care. After all, journalists’ longtime role had been to be the people who cared the most about free speech.
By the time the Twitter Files began to be released in 2022, Taibbi said “the shocking thing was there was basically no interest in this story except in conservative media. We didn’t think this was a Right or Left story. We thought this was a nonpartisan issue for the most part.”
“But we could not get other journalists to cover the story,” he said. “Instead they made us the story.”
Taibbi remembered, “If you paid attention in December or January or February of this last winter you might’ve seen there was a lot of material about me or Michael Shellenberger or Bari Weiss and about Elon Musk, but very little about what was actually in the Twitter Files reports.”
“This was unfortunate because, again, journalists, I think, need to stand together and they need to fight for each other when digital censorship is going on but they demonstrated over and over again that they didn’t really care what happened to the people we were talking about because they weren’t on their team,” he explained. “It wasn’t members of the New York Times, so much, that were being censored, it was independent media, it was right-wing media… it was not the mainstream media so the mainstream media didn’t cover it.”
Taibbi said he discovered that a number of major institutions had begun to monitor and manipulate news and opinion not because that information might not have been true, but to label it as “disinformation” for simply running counter to establishment narratives.
The press now saw its job as protecting and promoting establishment narratives. Even if they weren’t true.
“Moreover, reporters who got things wrong about the prevalence of things like Russian bots, for instance, or the Hunter Biden story,” he said. “I wasn’t a Donald Trump supporter. I’ve been a Democrat most of my life but the reporters got that one wrong. Even Twitter knew that they got it wrong when they suppressed that story.”
“There was no punishment for getting huge stories wrong anymore. It’s just not part of our business model,” Taibbi said.
Taibbi said he discovered plans that reporters were even training to lie in coordination with one another.
“We found things like preparations for something they called the ‘Aspen Tabletop Exercise’ where the Aspen Institute gathered a whole bunch of reporters from the biggest news organizations in the country and prepared them for what they called a ‘Burisma hack and leak episode,” he said. “This is before the Hunter Biden story broke.”
“They were actually preparing on how to soften or non-cover the story in advance,” Taiibi marveled. “And the remarkable things about that for me, in looking at this and seeing the list of the names of the people that were there. There were names from the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, Politico, was the absolute security these reporters must have had that none of the others would tell on each other.”
He added, “For being in this situation and preparing, basically, to kill a story or cover up a story. They have to see themselves as no longer separate from government. They don’t see themselves as a check on power, they saw themselves as part of it.”
Taibbi even said they had a name for this new “journalism.”
“There was one reporter at The Guardian in London who called this approach to news, the ‘shared endeavor’ approach,” Taibbi said. “Which is where people who used to be checks on each other, NGOs, members of government, the news media, instead of all kind of watching each other.”
“They were all part of the same team,” he said.
What do you do as a journalist who’s trying to do the right thing, when the old rules and standards of a free society and the values that support it are being discarded rapidly and replaced by a burgeoning authoritarianism?
This speech was not the first time Taibbi has explained the danger of rising and insistent illiberalism among the establishment class. His Twitter Files testimony before Congress earlier this year was met mostly with derision and scorn—for him.
He was describing a problem. They said he was the problem.
Like a house on fire, Matt Taibbi was trying to tell them that the most basic concepts of free speech and a free press were being set ablaze in the United States. What were they—what were we—going to do?
The establishment’s reply was WORSE than just ‘so?’
It was, ‘GOOD!’