We won a journalism prize last week, and I want to crow a bit about it. But first I want to take you a long way back. . . to 2020.
Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, America’s information network—our newspapers and social media companies—were managed and censored along pretty obvious and blunt ideological lines. The rules for acceptable conversation on tech platforms weren’t sophisticated, but they were strict.
For example, it was impossible to question where Covid might have originated. This conversation was smeared as racist in the mainstream press and was flat-out censored on social media, which blocked any talk about a lab leak as a conspiracy theory. (Now, of course, the lab leak is the leading theory.)
For a long time too, it was verboten to talk about our president’s family, specifically his son Hunter, with anyone bringing up concerns about financial improprieties immediately discredited as the lunatic fringe and—of course—ultimately censored on social media platforms like Twitter.
Twitter ended up blocking a whole news organization for reporting on Hunter Biden’s finances, the better to quiet them down. Never mind that our friends at the New York Post had gotten it right, and the leaked financial details and conversations from Hunter Biden’s laptop have proven entirely accurate, a rare window into how our president’s family benefits from his service.
A conservative humor site called The Babylon Bee that made fun of the laptop situation and various progressive mores of the day? They were locked out of Twitter, lest they tell too many offensive jokes about the daily news, which it was important never to jest about.
Then, as you know, a strange thing happened. Elon Musk, annoyed by all of this, bought Twitter. He paid $44 billion for it—which seems like a lot unless you are the richest man in the world.
Everyone at the newspapers and all the hardworking censors at the social media companies were upset! How could he buy Twitter? Twitter was meant to be the playground of this set—the place where folks could carefully control and quiet anyone who disagreed with the day’s message. It was a crisis.
And then Musk did something even stranger: he opened up the company’s archives—emails, Slack messages, internal tools—for a group of journalists to pore over, with zero interference. Those journalists were Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, and the Free Press team, including friends such as David Zweig and Abigail Shrier.
Elon Musk is hardly a perfect Free Speech leader. He has his own information he’d like to suppress, he has his biases, many of which he makes plain as day. But anyone leaking documents always has an agenda. And these documents showed the drunken power of the old censors who had run Twitter. They showed how the Biden administration worked closely with these private companies on censorship decisions. They showed that this had been going on for years—the conversations about suppressing “dissident” voices, the enthusiastic partisanship of the corporate censors. It was extremely newsworthy.
Matt, Michael, Bari, and The Free Press team examined the information for weeks, publishing a series of scoops (more on that below). And last week, we won the inaugural prize from the National Journalism Center and the Dao Feng and Angela Foundation. We’re reprinting Matt Taibbi’s acceptance speech below.
At The Free Press, we don’t do our work for the sake of popularity or prizes or prestige—that’s what we left behind when we left places like The New York Times. (Though I do give myself a Pulitzer every week in TGIF.) We do our work because we believe that free people deserve a free press—that Americans deserve to know what is going on in our country and the world. That work would not be possible without you, our Free Press subscribers.
Thanks to you, half a dozen of us could fly to San Francisco and scrutinize the files in a sweaty conference room, spending weeks combing through archives. By subscribing, you make independent American journalism possible. And lately, it feels like that’s the only journalism left.
The legacy press was appalled by the Twitter Files reporting. The general take was something like: “How could these reporters go and look at leaked files without our approval? Files that make our friends look bad?” Where once reporters competed for scoops like Watergate to expose the malfeasance of officials, now the attitude from the mainstream press is that one needs a minimum of three TikTok executives, the White House press secretary, and an FBI agent in the room to help craft the story. We just don’t agree. We are so proud of the work we did at Twitter. Whether you are a billionaire or a homemaker with a scoop or a leak, we’re always right here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you. As many of you know, it’s been a long year for those of us who worked on this story. To be recognized with such a significant award means a great deal to me and to the other recipients, Bari Weiss of The Free Press and Michael Shellenberger of Public, on whose behalf I’ll try to speak tonight.
More than two dozen reporters worked on the Twitter Files at different times, including Lee Fang, Paul Thacker, David Zweig, Aaron Maté, Matt Farwell, and many others across the political spectrum. Journalists from left-leaning publications and reporters with conservative backgrounds both worked on this story, which was unique enough to employ pseudonymous citizen journalists like “Techno Fog” and Pulitzer Prize winner Susan Schmidt. Susan is here tonight, and has a new Twitter Files piece coming out on Twitter and Racket in the coming days.
To the National Journalism Center and the Dao Feng and Angela Foundation: I could not be more grateful that you’ve chosen to create such a significant new prize for old-school, fact-based reporting. The journalism profession has become hopelessly politicized in recent years. Editors now care more about narrative than fact, and as many of the people in this room know, there are now fairly extreme penalties for failing to toe party lines. This begins with pressures within the business to conform and continues with algorithmic targeting of advertisers of the sort that the Washington Examiner and its excellent reporter Gabe Kaminsky, who’s here tonight, reported on.
Most of these algorithmic penalties are based on a complex credentialing system, a process Google calls “surfacing authoritative content.” This basically means that if you’re not recognized by certain “authoritative” organizations, your work will not appear in features like Google News, Facebook’s news feed, the “For You” bar on Twitter, or in many institutional search engines. This has the effect of de-amplifying politically unorthodox content, from conservative sites like the Examiner or the New York Post to Consortium News or even the World Socialist Web Site. These sites are essentially consigned by algorithm to a separate set of Dewey Decimal shelves in the basement of the world’s library.
It’s my hope and belief that the Dao Prize, by giving such work recognition, can help begin the process of bringing suppressed factual journalism out of the basement. It’s my hope journalists will someday look back at this moment as a turning point.
About a week ago I was interviewed about Twitter and content moderation and asked what I would do about speech, if I were put in charge of the internet.
I made the mistake of answering, saying something like “Well, I’d start with all legal speech. . . ” I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t smart.
Later I realized the correct answer: I’m not in charge of anything, and thank God! I’m just a reporter. My job is to get information and pass it on. That’s hard enough. Decisions are for voters.
I believe journalism began to lose its way when we lost touch with what it is we actually do. This was once more a trade than a profession. Reporters reflexively looked at things from the perspective of the general public, because they were the general public. They identified with cabbies, nurses, teachers, plumbers, hardware store owners, because that tended to be where they came from. They once thought people who couldn’t afford K Street lobbyists, the people who had the least representation, needed the press the most.
Those audiences tend not to want special treatment, because they’re not used to getting it. They’ll settle for the truth. You get that for us, we’ll buy your paper. That simple deal made things easy, as I learned from a young age. I’m blessed to have my father Mike here tonight. He started working at a New Jersey newspaper as a teenager. He used to say, “The story’s the boss.” We were supposed to follow facts wherever they led, publish anything true, and not care who was offended by it.
Beginning in the eighties and nineties, journalists started imagining things from a different perspective. After All the President’s Men it became a fashionable career choice. More reporters started coming from the Ivy Leagues, which in itself is not a bad thing. But a change took hold. Journalists were soon the same people, socially, as those they were charged with covering. They’d gone to school with aides to presidential candidates, intelligence analysts, and Wall Street bankers. Unlike the broader audience, these people did expect a certain kind of coverage. We started to see a string of stories from their perspective, telling us how hard it is to run a country, how hard the choices are.
“If we’re too idealistic, we won’t get elected!” was a common theme of campaign reports. Or, after 9/11, we started to see papers telling us how hard it was to fight al-Qaeda in a country that outlawed torture. The press began the process of identifying more with leaders than ordinary people.
The question I was just asked, about being in charge of the internet, was in that same vein. Don’t you see how hard it is to run these companies? What would you do if you ran the Stanford Internet Observatory, the FBI, U.S. Cyber Command?
We don’t! Michael, Bari, and I tried not to look at things from that angle, and asked the same questions any normal person would. We had different political beliefs, but it didn’t matter, because this was grunt work.
What does this email saying “flagged by DHS” mean? What’s a Foreign Influence Task Force? Why is Twitter having a weekly “industry meeting” with the FBI? What’s “malinformation,” and how can something that’s true also be “disinformation”? What’s the Election Integrity Partnership and why are they working with the Global Engagement Center, whatever that is?
Publishing the answers to these questions for some reason offended a great many people, but it was true. We were very glad when we saw some of the other reporters here tonight, like Gabe and the Examiner, start to do deeper dives on organizations like the Global Engagement Center and its sponsorship of groups like the Global Disinformation Index.
This is how the media is supposed to work. Not long ago, if one outlet did a good story, you were happy if a competitor moved the story forward, because ultimately the public benefits from that kind of competition.
The public only loses when reporters see themselves as on the same team with the politicians and institutions they’re supposed to be covering. That situation ultimately will produce narrative policing instead of reporting.
Thank you to the National Journalism Center for sending the message that doing the job from outside the rope line, from the perspective of the general public, is still respected and appreciated. I hope this award, and the possibility of real policy changes that may ensue from legislative effort and court cases like Missouri v. Biden, will provide encouragement to future reporters who might otherwise hesitate to take on an unpopular subject. I hope we may be able to look back on this as a moment when things started to turn around for this business.
Lastly, I should say that I’m so glad to be accepting this with Bari and Michael, and that all three of us owe a great deal to our subscribers, who pushed us to cover the story even though it didn’t always benefit them. With their support, the three of us got to meet and have quite an adventure together. As “so-called journalists” called as witnesses in one of the oddest congressional hearings in memory, Michael and I especially will always be part of one another’s lives. Thank you for allowing us to share this honor as well, and good luck to future recipients of the prize.
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