Sorry, Tucker. It’s Not Censorship, Just Business.

By  |  February 25, 2021, 4:35 PM

Tucker Carlson has been using his Fox News bully pulpit of late to target what is —in his mind — a tech-billionaire cabal that wants to silence free speech from the political right. According to Carlson, the post-insurrection moves by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon to take away Donald Trump’s digital hate megaphone is part of a vast left-wing, totalitarian conspiracy, aided and abetted by CNN, The New York Times and the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post

This is primetime red meat for the raging Trump crowd, eager to find targets for their collective rage in the wake of Trump’s humiliating defeat. 

Recently, Carlson offered a nine-minute rant about his imagined left-wing conspiracy, depicting Bezos as a puppet master in cahoots with Google and Democratic Party leaders, all committed to shoehorning the nation into groupthink on everything from vaccine safety to gun control to reproductive rights.  This “Red Guard will not rest,” Carlson proclaimed, until it has managed to silence all voices of dissent. And, he added, what scares this “Red Guard” most is Fox News, the last bastion of the ultra-right’s ability to spew freely without fear or favor.

Carlson was responding to a growing number of voices, including prominent op-ed columnists at The New York Times and The Washington Post who have suggested that consumers should pressure cable systems to make Fox News a separately-paid premium channel — like HBO or Showtime —  instead of part of basic cable packages, as it is now. The threat of some permutation of that happening is getting closer, with House Democrats demanding a response from cable, telecom and satellite companies about what part they may have played in spreading disinformation by carrying Fox News and its Fox wannabe competitors.  Columnists such as the Post’s Max Boot, the Times’ Nicholas Kristof and other Fox News critics are also pushing consumers to boycott advertisers who support the Murdoch news machine. 

“If you buy a basic cable package, you’re forced to pay about $20 a year for Fox News,” noted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a recent column. “You may deplore bigots and promoters of insurrection, but you help pay their salaries.”  (What cable systems pay Fox News for carriage is in fact among the highest for any network.) Left-leaning Media Matters is now running an organized campaign called UnFoxMyCableBox.

Another target of  Carlson’s ire is Post columnist and CNN contributor Max Boot. Boot has referred to Carlson as “the most dangerous man in America” since Trump decamped for Mar-A-Lago, because Carlson continues to spread the ex-President’s falsehoods on election fraud and dangerous nonsense like evidence-free skepticism about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Predictably, this prompted not only Carlson, but also Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham to push even harder on the supposed First Amendment narrative they have been spewing against Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Don’t believe it. What’s actually going on has been true since Gutenberg started cranking out religious screeds.

Pick your information platform. Doesn’t matter whether it’s The Wall Street Journal, The Times, CNN, or the local 6 o’clock news. What voices get heard depends on who is in charge, always. Rupert Murdoch and his capos decide who gets to spew during Fox News primetime, just like corporate masters at AT&T are ultimately the gatekeepers of who does the ceaseless pro-Biden jawboning on CNN. Likewise, whoever calls the shots at Comcast, Verizon or any other cable system has the power to say yay or nay to what goes on their platforms.

That doesn’t sound like censorship; it sounds like typical capitalism to me. 

Sure, those on the extreme right might rightly say they are being shown the digital exit because the Democrats are in charge, and that these media behemoths fear regulation and antitrust actions from the government.

Where those on the right get wrong, however, is that this is not left-leaning politics. It’s all about the Benjamins.  Money was the reason the social media oligopoly — Facebook in particular —went out of their way to curry favor with Trump and his fellow insurrectionists until the dethroned fake billionaire and his GOP congressional enablers got voted out of power. (For reference, read the recent Buzzfeed expose, “‘Mark Changed The Rules’: How Facebook Went Easy on Alex Jones and Other Right-Wing Figures.”)

The deplatforming of Trump and a now-increased tendency to police QAnon believers and like-minded compatriots who trade in dangerous conspiracy nonsense and falsehoods does underline the tremendous power wielded by the tech oligopoly.  With Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, it is certainly time to take a look at comprehensive regulations to govern these platforms. It’s well within reason to suggest a hard antitrust look at Amazon, Google and Facebook, too.  Several prominent Democrats, most notably U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are proposing as much — although you’d never know it from watching those spewing digital conspiracy theories on Fox News. They’d all have you believe the Democrats are taking marching orders from Bezos, Zuckerberg and their Silicon Valley billionaire pals.

All these companies could have taken the actions they took in January long ago. Had the deplatforming happened when it should have, we might never have seen the failed January 6 insurrection.  Clearly, the tech oligopoly put profits first and our democracy last, and that had a disastrous impact. I can’t help but think that had the digital nationalist firehose been shut off earlier, the five people who died in the failed insurrection might all still be with us. Our democracy would be healthier today if this digital oligopoly had banned Trump, the Proud Boys and their QAnon pals after Charlottesville. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen back then, because Trump, the all powerful Evil Orange Oz, was driving so much traffic and thus money into these social media fiefdoms.

Out of power, in retreat at Mar-a-Lago and facing a host of legal woes, Trump stopped being guaranteed box-office gold, and more importantly, no longer posed a regulatory threat. What we saw after January 6 wasn’t some altruistic, pro-democracy epiphany from the tech oligopoly, Neither was it, whatever Carlson and his Fox News amen-chorus might say, some socialist conspiracy designed to take away our First Amendment rights.

The tech behemoths were doing what they always do: making decisions based on what was best for the bottom line.  

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