A Letter from Washington
My thoughts on D.C. during Inauguration Week and why Donald Trump isn't being "censored" by Big Tech.
I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.
This is the 63rd issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at email@example.com.
A Letter From Washington
Logan Circle borders the bustle of 14th Street and the hustle of downtown, but it’s a quiet neighborhood. But on Monday afternoon, something was different. What startled me wasn’t anything I heard, rather what I saw: uniformed troops standing around in the park.
About 25 of them were just standing around, not bothering anyone, but they didn’t fit there. Not next to the dog-walkers, the picnickers, the readers, the guys with the boombox, the coffee drinkers, the chatters and the other characters that frequent that park.
It’s troubling, albeit fitting, that this chaotic presidency ends with an enormous military presence in Washington, D.C. For what it’s worth, Military Times reported that there will be twice as many American troops in D.C. as there are currently deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
The president who mocked fallen soldiers as “losers” and “suckers” will be seen out by a military force of incredible size. Trump always wanted a military parade. This is what he gets instead. There’s a cruel poetry in this ending.
It’s the end of an era in Washington, D.C. We can only pray that the transition of power is peaceful, that no one else dies from the insurrection that Trump has egged on by refusing to accept the results of the election. We can only hope that the far-right, rabble-rousing, insurrectionist, white nationalist, live-streaming and QAnon-adhering factions of Trump’s support stay home.
I miss the way Washington’s federal district used to look. I miss the years before Trump when you could walk up to the White House gates, when there wasn’t a giant fence, when streets weren’t blocked off, when you could safely attend an inauguration, when you didn’t have to fear rogue out-out-towners storming the Capitol Building, a sacred place for our country but also a place where your friends and colleagues work.
I miss those days. I hope we can return to something like that.
The next president won’t be perfect. As journalists, it’s not our job to cheerlead for Joe Biden or any politician. But I hope that he will be respectful of the things that truly make America great: Our democracy, our institutions, the Fourth Estate, our freedoms. I hope he protects whistleblowers, fights for hostages, protects immigrants, looks after the poor and the needy and those among us who are marginalized. This one did not.
Be safe this week.
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Five Years Free
Jason Rezaian has been free for five years. The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief, who is now a columnist for the newspaper, left Iran’s Evin Prison five years ago as part of a diplomatic operation engineered by the Obama administration. Jason and his wife Yegi, who was also imprisoned, were held in prison for the simple crime of doing journalism.
We, as journalists and as Americans, are lucky to have them home safe. Congratulations, Jason and Yegi.
Order Jason’s book Prisoner. It’s incredible.
And read my Atlantic interview with him about the book.
Read Jason’s Twitter thread from this weekend, marking the occasion.
Donald Trump Lost Some of His Platforms. He Isn’t Being Censored.
I am getting fairly sick of hearing that Donald Trump is being censored. I cover social media companies for Adweek and, while I’ve only been on the beat and in this job for a year, I have watched these companies for a long time.
For many years, social media companies resisted calling themselves media companies. They were technology companies and, after all, technology companies don’t make editorial decisions, they claimed. That was and still is incorrect. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and any other platform that hosts user-generated content, makes decisions based on what they feel is acceptable. There are a few factors in what makes something acceptable speech on a platform: Is it legal to host this content? Does it follow the site rules that they have established? Is it from a politician or someone else whose views may be newsworthy? Is this something advertisers would want their ads running against or near?
These are some of the many considerations that social media companies consider when approaching user-generated content on their platforms. For years, a chorus of voices, including academics, activists, journalists and some politicians have pointed out consistently that these companies don’t do enough to police their platforms. How often have you heard that Facebook or Twitter host extremist activity, conspiracy theories, anti-vax misinformation, foreign influence operations, or something else alarming? That has certainly been the case over the years.
But, as I have documented in my reporting, 2020 was a different year. With the pandemic raging, the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country and a contentious election looming, the social platforms did more in 2020 to crack down on misinformation and hate speech than they previously did. That meant new rules, but also new enforcement.
Fast forward to January. The presidents words—and his lack thereof—as the Capitol was being ransacked by pro-Trump thugs, triggered the platforms to take concrete action. Eventually every major platform determined that Trump was inciting violence, removed his posts, and suspended him. He’s currently suspended from Facebook, YouTube and Twitch until further notice and he’s permanently banned from Twitter and Snapchat.
It’s important, I feel, to view these decisions as corporate speech. When a private company kicks a politician off its service, that’s not censorship—that’s protected speech. Censorship is the opposite. It’s when a government stops a private company or individual from speaking or orders them to host government speech. “Congress shall make no law…” the First Amendment reads, not “Twitter shall make no law…”
If you feel deeply uncomfortable with Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg making decisions that impact large swaths of speech on the internet, then that’s a competition problem, not a speech problem. Trust me, I share that concern. For what it’s worth, the government is suing Facebook for having a monopoly on social media.
This logic extends to the Parler debate, which I won’t get into too much. But I’m not too concerned with Apple or Google kicking off Parler for having terrible moderation policies—I’m concerned that Apple and Google control closed app ecosystems important for the modern internet. I’m not mad that Amazon kicked off Parler, but perhaps they own too much of the Web hosting and cloud market. The same logic applies to Josh Hawley, who just found a new publisher for his book, despite claiming Simon & Schuster was “censoring” him.
Companies, who have protected speech rights, must be able to make decisions about what is acceptable speech on their platforms free from government interference.
And as for Donald Trump? He’ll be fine. Chances are, he’ll be let back onto Facebook and YouTube. But even if not, he can always find an audience. Get on Reddit or TikTok or Vimeo or Clubhouse or some other platform he hasn’t tried yet. Call into Hannity, talk to reporters, give a speech—I bet cameras will show up.
On Fox News the other day, Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley claimed that Trump could not denounce the Capitol attack more because he doesn’t have a platform. His spokesman said that on Fox News. Think about that one.
Catch me on SiriusXM’s Wharton Business/Marketing Matters on Wednesday talking about this exact topic. 5-6 PM Eastern on SiriusXM 132.
Like this Pressing? It’s a long one, I know. You can share it here:
Axios: Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell (Ursula Perano)
CJR: Indefinite silence: How SAMs imperil press freedom (Aviva Stahl)
The New York Times: Fox Settled a Lawsuit Over Its Lies. But It Insisted on One Unusual Condition. (Ben Smith)
NPR: Voice Of America White House Reporter Reassigned After Questioning Pompeo (David Folkenflik)
The Washington Post: Voice of America journalists demand resignation of news agency’s top leadership (Paul Farhi)
The Washington Post: Laura Poitras says she’s been fired by First Look Media over Reality Winner controversy. Now she’s questioning the company’s integrity. (Sarah Ellison)
Trouble in Washington
AP: Journalists prepare for protests where they could be targets (David Bauder)
Business Insider: 2 men who posed with 'murder the media' scrawled on a Capitol door say they were just there to report for their outlet, Murder the Media (Mia Jankowicz)
The Hill: Journalist accounts, footage suggest they were targeted in Capitol riot (Jordan Williams)
The New York Times: Covering Pro-Trump Mobs, the News Media Became a Target (Tiffany Hsu and Katie Robertson)
Around the World
AP: Kremlin critic Navalny detained after landing in Moscow (Mstyslav Chernov and Jim Heintz)
Middle East Eye: Turkey will not deport journalist Mohammad Mosaed to Iran, sources say (Ragip Soylu)
On the Web
CPJ: Section 230 reform could have unintended consequences for the press (Madeline Earp)
The New York Times: As Trump Clashes With Big Tech, China’s Censored Internet Takes His Side (Li Yuan)
The New York Times: After Barring Trump, Facebook and Twitter Face Scrutiny About Inaction Abroad (Adam Satariano)
Quartz: Social media gave a voice to democracy in Uganda so the government shut it down—again (Geoffrey Ssenoga)
Thanks for reading Pressing today and always. Like what you read and want to support me? Consider donating via a paid subscription here. I’ll see you next Tuesday! Send tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.