When Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter and make it a private company, Twitter’s board of directors responded with a poison pill — and the legacy media responded with a poison pen.
Journalists have contended that Musk’s bid to loosen the social media platform’s speech restrictions represent a threat to the First Amendment, threaten to give billionaires too much control over the media, or even presage the fall of our republic into a totalitarian oligarchy. These unduly emotional responses reveal that the legacy media’s fear is not so much Musk as it is free speech — and losing their ability to create the national narrative.
Elon Musk: ‘Supervillain’ who threatens democracy?
The media greeted Musk’s purchase offer with a full-scale meltdown. “The arsonists are cosplaying as firefighters,” an MSNBC analyst told hair-on-fire host Joy Reid.
Felix Salmon of Axios — allegedly a mainstream news source favored by social media platforms’ algorithms — wrote, “The world’s richest man — someone who used to be compared to Marvel’s Iron Man — is increasingly behaving like a movie supervillain, commanding seemingly unlimited resources with which to finance his mischief-making.”
Others kept their metaphors based in Godwin’s Law. “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany,” wrote Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s journalism school, on April 14.
Fending off incipient fascism requires obliterating free speech, according to Max Boot, a NeverTrump columnist for The Washington Post. He tweeted, “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”
In a column for The Washington Post, Boot wrote, “I am so concerned about what his takeover bid means, not just for Twitter but for our embattled democracy.” (After comparing Elon Musk’s ownership of a social media platform to rising authoritarianism, Boot chided that Musk “traffics in hyperbole.”)
Musk’s bid garnered similar reactions among Canadian journalists, including writers for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, CBC, and other outlets.
I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.
— Max Boot 🇺🇦 (@MaxBoot) April 14, 2022
Who’s afraid of Elon Musk?
This backlash represented something of a change for Elon Musk, who has at times received the celebration of the legacy media. He created electric cars — albeit in a non-unionized setting — which the Left has made a cornerstone of its Green agenda. He embraced (and still embraces) social liberalism. His appreciation for marijuana manifested itself even in his offer to pay Twitter investors $54.20 a share.
But Musk has a libertarian streak that includes the right to freedom of expression, including on social media. “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” Musk wrote in his letter offering to buy Twitter.
Musk, who has described himself as “a free speech absolutist,” specified that this liberty requires viewpoint diversity. “A good sign as to whether there is free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like?” Musk said at a TED talk. “That is the sign of a healthy, functioning free speech situation.”
Musk has said little about how he would change Twitter. His only public poll related to the site’s functionality involved an edit button. But he has said, “We want to be just very reluctant to delete things” and be “very cautious with permanent bans.”
That clashes with the trends of Twitter, which have become increasingly censorious. It banned former President Donald Trump for life over allegations his tweets could incite violence. It stopped users from sharing routine stories about Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ real estate spree on the grounds that the story could endanger her life — although it contained no information doxxing her location. It barred users from sharing information about Hunter Biden’s laptop on the grounds that it revealed personal information — although it allowed The New York Times to share the alleged details of Donald Trump’s private tax returns.
Both sides of these double standards favored the legacy media’s narrative. Musk’s deregulation would not even the scales between the corporate/media/entertainment/political complex and Americans who embrace traditional values, but it would allow them to defend themselves. And that is too much. Musk may be “interested in making the platform more of a wild west of unrestricted speech,” warned Kevin Esterling, a professor of public policy and political science at University of California-Riverside, in the Los Angeles Times.
But aside from favoring the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of the press, the media tried to gin up additional reasons to oppose Musk’s future Twitter purchase.
Reporters oppose billionaires owning media outlets, except for …
CNN’s Brian Stelter seemed to criticize the capitalist system of private media ownership. “There is also a lot of folks out there saying it’s troubling enough that private companies control these key communication platforms around the world, maybe it’s even worse to have the world’s richest person trying to buy one and take it private,” he said on April 14. In the same vein, and on the same day, Business Insider ran a story titled “Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter represents a chilling new threat: billionaire trolls taking over social media.”
But billionaire ownership of the media is hardly new. And judging by their position on the payroll, it seems not to leave journalists ill at ease. To take but a few examples:
- Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post outright, is worth an estimated $171 billion
- The Atlantic is a favorite opinion journal of the elite and often cited on MSNBC. Its majority owner, Lauren Powell Jobs (the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs) is worth an estimated $19.5 billion;
- Bill Gates, who is worth $129 billion, has donated millions to underwrite (read: influence) the coverage of NBCUniversal, CNN, The Financial Times, ProPublica, the Gannett Company, National Public Radio, Al-Jazeera, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, Minnesota Public Radio, and Public Radio International. Gates has spent his billions on foreign news outlets including the BBC, the UK Guardian, France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais, and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Reviewing the amount of Gates’ contributions, the socialist Jacobin website wrote, “Billionaire Bill Gates Uses Money to Shape the Media”; and
- George Soros, whose net worth plummeted to a meager $8.6 billion after he transferred $18 billion to his Open Society Foundations in 2017, has donated his largesse to “more than 180 different media-related organizations,” according to a 2011 Media Research Council report by Dan Gainor.
If billionaire status does not actually offend the journalistic Left, what does? Perhaps Musk’s political donations to some Republicans, including George W. Bush, Kevin McCarthy, Joni Ernst, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio? Possibly, but many businessmen (including our former president) have donated to politicians of both parties — and self-described centrist Musk is no exception.
CNN’s Michael Smerconish reviewed Musk’s bipartisan political donations in a segment dubbed, “Sorry fringe, Musk is not your man.” Musk has made political contributions to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Gavin Newsom, Rahm Emanuel, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
Why are Democrats so afraid of having Twitter run by a Democratic donor?
Free speech? ‘That’s not how big corporate advertisers think’
The visceral threat journalists felt upon the idea that Twitter might loosen the bonds of free speech exposed their deepest motivations. One of them is money and the desire to serve those who dispense it at all costs. “Musk said he would err on the side of leaving up some of the content that Twitter now takes down,” noted NBC News. “But that’s not necessarily how big corporate advertisers think.”
Another reason is their desire to maintain their own reputation by silencing dissent. “With every criticism lobbed at a journalist (or a scientist), Musk reinforces the growing public mistrust of essential institutions seeded by the Donald Trump wing of the GOP,” wrote Erin Biba at The Daily Beast — as if public scientists had not sullied their own reputation over the origins of COVID-19, the efficacy of cloth face masks, and the notion that the COVID-19 vaccination makes transmission of the virus impossible.
It’s as though journalists had not beclowned their profession with years of breathless coverage of President Trump’s purported “collusion” with Russia, fixating on the amount of Diet Coke the former president drank, celebrating the kind of ice cream the current president eats, asking the vice president about her Converse sneakers, and spiking now-verified facts about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Only suppression of the facts can make the legacy media seem competent and professional.
Similarly, journalists have said they go to Twitter to write their stories and communicate with fellow talking heads; they do not want to be subjected to other viewpoints. Axios admitted, “Twitter is where journalists congregate and do a lot of their work, and they really don’t want to be working in Elon Musk’s private playpen.” On April 15, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski implored her guest, the author of the aforementioned Business Insider article, “Are there any ways to stop him if he wants to buy Twitter? Are there any guardrails around something like this? Because this could be a very dangerous precedent.”
The Musk bid dredged up a 2017 clip of Brzezinski discussing another bombastic billionaire’s use of Twitter. “Well and I think that the dangerous, you know, edges here are that he’s trying to undermine the media, trying to make up his own facts. … He can actually control exactly what people think,” she said. “And that is our job.”
Brzezinski tried to retract her words, claiming, “Today I said it’s the media’s job to keep President Trump from making up his own facts, NOT that it’s our job to control what people think.” But the Freudian slip revealed the legacy media’s deepest belief: Shaping your worldview is up to them. The rest of the social media ecosphere has a duty to obey their directives, to feature and suppress stories as media’s ever-changing needs dictate.
“Elon Musk is a threat to this ‘Great Suppression’ that’s been enforced on platforms like [Twitter, Facebook, and] Google & that’s why they don’t want Elon to run Twitter,” tweeted Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton.
If Musk’s offer succeeds, the Great Suppression of the average’s America’s views on social media may be followed by the Great Liberation.