Journalists Attack the Powerless, Then Self-Victimize to Bar Criticisms of Themselves
Powerful media figures now invoke sexist and racist tropes to cast themselves as so fragile and marginalized that critiques of their work constitute bullying and assault.
The daily newspaper USA Today is the second-most circulated print newspaper in the United States — more than The New York Times and more than double The Washington Post. Only The Wall Street Journal has higher circulation numbers.
On Sunday, the paper published and heavily promoted a repellent article complaining that “defendants accused in the Capitol riot Jan. 6 crowdfund their legal fees online, using popular payment processors and an expanding network of fundraising platforms, despite a crackdown by tech companies.” It provided a road map for snitching on how these private citizens — who are charged with serious felonies by the U.S. Justice Department but as of yet convicted of nothing — are engaged in “a game of cat-and-mouse as they spring from one fundraising tool to another” in order to avoid bans on their ability to raise desperately needed funds to pay their criminal lawyers to mount a vigorous defense.
In other words, the only purpose of the article — headlined: “Insurrection fundraiser: Capitol riot extremists, Trump supporters raise money for lawyer bills online” — was to pressure and shame tech companies to do more to block these criminal defendants from being able to raise funds for their legal fees, and to tattle to tech companies by showing them what techniques these indigent defendants are using to raise money online.
The USA Today reporters went far beyond merely reporting how this fundraising was being conducted. They went so far as to tattle to PayPal and other funding sites on two of those defendants, Joe Biggs and Dominic Pezzola, and then boasted of their success in having their accounts terminated:
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Biggs fundraiser was listed as having received $52,201. Pezzola had received $730. Biggs' campaign disappeared from the site shortly after USA TODAY inquired about it….
Friday, a USA TODAY reporter donated to Pezzola's fundraiser using Stripe. Stripe told USA TODAY it does not comment on individual users. A USA TODAY reporter was able to make a $1 donation to Pezzola's fundraiser using Venmo, a payment app owned by PayPal. After being alerted by USA TODAY, Venmo removed the account.
Soon a PayPal account took its place. PayPal caught that and removed it, too.
Wow, what brave and intrepid journalistic work: speaking truth to power and standing up to major power centers by . . . working as little police officers for tech giants to prevent private citizens from being able to afford criminal lawyers. Clear the shelves for the imminent Pulitzer. Whatever you think about the Capitol riot, everyone has the right to a legal defense and to do what they can to ensure they have the best legal defense possible — especially when the full weight of the Justice Department is crashing down on your head even for non-violent offenses, which is what many of these defendants are charged with due to the politically charged nature of the investigation.
The right to a vigorous defense has always been a central cause of mine as a lawyer and a journalist (it also used to be a central cause of left-wing groups like the ACLU, years ago; it was that same principle that caused then-candidate Kamala Harris to solicit donations last summer that went to protesters charged with violent rioting). A federal prosecutor was recently referred for disciplinary procedures for publicly threatening to charge some of these Capitol protesters with sedition, one of the gravest crimes in the U.S. Code. That is how grave the legal jeopardy is faced by these people trying to raise money for lawyers.
What makes all of this extra grotesque is that, as The Washington Post reported, most of those charged with various crimes in connection with the January 6 Capitol riot, including many whose charges stem just from their presence inside the Capitol, not the use of any violence, are people with serious financial difficulties: not surprising for a country in the middle of a major economic and joblessness crisis, where neoliberalism and global trade deals have destroyed entire industries and communities for decades:
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories. . . . The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
This USA Today article is thus yet another example of journalists at major media outlets abusing their platforms to attack and expose anything other than the real power centers which compose the ruling class and govern the U.S.: the CIA, the FBI, security state agencies, Wall Street, Silicon Valley oligarchs. To the extent these journalists pay attention to those entities at all — and they barely ever do — it is to venerate them and mindlessly disseminate their messaging like stenographers, not investigate them. Investigating people who actually wield real power is hard.
Instead, the primary target of the Trump-era media has become private citizens and people who wield no power, yet who these media outlets believe must have their lives ruined because they have adopted the wrong political ideology. So many corporate journalists now use their huge megaphones to humiliate and wreck the lives of ordinary private citizens who they judge to have bad political opinions (meaning: opinions that deviate from establishment liberalism orthodoxies which these media outlets exist to enforce).
We have seen this over and over. CNN confronted an old woman on the front lawn of her Florida home for the crime of having used her little Facebook page to promote a pro-Trump event they claimed was engineered by Russians. The same network threatened to expose the identity of another private citizen who created an anti-CNN meme unless he begged and promised not to do it again. HuffPost doxed the real-life name of an anonymous critic of Islam (whose spouted views I find repellent) and triggered a boycott of her family’s business.
Just last week, The Daily Beast decided to expose the identity of a private citizen at Spring Break in Miami and detail his marital and legal problems because a video of him went viral due to his being dressed as the Joker and uttering “COVID truther” phrases. The same outlet congratulated itself for unearthing and exposing the real name of an African-American Facebook user whose crime was posting videos mocking Nancy Pelosi.
My principal critique of the contemporary media posture — and my governing view of the real purpose of journalism — is summarized by this:
But increasingly, the largest corporate media platforms are used to punish ideological dissent and thought crimes by powerless, private citizens. They do not criticize or investigate real power centers, but serve them. And what makes it worse — so, so much worse — is that, as they assault, dox and harass private citizens, these journalistic bullies depict themselves as the real marginalized people, as those who are so fragile, voiceless, powerless, and vulnerable that criticizing them is tantamount to bullying, harassment, and violence.
This new journalistic tactic of weaponizing and misappropriating the language of marginalization, abuse, harassment and oppression and applying it to themselves — all to render any criticism of their work a form of assault and abuse — is one I have written about several times before. The last time was when a major front-page reporter at the most influential paper in the country, The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz, got caught lying twice in six weeks, and those (such as myself) who criticized her for it — who criticized her journalism for the Paper of Record — were branded toxic, misogynistic bullies who were inciting dangerous hate mobs against her. And thus was criticism of this powerful journalist somehow manipulatively converted into an act of morally reprehensible harassment.
What these journalists are doing is as transparent as it is tawdry. They insist that you not treat them as what they are: people who wield extreme power and influence to shape political discourse, widely disseminate disinformation, wreck people’s reputations, expose the identity of private citizens, and propagandize the public. No, increasingly they are demanding that you treat them as exactly the opposite: the most marginalized, vulnerable, endangered and fragile members of society whose standing is so tenuous that publicly criticizing them should be barred as an act of violence, and those expressing critiques of their work must be consequently shunned as harassers and abusers.
This is the demented framework that allowed CNN’s coddled, blow-dried, manicured and pedicured millionaire TV personality Jim Acosta, with a straight face, to write an entire book casting himself on the cover as someone in danger. What enabled Jim Acosta of all people to cast himself as a victim, to the point where so many liberals bought this book that it ended up on The New York Times bestseller list? He was criticized by the President and his supporters for his journalism. That’s it.
And just like that, the real victims in America are not the jobless or the homeless or residents of addiction-ravaged communities or victims of violent crime but, instead, the rich, famous TV personalities for CNN. This is the fictitious melodrama — with themselves cast as the stars — that they are demanding you ingest to treat them with deference and respect.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve been harshly criticized for my journalism for years. I was publicly attacked in deeply personal ways by the President of Brazil many times, and endlessly slandered by his movement. That’s not fun, but it is also not persecution. What is real persecution is being prosecuted or imprisoned or threatened with prison for your reporting. Real persecution is what is being done to Julian Assange. Criticism, even harsh criticism, comes with the territory: the cost of the immense privilege of having a public platform to shape debate. If you do not want to be criticized or called names, don’t become a journalist or seek out public platforms.
Sunday’s USA Today article which tried to destroy the ability of these criminal defendants to raise donations for their legal fees contained the names of three journalists in its byline. The lead reporter — the one who the paper’s editors put first, Brenna Smith — took to Twitter to boast of this monumental journalistic exposé. After I saw several commenters criticizing the story, I added my own critiques of this story:
Brenna T. Smith @brenna__smithMy *first* story with USA Today: Defendants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot continue to crowdfund their legal fees online using popular payment processors despite a growing crackdown from tech companies. https://t.co/KpegKiOmzL
Note that the critique I voiced is about the reporting she had just published in one of the largest and most influential newspapers in the country. I also engaged the journalist whose name was listed last — a person named Will Carless — in a lengthy discussion expressing similar criticisms.
My criticism of Carless, a white straight male listed last on the byline, attracted no criticism for some reason. But my criticism of Smith, the lead reporter, caused such an explosion of indignation and rage from the corporate media class that it caused my name to trend on Twitter (yet again) as a dastardly online villain: that’s how grave my moral transgression was.
What was my moral offense here? According to these media mavens and the self-serving, manipulative framework they are trying to implant, I did not voice criticisms of a piece of journalism in one of the most influential newspapers in the country. Instead — in their hands — they converted it, just as they did with criticisms of Lorenz, into a narrative in which I bullied a poor, fragile, young lady who is too weak and too vulnerable to handle public critique.
They emphasized that she is just an intern: in their eyes the equivalent of a high school junior — even though she has a long history of writing deranged articles for the U.S.-Government-funded Bellingcat and was, at least in the view of her editors, competent and professional enough to be the lead reporter on what they treated as a major news story designed to harm the lives of numerous private citizens. If she is “merely an intern,” then why is she listed as the lead reporter on a major news story? And if her editors determine that she is capable of fulfilling that role, then you can’t simultaneously demand she be treated like a young debutante off-limits from critique.
Do you see what they are doing here? They are working to create a moral framework where it is always impermissible to criticize their journalism, no matter how shoddy, deceitful and amoral it is. They constantly concoct reasons why the journalist in question is too marginalized and too vulnerable to legitimately criticize. They are all apparently competent and sophisticated enough to be trusted to byline news reporting in major corporate outlets — and we must treat them as tough, talented professionals when it comes time to deference due — but we are then simultaneously instructed that they are not mature or strong enough to endure criticisms of that work. If she had not been an intern, they still would have decreed criticisms of her off limits on the ground that any criticism will stoke misogynistic abuse: after all, Lorenz is a borderline-middle-aged reporter, not an intern, but that is how criticisms of her are delegitimized.
What is even more remarkable is how these liberal media figures invoke the most long-standing sexist, racist and homophobic tropes to erect this shield of immunity around themselves that they demand you honor. Look at how they transformed this journalist from what I see her as and what she is — an adult professional reporter who has sufficiently risen in the profession to byline a major story in a national newspaper — into an offensive sexist caricature straight out of the 1950s. In their manipulative hands, she — like Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times — becomes not a professional adult journalist but just a fragile little china doll who cannot withstand any critiques.
A senior USA Today editor actually emailed me to chide me for my inappropriate behavior — i.e., critiquing the journalism of the reporter they placed first on the byline. And here is how USA Today’s former “diversity and inclusion editor” Hemal Jhaveri — who just got fired for posting a series of racist decrees about how white people are the root of all evil — decided to interpret this event:
Journalists with these outlets wield immense power and influence. These are not the voiceless, marginalized, powerless people in society. They’re the ones who attack, expose and ruin marginalized people if they dare express political views of which these journalists disapprove.
It is not just morally repugnant but quite dangerous for them to try to place themselves off limits from criticism this way. The whole point of journalism — the reason why a free press is vital — is because it is the only way to hold accountable powerful institutions and powerful actors. Corporate media outlets and those they employ as reporters are among the most powerful and influential actors in society and, as such, are completely fair game for criticisms, protests, and denunciations.
What they are trying to do by exploiting the language of oppression and marginalization to cast themselves as vulnerable victims who cannot be criticized is despicable. It deserves nothing but contempt. That is precisely why I intend to heap scorn on it every time they try it, precisely because these in-group, swarming corporate journalists are the real bullies, trying to stigmatize and destroy the reputations of ordinary citizens who commit the crime of criticizing their journalism or expressing political opinions they want banished.
They know that the public — for very good reasons — has lost faith and trust in their work at unprecedented levels. They know that their industry is failing. When journalism turns its guns not on the powerful but on the powerless — descending as low as trying to prevent them from raising needed money for a legal defense — the contempt is well deserved. The demographic characteristics of the journalists doing this disgraceful, cowardly journalism is irrelevant. The only reason they even mention it is because they think they can weaponize it against their critics.
This lowly tactic will succeed only if people are cowed and intimidated by it. It will fail, as it should, if people ignore it and treat them like any other power centers by freely expressing the criticisms you think their journalism merits regardless of what names they call you as a result.