Brian Stelter crossed what should be a bright red line for fellow journalists last Sunday. On “Reliable Sources,” the CNN host constructed an earnest argument advocating for technology companies to limit the reach of “liars,” defined by Stelter essentially as Fox News and conservative media.
“Do these private companies have too much power? Sure, and many people would say ‘Yes, of course,'” he said. “But reducing a liar’s reach is not the same as censoring freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is different than freedom of reach. And algorithmic reach is part of the problem.”
“While some cry ‘cancel culture,'” Stelter continued, “let me suggest a different way to think about this: a harm reduction model.”
This is a chilling and creepy statement, nakedly relabeling a noxious concept to make it more palatable. It should be disqualifying for a man in his position.
Perhaps because Stelter and his peers in the corporate media have become accustomed to bossing Silicon Valley’s politically hapless executives around, they forget those same hoodie-wearing oligarchs do not and will not always share their interests. By demanding these corporations wield their algorithms to lower the volume on “liars” now, they’re asking Big Tech to create a system that would ultimately work against them.
Much of the corporate press has dispensed with the indispensable notion that more speech is better than less, so we’re already beyond arguing that point. (See: Politico and Ben Shapiro or The New York Times and Tom Cotton, defined as “bigots” for the crime of their conservatism by much of the staff at both outlets.)
Stelter’s demand of the tech industry assumes they will always accept his flawed definition of “liars” and “disinformation,” which doesn’t seem to involve any of the Russian collusion hoaxers he lavished in praise for years. They most certainly will not always accept his definition, and the pressure he’s exerting on them now will ensure those corporations have powerful systems in place to do their own bidding when Stelter isn’t playing thought cop.
Silicon Valley’s interests involve melting our brains to buy more hoodies. They want money—lots of it—and they’ve spent a decade proving their willingness to hurt the public in pursuit of that goal. When they’ve taken their cues from Stelter and his fellow neoliberal pearl-clutchers in the past, it’s been in the service of public relations which, again, is just about money.
If Stelter thinks that will always be the case, he is sorely mistaken. Then again, the corporate press has been so successful at bullying Big Tech and other industries into disseminating bourgeois progressivism, they lose sight of the 30,000-foot view, which is a sprawling new infrastructure in the hands of irresponsible corporatists built to enforce whatever political narrative they choose.
Stelter’s flavor of media criticism is breathless and without nuance. Sure, it’s progressive, but it’s not really well-argued. It’s just the sort of reflexive outrage over which CNN claims to criticize Fox, but ultimately does better than anyone else.
That’s reason enough not to take Stelter seriously, but at this point, other journalists at legacy outlets should be pushing back hard on the shortsighted policies Stelter is using his platform to sell under the banner of responsible journalism. They are dangerous to the free press and will eventually hurt everyone in media, but also the public that relies on us for information.