If you want to understand how internet cancel culture is creeping into the news media and eroding civil society, look no further than the Bloomberg debacle yesterday.
Here’s what happened. Bloomberg reporter Ben Penn disingenuously portrayed a Facebook post from 2016 by Trump Labor Department appointee Leif Olson as anti-Semitic. For some reason, Labor officials took this seriously and immediately fired Olson. Penn then published his “scoop” about “Olson’s anti-Semitic post.”
But the post wasn’t at all anti-Semitic. Quite the opposite. It was clearly mocking anti-Semitism, specifically Paul Nehlen, an alt-right candidate—and actual anti-Semite—who challenged Paul Ryan in the GOP primary and lost by 70 points. Hence Olson’s on-the-nose sarcasm about how Ryan “just suffered a massive, historic, emasculating 70-point victory. Let’s see him and his Georgetown cocktail-party puppetmasters try to walk that one off.” No one in his right mind would construe this as anti-Semitic.
But we’re not in our right minds these days. Not only did Penn see nothing wrong with scouring a decade’s worth of Facebook posts to find something he thought might be controversial in hopes it would get Olson fired, he then defended his calumny, repeating on Twitter, as a matter of fact, that Olson was engaged in anti-Semitism. He also let his “objective reporter” mask slip a little when, in response to mounting criticism from right and left, he tweeted this:
Lost in all of this is that Olson was part of a team of political appointees tasked with the heavy lift of drafting wage-hour regulations that are high priorities for Trump White House, business community. They're now down one adviser. https://t.co/PZbIScDHqe
— Ben Penn (@benjaminpenn) September 3, 2019
In other words, Penn admitted the entire point of his reporting was to get a Trump appointee fired. In the article, Penn explained that Olson was part of the administration’s efforts to draft wage-hour regulations, which, one assumes, Penn opposes on ideological grounds. That’s probably why Penn was combing through Olson’s Facebook history in the first place. He later tweeted that the entire episode is “the latest in a series of mishaps under the Trump administration personnel vetting system”—in this case, a “mishap” orchestrated by Penn himself.
For its part, Bloomberg issued a statement to Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, saying, “We stand by our reporting. We contacted the White House and the Department of Labor asking for comment on Mr. Olson’s Facebook posts. Within four hours, the Department of Labor responded that Mr. Olson had resigned.”
Journalism As Cancel Culture Is On the Rise
The entire affair is like the real-life version of Snopes pretending the Babylon Bee isn’t satire. Snopes has repeatedly “fact-checked” the Christian satire site under the pretense that some people, when presented with paraphrased Babylon Bee stories stripped of context, don’t realize it’s satire.
The difference, in this case, is that a man lost his job—a man who by all accounts is an honest and upstanding professional, and certainly not an anti-Semite. Maybe Penn and his editors are just really dim-witted and didn’t understand that Olson was sarcastically making fun of alt-righters.
More likely, the anti-Semitism smear was a crude (and idiotic) pretext. Indeed, the motive for Penn’s hit job is right there the opening sentence of his report, which describes Olson as an official “with a history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court.” That’s his real crime. The intentional misconstruing of his Facebook post was just the mechanism of punishment for what is, to Penn and his Bloomberg editors, the ideological crime of being a conservative.
This is the heart of the matter. Beyond this one appalling circumstance, we see this sort of thing more and more in the public square. Anything published on social media that might be construed as offensive, with or without context, is used as cudgel to silence or punish one’s ideological opponents. This cancel culture is what Dave Chappelle so brilliantly mocked in his recent Netflix special when he impersonated his intolerant and humorless audience:
Wow ok. Dave Chappelle's impressions are spot on.
Sticks & Stones is streaming now! pic.twitter.com/zD9BBQsGdj
— Netflix Is A Joke (@NetflixIsAJoke) August 26, 2019
No Wonder We’re Losing Confidence In the Press
Unfortunately, internet cancel culture is becoming part of mainstream newsroom culture. Recall the outrage mob that descended on the Covington Catholic students earlier this year when a video of a teenager in a MAGA hat allegedly “smirking” at a Native American activist banging a drum in his face went viral. Almost immediately, major media outlets and journalists piled on, condemning the supposedly racist students and in some cases wishing them harm.
The incident has prompted several lawsuits. A $250-million suit filed against the Washington Post was dismissed in July by a federal judge. But last month, eight other unnamed Covington students filed a libel lawsuit against a dozen public figures who made defamatory comments on social media, including New York Times columnist Maggie Haberman, erstwhile CNN commentator Reza Aslan, and the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones.
Although these lawsuits might all get dismissed, these journalists and media organizations have reason to be concerned. As my Federalist colleague Mark Hemingway noted in February, news outlets and reporters have traditionally enjoyed very wide latitude in the name of protecting freedom of speech. But with the advent of social media and the privacy concerns that come with mass digital media, things are changing.
“Far from endorsing a maximalist vision of what journalists are allowed to get away with,” writes Hemingway, “relevant court decisions have trended toward winnowing the definition of what journalists are allowed to print.”
The more that news outlets like Bloomberg and reporters like Penn hide their ideologically motivated attacks behind the pretense of “reporting the news,” the more likely it will be that they will face legal consequences. Much worse, for the rest of us, will be the effects of a total loss of confidence in the free press.