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Journalists Start Demanding Substack Censor its Writers: to Bar Critiques of Journalists

This new political battle does not break down along left v. right lines. This is an information war waged by corporate media to silence any competition or dissent.

By Glenn Greenwald

March 12, 2021 "Information Clearing House" -  On Wednesday, I wrote about how corporate journalists, realizing that the public’s increasing contempt for what they do is causing people to turn away in droves, are desperately inventing new tactics to maintain their stranglehold over the dissemination of information and generate captive audiences. That is why journalists have bizarrely transformed from their traditional role as leading free expression defenders into the the most vocal censorship advocates, using their platforms to demand that tech monopolies ban and silence others.

That same motive of self-preservation is driving them to equate any criticisms of their work with “harassment,” “abuse” and “violence” — so that it is not just culturally stigmatized but a banning offense, perhaps even literally criminal, to critique their journalism on the ground that any criticism of them places them “in danger.” Under this rubric they want to construct, they can malign anyone they want, ruin people’s reputations, and unite to generate hatred against their chosen targets, but nobody can even criticize them.

Any independent platform or venue that empowers other journalists or just ordinary citizens to do reporting or provide commentary outside of their repressive constraints is viewed by them as threats to be censored and destroyed. Every platform that enables any questioning of their pieties or any irreverent critiques of mainstream journalism — social media sites, YouTube, Patreon, Joe Rogan’s Spotify program — has already been systematically targeted by corporate journalists with censorship demands, often successfully.

Back in November, the media critic Stephen Miller warned: “It’s only a matter of time before the media tech hall monitors turn their attention to Substack.” And ever since, in every interview I have given about the success of Substack and every time I have written about journalist-led censorship campaigns, I have echoed that warning that they would soon turn their united guns on this platform. Miller’s prediction was prompted by a Columbia Journalism Review article entitled “The Substackerati” which claimed that Substack was structurally unfair because “most” of “the most successful people on Substack” are “white and male; several are conservative” and “have already been well-served by existing media power structures.”

All of that was false. The most-read and highest-earning writer on Substack is Heather Cox Richardson, a previously obscure Boston College History Professor who built her own massive readership without ever working at a corporate media outlet. And the writers that article identified in support of its claim — Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias and myself — do not remotely owe our large readerships to “existing media power structures.” The opposite is true, as The Washington Post’s Megan McCardle explained:

[These Substack writers] got so big by starting blogs that they could sell to traditional publications. They are not monetizing an audience they acquired through larger institutions, but reclaiming one they created themselves…. [O]bviously, one major characteristic of the successful one (wo)man show is the ability to swim against a crowd. Given that, it seems almost obvious that Substack would select people who are not in tune with the dominant views of the establishment media. And that the biggest audience numbers will come from folks who are not in tune with the establishment media….

That is precisely why they are so furious. They cannot stand the fact that journalists can break major stories and find an audience while maintaining an independent voice, critically questioning rather than obediently reciting the orthodoxies that bind them and, most of all, without playing their infantile in-group games and submitting to their hive-mind decrees. In fact, the more big stories you break while maintaining your independence from them, the more intense is the contempt they harbor for you: that explains, among other things, their willingness to watch Julian Assange (who has broken more major stories than all of them combined) be imprisoned for publishing documents.

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That they are angry and upset is irrelevant. It only matters because these resentments and fears that they are losing their monopolistic power over public thought are translating into increasingly concerted and effective censorship campaigns.

As it turns out, we did not have to wait long for the initiation of the censorship campaign aimed at Substack. It has arrived. And amazingly, the trigger for it was my criticism of the work of a front-page New York Times reporter which, as I wrote yesterday, is — like all criticisms of journalists in Good Standing and Decent Liberal Society — being recast as “abuse” and “harassment” and “violence” in order to justify the banning and outlawing of that criticism.

A long-time tech reporter at BuzzFeed who was fired by that outlet in June for serial plagiarism, Ryan Broderick, wrote an article on Wednesday night warning that Substack is now dangerously providing a platform to a “cadre of writers” which, in addition to me, includes such societal menaces as “Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Jesse Singal, and, I’d argue, Slate Star Codex writer Scott Alexander Siskind.” He darkly notes: “There are more.” This group of writers, he says, is “focusing on culture war Twitter drama about being ‘canceled’ and trans people in bathrooms and woke college students.”

Broderick detailed how he had carefully reviewed a prior article of mine, one that examined the emergence of “tattletale culture” in the country’s largest corporate media outlets, to determine — like the good little diligent junior-high hall monitor that he is — whether it ran afoul of Substack’s terms of service rules against “doxing” and “harassment.”

That article of mine was devoted to a critique of the prevailing journalistic practices at the most powerful and influential media corporations on the planet: The New York Times, CNN, and NBC News. But to Broderick, whether that article should be banned on the grounds of harassment is a close call. While reluctantly conceding that I did not “dox” anyone, he called the article “a vicious screed” and said that the danger signs from my critiques of corporate journalists are clear: “online harassment is a constantly evolving process of boundary testing.” He lamented that Substack’s terms of service are too permissive (“One thing that worried me was how simplistic their definition of harassment was”) and insisted that Substack is soon going to have to step in and put a stop to this:

Right now most of the abuse being carried out by this group is confined to Twitter, but it stands to reason that it will eventually spill over to Substack. And dealing with people like Greenwald is going to be much harder to moderate than your average troll.

[Please permit me to pause here just a moment and marvel at the towering irony that a journalist who spent years at BuzzFeed doing absolutely nothing of value and then got fired for serial plagiarism (again: he got fired for ethical breaches by BuzzFeed) is now, with a straight face, holding himself out as the Guardian and Defender of Real Journalism. Even more amazingly, he believes he is fulfilling that role by demanding that I — not a journalist but just a “troll” who is the enemy of Real Journalism despite having more impactful scoops and journalism awards and, as I detailed yesterday, resulting persecution campaigns from governments than all of these petulant fragile babies combined — be silenced in the name of saving journalism and protecting real reporters like him and his friends from harassment].

In case Broderick’s article was not explicit enough in his demand that Substack start censoring me and others, he took to Twitter to promote his article, where he made that even clearer. He described his article this way: “I wrote about the attacks against @TaylorLorenz and the growing community of right-wing culture warriors and TERFs that are using Substack to network and organize.”

Multiple other journalists, professors and even a Google Vice President applauded his censorship calls. Here, for instance, is journalist Mike Masnick of Techdirt adding his own censorship calls to Broderick’s (see correction below):

And here is Google’s Vice President of Privacy Product Management, Rob Leathern, who previously was a Facebook official, sternly decreeing that any “serious” business needs to silence voices that are disruptive or upsetting:

And here is UCLA Professor of Information Studies Dr. Sarah Roberts, who last month posted an unbelievably deranged rant urging people not to subscribe to or write for Substack because it is, in her words, “dangerous,” adding her voice to this orgy of censorship calls for Substack writers:

Before briefly discussing the censorship aspects of all this — I basically do not need to do much since I peremptorily described it all in yesterday’s article that prompted all this upset — I do feel compelled to note two points.

First, look how they grant themselves license to use their platforms to attack the journalists they dislike and generate hatred and harassment toward us. I really need someone to explain this to me: why is it permissible for Ryan Broderick to write articles attacking me and maligning my work, and for New York Times front-page reporter Taylor Lorenz to use her large Twitter platform and recruit all her media friends to attack me as well (or Taibbi, Weiss, Singal, Sullivan, etc.), but we are not allowed to write critiques of their work because doing so constitutes dangerous harassment that must be silenced?

Do you see how these online journalists have been taught to think about themselves and the world? Do you see the bottomless sense of entitlement and self-regard and fragility that defines who they are and how they behave? They specialize in trying to ruin people’s reputations and wreck their lives — not just other journalists but private citizens — but the minute someone objects to their journalism or what they say or do, they summon a team of teachers, psychologists, therapy dogs, digital police officers and tech executives to demand that their critics be silenced and their anguish be treated. They really do believe that the world should be organized so as to authorize them to attack whoever they want, while banning anyone who criticizes them when they do it.

In the last three weeks alone, my name has trended three times on Twitter because a bunch of journalists and other activists were sufficiently angry with views I expressed that they united and maligned me enough to make Twitter’s algorithms put my name on the trending list. And that is completely fine. I know that I have sought out a public platform. I know I do reporting and express views and analysis that makes others angry and generates intense disagreement. The result is that many journalists use their social media platforms and columns to attack me — and that’s how it should be. It would never occur to me to crawl to authorities and beg them to be silenced so that I am protected from the bile and threats that I receive as a result (the most I do is write things like this to mock their censorious mindset and satirically apply their own warped standards to them; but because this kind of outlandish whining is so common in their world — indeed, it is honored — they cannot even recognize it as satire).

And that’s to say nothing of the actual recriminations, state-sponsored attacks, and credible threats of violence that have been and still are directed at me and my family by actually repressive governments and their followers for the reporting I have done. That’s one reason I have nothing but contempt for the pathetic efforts of these influential journalists to cast themselves as victims of harassment campaigns — by which they mean being criticized — when I and so many other real journalists have endured and continue to endure retaliation greater than what their coddled, fragile brains could even ponder let alone have to endure.

Second, the way Broderick lies about my work — “focusing on culture war Twitter drama about being ‘canceled’ and trans people in bathrooms and woke college students” — is worthy of a quick response. That is because journalistic lies should always be refuted (which is why people write about Taylor Lorenz and others like her) but also because it reveals what they think “journalism” is and is not.

Any even casual reader of mine knows that I have rarely if ever even mentioned let alone focused on “trans people in bathrooms” or “woke college students” in the reporting and analysis I do here. Here are the last four articles I wrote prior to yesterday’s:

Again, these are not four aberrational articles I cherry-picked to make a point. They just happen to be the last four articles I wrote here. I could have chosen — in the four months I’ve been writing here — my reporting on efforts in Congress and security state agencies to institute a new Domestic War on Terror, an interview with a French Muslim civil liberties activist warning of French President Marcon’s increasing repression, the ongoing militarization of the American capital, the abuse of tech monopoly power and political influence to destroy a new social media platform, the case for pardoning NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the threats to press freedom posed by Julian Assange’s prosecution, growing U.S./Russia tensions, the dangers of military rather than civilian control over the Pentagon, the noble challenge posed to hedge funds by GameStop Redditors, how and why the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is being blocked, systemic flaws in the U.S. vote-counting process, and on and on and on. And that’s to say nothing of the years of reporting and investigation I have been doing and still am doing on the various abuses of the industrial agriculture and factory farm industry.

Does my actual work bear any remote resemblance to the way The Serial Plagiarist characterized what I do? Of course not. So many of these journalists are completely unmoored from any ethical constraints or obligations of truth. When they are writing about the enemies of their media clique, they feel completely free to outright lie about people in order to malign them (in between demanding censorship of those they claim spread “disinformation”).

As for Broderick’s claim that I am now a “right-wing culture warrior,” that would come as quite a surprise to many people, including The New York Times’ Brazil reporters in 2020 (“Mr. Greenwald, an ardent critic of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a deeply polarizing figure in Brazil, where his work is lionized by leftists and condemned as partisan and heavy handed by officials in the Bolsonaro administration”); former Brazilian center-left Presidents Lula da Silva (“Greenwald’s investigation was key to demonstrating how Operation Car Wash violated my legal and human rights”) and Dilma Rousseff (“Glenn Greenwald has helped secure Brazilian democracy by revealing the truth about our country's recent history, which makes this book indispensable”); Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose 2018 candidacy I vocally supported when few in media even knew who she was, along with former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and deposed Bolivian president Evo Morales, both of whom I have interviewed, defended and supported in various ways. What strange things for a “right-wing cultural warrior” to do.

But that is what is so revealing about this. The reason these little hall monitors do not consider this to be “real reporting” is because they do not care about — except when they venerate — real power centers like security state agencies (CIA/FBI/NSA/DHS) or the Pentagon, Wall Street hedge funds, Silicon Valley monopolies, repressive regimes. They think “reporting” means writing what those agencies and power centers tell them to say, or ruining the reputations of people for saying bad words on 4Chan and expressing prohibited thoughts with Facebook memes and Clubhouse chats. That is all they recognize as journalism; everything else is “harassment” because real reporting makes the lives of elites and people who wield real influence more difficult (and in those rare cases when they do focus on people with real power, it’s to expose them for trivial transgressions like saying the word “retarded” in the context of discussing Redditors’ attacks on hedge fund power).

This use of “right v. left” here is also quite important. In the war of information they have launched — to ensure that control over discourse rests solely in their hands and that everyone who dissents from their pieties be silenced or “moderated” — those traditional left/right labels have no real currency or cogency. That is why this Serial Plagiarist can refer to me as a “right-wing culture warrior” despite everything I have done and believe and have it not be regarded as bizarre by his media comrades. That is the stunted, blinkered prism on which they rely to make sense of the world.

But it has no applicability to the world they are creating, the information battle they are waging. The real division here is between those who believe in a free internet, free discourse, free thought, and those who do not — between those who want corporate journalistic elites to control what people can say and think and those who do not. Some of those who support that authoritarian vision of centralized information control are on what used to be called the left and some are found on the establishment right. But that is not the relevant breakdown. It is really a war between liberty and authoritarianism, and amazingly, it is journalists who have become the leading proponents of repression.

That is why platforms like this one that empower independent thinkers and critically-minded dissidents from their in-group repression are so vital: it is what enables a challenge to their hegemony. And they know that it is this important, a threat to their hegemony, or, in the words of Dr. Roberts, “so dangerous.” That is why they are waging war on these platforms and those of us who use them. The way to fight against them and their campaign to stifle dissent is to support these platforms and the independent journalists and commentators who use them.

Correction, Mar. 11, 5:15 p.m. ET: One of the journalists quoted above, Mike Masnick, says he did not intend to express support for Broderick’s censorship calls in the tweet included in this article and, in fact, does not support it. He says he only intended to observe that Substack will soon face these “moderation” pressures and debates, not that it should capitulate to those demands. Apologies for the error in interpretation.


Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times bestselling books on politics and law. His most recent book, “No Place to Hide,” is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to co-founding The Intercept, Greenwald’s column was featured in The Guardian and Salon.

Glenn is one of the three co-founding editors of The Intercept. He left The Intercept in October 2020. https://greenwald.substack.com/ Suscribe to his newsletter

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