By:
December 5, 2022

Bombshell?

Meh.

More like a nothingburger.

The big buzz Friday night, as teased by new Twitter boss Elon Musk, was that Twitter was going to release a bunch of internal documents that showed how the company trampled all over the First Amendment and hid from the public a Hunter Biden-laptop story. And that by laying down those crumbs, a bunch of folks would eventually eat them up and jump to the conclusion that Twitter influenced the 2020 election (i.e. essentially helped Joe Biden beat Donald Trump).

Or something like that.

But let’s start with Musk and Twitter. It seems we can’t go a day without some kind of story — real, controversial or otherwise — about Musk and Twitter. “CBS Sunday Morning’s” Luke Burbank had an excellent report on Sunday with “Elon Musk and Twitter: Is he in over his head?”

It included this interesting quote from journalist Kara Swisher, who is as plugged in as anyone when it comes to the tech business. She perfectly explained why Musk would buy a company for so much money ($44 billion) when it has made a profit only twice in the past 10 years.

Swisher said, “If you looked at it as a business, you’d have to say, ‘No, no, stay away from this.’ But it’s sort of like buying a yacht or a baseball team for a rich person. This is interesting to him.”

On Friday, in a report he teased as “awesome,” Musk claimed reporter Matt Taibbi was going to get into the details, using Twitter’s internal documents, that showed the social company suppressed free speech in the time right before the 2020 election. 

Alex Stamors, former chief security officer at Facebook, told “CBS Sunday Morning,” “In the days before the 2020 election, Twitter made the decision to not allow people to post the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop until they could try to figure out whether or not that was part of a government influence campaign. And then they decided, since it was going to get covered, that they should allow it to be posted. So, they did make a mistake. But the idea that it affected the election is just ludicrous.”

Then many people, especially Donald Trump supporters and others on the right, tried to make it a First Amendment issue. Swisher astutely pointed out on “CBS Sunday Morning,” “It’s gotten sucked up into a free speech conversation or First Amendment conversation, largely by people who’ve never read the First Amendment. Because it’s about ‘government shall make no law.’ That’s all it says, folks. And so, companies certainly can, and they certainly do.”

Check out the “CBS Sunday Morning” story for more interesting details.

Back to the Twitter/Biden stuff …

So what about this big “bombshell” report that came out on Twitter on Friday?

The Washington Post’s Cat Zakrzewski and Faiz Siddiqui wrote, “… by the time the dust settled Saturday, even some conservatives were grumbling that it was a dud. Musk’s Twitter Files produced no smoking gun showing that the tech giant had bent to the will of Democrats.”

The Post writers wrote that the internal communications showed “the company independently decided to limit the spread of the article, without Democratic politicians, the Biden campaign or FBI exerting control over the social media network. In fact, the only input from a sitting politician that Taibbi noted was from Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna (D), who told Twitter executives they should distribute the story, regardless of the potential consequences for his party.”

Most media outlets see this so-called “bombshell” report as being much ado about nothing. Musk responded on Twitter Spaces by saying, “Rather than admit they lied to the public they’re trying to pretend this is a nothingburger. Shame on them.”

As the Post noted, “Musk took the extraordinary step of promoting the leak of internal company communications to Taibbi, exposing the names of several rank-and-file workers and Khanna’s personal email address.”

Musk admitted on Twitter Spaces that there were some missteps, including “a few cases where I think we should have excluded some email addresses.”

In the end, those who want to think that something nefarious happened with Twitter and the 2020 election will continue to believe so. The rest of us see Friday’s news as how Musk so eloquently described the media’s view on it: a nothingburger.

By the way, it was such a non-story that The New York Times didn’t even cover it. That left Musk to huff and puff on Twitter: “That is because The New York Times has become, for all intents and purposes, an unregistered lobbying firm for far left politicians”

The First Amendment

As I mentioned above, journalist Kara Swisher smartly pointed out that the First Amendment is about the government, not private companies such as Twitter.

Some aren’t getting that point. The Atlantic’s David French has a new piece out: “Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson Don’t Understand the First Amendment.”

Following the release of the Twitter Files on Friday night, Carlson said on his Fox News show the documents “show a systemic violation of the First Amendment, the largest example of that in modern history.”

French wrote, “Musk and Carlson are both profoundly wrong; the documents released so far show no such thing. In October 2020, when the laptop story broke, Joe Biden was not president. The Democratic National Committee (which also asked for Twitter to review tweets) is not an arm of the government. It’s a private political party. Twitter is not an arm of the government; it is a private company.”

French notes that while some activists argue that large social media companies essentially function as the government, the bottom line is that social media companies are not the government. French writes, “This means the First Amendment protects Twitter, the Biden campaign team, and the Democratic National Committee. The “TWITTER FILES” released so far do not describe a violation of the First Amendment. Instead, they detail the exercise of First Amendment rights by independent, private actors.”

Lachlan Murdoch deposed

Lachlan Murdoch, the chief executive of Fox Corporation, is scheduled to be deposed today in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion claims that Fox News amplified what they say are false claims that their machines helped rig the election in favor of Joe Biden against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

All along, Fox News has said it was covering claims made by newsmakers, including Trump. It has repeatedly said in statements, “There is nothing more newsworthy than covering the president of the United States and his lawyers making allegations of voter fraud.”

NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote in a story published Sunday, “A slew of Fox News guests and hosts — among them Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo — slammed Dominion Voting Systems for weeks afterward, breathlessly suggesting and even baselessly asserting it committed election fraud. Dominion says Fox was trying to win back the Trump loyalists who abandoned Fox after the election. And the voting tech’s attorneys have worked its way up the ranks, deposing Fox News staffers from junior producers to those star hosts to network executives.”

But now, up steps the top executive at Fox Corp. and son of the founder, Rupert Murdoch.

The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters wrote, “​​Mr. Murdoch will be the most senior corporate figure within the Fox media empire to face questions under oath in the case so far. And his appearance before Dominion’s lawyers is a sign of how unexpectedly far and fast the lawsuit has progressed in recent weeks — and how contentious it has become.”

Charles Elson, an attorney who is the founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, told Folkenflik, “Reputations can be made and broken in moments like this. If you prove not to be credible, that’s a problem. If you prove to have acted in a sloppy manner, that’s an issue too.”

Lara Trump out at Fox

Lara Trump in June 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Lara Trump — daughter-in-law of former President Donald Trump (she’s married to his son Eric) — has been a Fox News contributor since 2021. But now that Donald Trump has announced he is running for president again, Fox News is cutting ties with Lara.

In a statement, Fox News said, “We appreciate Lara’s valuable contributions across Fox News Media programming.”

It’s not unusual for any of the networks to bring in on-air contributors who had ties to the White House or politics. But networks, including Fox News, are quick to cut ties with those who are running for office or have close or working relationships with those running for office. Lara Trump certainly fits into that category.

The Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio reported, “Her exit is said to be amicable and based solely on company protocol, but it comes after Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News parent Fox Corporation, made it clear that he does not support the former president’s decision to pursue the White House again. While criticism of Trump on Fox News has been muted, the editorial pages of Murdoch’s print outlets the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have been harsh in their assessments.”

Good work

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne is being investigated by the university for possible scientific research misconduct following a report in the school’s newspaper, the Stanford Daily.

SFGate’s Alex Shultz reported, “Earlier (last) week, the Stanford Daily published an exhaustive story about a number of papers co-authored over the last few decades by Tessier-Lavigne — a neuroscientist — that contained potentially altered images. The Stanford Daily spoke to multiple experts who reviewed the papers, which appeared in the academic journals Science and Nature, and they all came to the same conclusion about the altered imagery, a serious charge in the research field.”

After first downplaying the findings, the school has since announced that it is investigating Tessier-Lavigne. In a statement to media outlets, a Stanford spokesperson said the school “will assess the allegations presented in The Stanford Daily, consistent with its normal rigorous approach by which allegations of research misconduct are reviewed and investigated.”

Media tidbits

Hot type

From The Washington Post, Lenny Bernstein and Jordan-Marie Smith (with photos by Madeline Gray and video by Drea Cornejo and Hope Davison) with “Drugs killed 8 friends, one by one, in a tragedy seen across the U.S.”

The Los Angeles Times’ David Wharton paints a really grim picture in “Brittney Griner facing ‘terrible’ life at remote penal colony in Russia.”

Josh Rosenberg and the Esquire editors with “The 71 Best Christmas Movies of All Time.”

More resources for journalists

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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