Free speech for thee, but...
Right-wing Twitter found a new "free speech" martyr last week. Yawn.
Last week, former USA Today deputy editorial page editor David Mastio published an op-ed in the New York Post about how unfair it was that he had been “demoted … for a tweet.”
I know something about Gannett’s evolution since I was USA Today’s deputy editorial page editor until August, when I was demoted after I tweeted, “People who are pregnant are also women.”
That idea was forbidden because a “news reporter” covering diversity, equity and inclusion wrote a story detailing how transgender men can get pregnant. I compounded my sin against this new orthodoxy by calling the idea that men can get pregnant an “opinion.”
If I wanted to keep any job at USA Today, my bosses informed me, I needed to delete these offensive tweets because they were causing pain to the LGBTQ activists and journalists on our staff.
The tricky thing about these types of stories, the oh-so-common, “I was canceled for my conservative views!” tales, is that there’s absolutely no way to verify exactly what happened. The tweet linked in the Post story is from March, not last August, Mastio’s side of this is the only one that’s being heard, and honestly, I can’t bring myself to really care about the internal human resources decisions of Gannett. And if I were to care about people at Gannett being demoted or losing their jobs, there are more than 10,000 others at the company who have lost their jobs since Gannett merged with Gatehouse in 2020. In those cases, those employees lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Personally, if I were forced to declare anyone a “victim” here, it’s probably the people laid off who didn’t get handed a giant platform to gripe about “cancel culture” and “wokism.”
Setting aside the dumb “People don’t get pregnant, but women do” tweet he sent, which I’ll explain in the footnotesfor anyone confused by what he was trying to say, I’m tired of the cavalcade of grievance nonsense being pushed by the right. Do you remember reading stories from each of the more than 10,000 Gannett employees who lost their jobs these past few years? No? Then what makes Mastio so special? I’m sure some of them have some pretty legitimate gripes about how things work, especially as many of them lost their jobs for absolutely no reason at all. But that’s how conservative media like the New York Post works: it ignores the forest so we can hear from the saddest right-wing tree.
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I don’t care one way or another if Mastio has a job, gains a job, loses a job, or anything like that. I do care about the rampant hypocrisy involved in the way right-wing sob stories tend to be treated.
See, when the Washington Post fired political reporter Felicia Sonmez just a few weeks back because she criticized her co-workers, right-wing media (including the New York Post) gleefully cheered the decision.
The same goes for when Emily Wilder was fired by the Associated Press in May 2021 after the Stanford College Republicans led a smear campaign against her for tweeting support for the Palestinian people during her time in college. The New York Post was happy to pick up the story, complete with screenshots of the “offending” posts.
Likewise, after the New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe in January 2021 for tweeting, “Biden’s plane landing at Joint Field Andrews. I have chills,” right-wing media (again, including the New York Post) didn’t seem to have much of a problem with that.
Also in January 2021, Will Wilkinson, who was a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times and vice president of research at the Niskanen Center, tweeted a joke about how the right was pretending that Biden supporting policies they didn’t like was proof that his pledge to try to “unify” the country was a lie (I wrote about this strategy of theirs over at Media Matters at the time), and “if Biden really wanted unity, he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke here was that Trump supporters had been calling for Pence’s hanging two weeks earlier on January 6th. It was obviously a joke. But right-wing media went on the attack, writing articles with misleading headlines at places like the Daily Caller (“NY Times Contributing Writer Calls For Lynching Mike Pence”), the Washington Examiner (“New York Times opinion writer tweets and deletes call for Biden to lynch Pence”), and the Federalist (“Niskanen Center Executive Calls For Execution Of Mike Pence By Lynching”).
Wilkinson was fired from both his Niskanen Center and New York Times gigs.
One thing in particular really irritated me about the New York Post piece by Mastio: as it went viral on the right as evidence of “cancel culture” and “wokism,” mainstream outlets were busy actually silencing journalists.
Following the Dobbs Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a number of news organizations shared “reminders” with members of their staff that they were not allowed to express any opinion about the ruling on social media.
In recent years, there have been countless articles about right-wing professors, journalists, students, teachers, and so on, being “canceled” for things they’ve said. We hear about the scourge of “self-censorship,” while ignoring that “self-censorship” is really just a synonym for tact (as far as these cases are concerned).
“America Has a Free Speech Problem,” read the headline of a March piece from the New York Times Editorial Board.
“For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned,” the piece opens, citing “rights” that absolutely do not and have never existed.
Okay, so… let’s see what the Times, an organization supposedly committed to “free speech” had to say to its journalists following the Dobbs decision:
Now, you might argue that it’s a sound policy for media organizations to prevent staff members from making the paper look bad or biased by speaking out on social media. If that’s your view, then Mastio’s sob story should have been met with a “So what?” and a shrug. While a whole bunch of people might not have had a problem with his tweet calling trans men “women” (as that’s effectively what he did), I’m sure that a whole bunch of people wouldn’t have a had a problem with New York Times journalists tweeting their frustrations about abortion rights being wiped away. But both, it could be argued, could undermine their institution’s attempts to appear “neutral” (which is itself a false choice).
To be sure, it does matter what employees of media outlets say on social media. For example, every once in a while, an editor will reach out to me to see if I’m up for writing something for their outlet, usually an opinion piece. Depending on the outlet, I’ll either say yes or I’ll pass. If you told me about Mastio’s anti-trans tweet, I would probably be pretty reluctant to work with USA Today on an opinion piece of my own, as I would have a hard time entrusting him with my work. There has to be a certain level of trust between writers and editors, and I’m careful about not working with editors who I’d have to worry about stabbing me in the back by editing my words in a funny way or sticking me with a ridiculous headline.
So yes, I get why outlets would feel compelled to remind employees to be cautious on social media. Sure.
It’s the sheer one-sidedness of it all that really gets me.
Because it wasn’t just the New York Times that did this, obviously. Gannett (yes, the same Gannett that Mastio claimed was being overrun by “wokism” and being ruled by the left) also sent out a memo reminding employees that they “cannot use social media to take a political position, criticize or attack a candidate, or express personal feelings about an outcome or ruling,” instructing employees to “immediately alert your supervisor” if they see one of their co-workers “posting inappropriate comments,” and even adding that they’re not allowed to “like” or retweet posts that “could appear to indicate support for any side or group.”
The Seattle Times did the same thing.
As did Axios.
All the “I was ‘canceled’ because of my conservative views!” pieces could be framed in ways that are much more accurate, but they’re not. The reason for this is simple: this isn’t about “free speech” or “self-censorship” or anything like that. It’s about conservative victimhood. Despite the successful branding operation these past years (you can thank centrist pundits like Jonathan Chait for this), “cancel culture” is not some product of the political left. Republicans and others on the right love to censor people and ideas they disagree with. If someone steps out of line, they’re the first to jump up and say, “Oh my god, this person MUST be fired!” Each website that pretended not to understand that Wilkinson was joking with his Pence tweet has published dozens (and maybe hundreds) of articles whining about “cancel culture,” “political correctness run amok,” “self-censorship,” and more.
When they talk about “free speech,” they mean that they believe they should be allowed to say literally anything at literally any time and face literally zero negative repercussions for saying it. If you don’t like what they have to say, then you’d best just keep to yourself, you hear? Meanwhile, they’ll be the first ones in line to call for boycotts of the latest Disney movie over a split-second kiss between two women or use the power of the state to punish companies that put out statements that don’t mesh well with a governor’s political beliefs. They don’t care about “free speech” because they only want their speech to be free. They’ve spent years making disingenuous arguments about how any criticism or boycotts they face amount to censorship, blurring the difference between free speech as a legal concept (the government can’t punish you for your speech, even though that’s exactly what Florida did with the Rays stadium, as hinted at above) and free speech as a general principle. It turns out that they don’t believe in either.
They only believe that they should have power, they should have speech, and the rest of us should be forced to just deal with it. In a country where the electoral system is rigged against “blue” states (no, California and Wyoming should not have the same number of senators; that’s an absolutely absurd and arbitrary set-up that only benefits red states where nobody actually lives), and where “blue sates” can be gerrymandered into oblivion in the event that Republicans win just once (see the below example of Wisconsin, which has a massive Republican majority in the state legislature despite the fact that Democrats regularly outperform Republicans), it’s no shock that the finite tools to express our frustration are treated like unfair weapons (such as in Mastio’s case, he was being asked to follow the same rules as anyone else, but turned himself into a victim.)
tl;dr Their “free speech” arguments are actually about trying to get the rest of us to shut up — and we shouldn’t.
It’s an anti-trans tweet. One of Gannett’s papers published a story about trans men and/or nonbinary people who become pregnant (these are people who were assigned female at birth, so pregnancy is always a possibility for many of them), and he responded by calling those men “women.” It’s really that simple. If you respond to a story about trans men and pregnancy by insisting that anyone who ever gets pregnant is a woman, then you’re calling those men “women,” which is a.) mean, and b.) misgendering.
Nobody is disputing the fact that the overwhelming majority, to the point of being nearly all, pregnancies are had by women. The question is whether you’re going to use the opportunity to say that trans people’s identities aren’t legitimate. That’s what Mastio did. If nothing else, it was a jerk move and was unnecessary. It’s no different than pointing at a trans woman and saying, “That’s a man!” It’s not some deep argument, it’s just a cruel schoolyard insult.
Additionally, when people bristle at someone saying things like “pregnant people” or “people who may be pregnant,” I think part of it is sometimes a bit of confusion. If someone says, “Some men can get pregnant,” some anti-trans individuals seem to default to thinking about trans women (because they think trans women are “men,” so they assume that’s what’s being discussed). That’s inaccurate. No, trans women cannot get pregnant (on account of the whole not-having-a-uterus thing). But some trans men can, and they really don’t like being called “women.” Is that really so hard to understand?