The Problem with Censorship by Omission
What happens to an issue when politicians and big media decide they'd rather just not talk about it?
There’s been a lot of talk about censorship lately. Journalists like Michael Shellenberger and Matt Taibbi have come out swinging against the colluding conglomeration of government, social media, and other private entities that they’ve dubbed the “Censorship Industrial Complex.”
A federal judge in Louisiana recently issued an injunction against social media companies ganging up with government agencies to censor speech. On the other side of the debate, big media organizations like the New York Times are describing censorship favorably as a countermeasure to “potentially dangerous messages.”
Most of the discussion has focused on the way censorship stops people from saying what they want to say and sharing information that the censors don’t like. But there’s another effect of censorship, and what I learned during the pandemic is that it might be the worst of all. It’s this:
Censorship Grants the Powerful Permission to Act without Explaining Themselves, Even to Themselves
I had a very brief conversation with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently that drove this point home. It was at the end of one of her town hall meetings, which I often livestream on my reporting channel.
I have also been reporting on how New York’s vaccine mandates have affected people since 2021, and I’ve been trying to ask AOC about her position on this issue since New York City’s mandates were in full effect. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I have never heard her address the question of mandates in any forum.
AOC and her team have always exercised tight control over interactions with media. I know that because I’m one of her constituents and attended many of her public events before I started reporting on them, going back to her primary race in 2018. At public events like town halls, she takes questions from constituents by having people submit them on slips of paper as they enter. The time she gives to press has always been very limited.
So when I wanted to ask about her position on the mandates, I knew the drill. Here’s a question I submitted at a Bronx town hall in January of this year:
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t take my question at that town hall or any of the others where I had submitted it. So I decided to give it a try as a member of the press. At the end of the event, I explained to one of her press aides that I’m an independent journalist and wanted to ask a question.
AOC was simply out of time! she told me, but perhaps I could ask her my question and she could pass it along. I declined that offer and stood by as AOC gave a detailed response to a question from another reporter about whether it was tough to balance being a disruptor with getting things done.
Fate and the press aide smiled upon me a couple town halls later at the July 6 Hunts Point event, and I was granted the opportunity to ask “one question!” of the overscheduled congresswoman. Now my question wasn’t about the government mandates, which were no longer in effect. It was about whether she would support reinstating workers who had been fired for not being vaccinated.
I asked AOC this question for all the reasons you can hear me spell out in the video: Labor rights and civil rights are among her signature issues. She speaks frequently about the importance of bodily autonomy.
She touched on all of these topics at the July 6 town hall, as well as the financial hardships people are facing as they recover from the pandemic. My question was relevant to all of those issues. It should have been right in her wheelhouse.
I was honestly surprised by her inadequate response. Not only did she not answer the question about reinstatement that I had asked, but she seemed only vaguely aware of the facts about mandates in New York.
Her response was about whether there should still be “health care requirements” in place, and she seemed to be saying that she thought there probably should be in some sectors, especially health care and education. So I guess I finally got the answer to my question about her position on mandates.
How could someone who presents herself as an advocate for workers be so unaware of the facts about policies that put tens of thousands of people out of work in her state and forced thousands more to take a pharmaceutical product that they considered dangerous to keep their jobs?
A Few Facts About Mandates and What’s Happening Now
Estimates are that nearly 2,000 people in the public sector were fired outright under New York City’s sweeping mandates, while many others were forced into resigning or taking early retirement. It’s impossible to know how many lost their livelihoods in the private sector. An estimated 34,000 health care workers lost their jobs under the state mandate.
Governor Hochul just recently ended the “Statewide Disaster Emergency Due to Healthcare Staffing Shortages” declared in 2021, but the shortage is considered far from over. Short staffing has been a major complaint of nurses who have gone on strike in New York City this year.
Public sector workforce shortfalls in New York City have been the subject of City Council hearings and Comptroller’s reports. All of the government mandates have either been lifted or are currently being repealed.
There are no government COVID-19 vaccine “health care requirements” for new or current employees in any job sector in New York (although private sector employer mandates are another story). So there’s a strong argument for reinstating the trained, experienced workers who were fired under rules that no longer exist. Wouldn’t you expect labor advocate AOC to be up to speed enough on this issue to express a point of view about it?
I would have liked to clarify for her what I was asking and whatever facts about the mandates she was unaware of so that she could give a substantive answer to the question.
But her press aide shut down my effort to do that, scolding me with her “one question” line, as if I were a naughty child grabbing for a second cookie without permission instead of a reporter and constituent asking a public policy question (yes, just one question) that’s relevant to tens of thousands of people. And then, because I’m just a small-time independent journalist, AOC could simply walk away.
It was a scenario that echoed other attempts I’ve made to question New York politicians who seemed to tacitly support the mandates. Each time, about all I would get was a vague response about the importance of keeping people safe. In some cases they would just refuse to talk about it.
My conversation with AOC also reminded me of the exchange you can watch in the video below between New York State Senator John Liu, who is chair of the Senate Committee on NYC Education, and a teacher who was fired under the Department of Education mandate.
The teacher had requested and been denied a medical exemption due to a history of pulmonary embolisms, which have since been linked to the vaccines as a possible adverse effect.
That teacher told me afterward that he was taken aback by Liu’s response. He hadn’t expected Liu to be on the same page with him necessarily, but he assumed he would get some kind of thoughtful explanation of Liu’s position. Instead, the senator aggressively admonished him to just get the shot.
That’s because Liu, like AOC and so many politicians, didn’t have to explain anything. There was no one with any real power of the press to make him explain. When major media companies and social media platforms collaborated to censor and supress anyone asking impertinent questions about vaccines and mandates, all of the policy makers were off the hook. They could all just not talk about mandates while giving them tacit support. That’s censorship by omission in action.
Policy makers never had to answer hard questions about what to do with all the people who were being deprived of the ability to make a living or what they thought the criteria for denying people the right to informed consent and bodily autonomy should be. They never had to consider what the government or employers might owe workers who have been injured by a mandated vaccine.
They don’t even have to think about these and the many other difficult questions surrounding medical mandates. When the little people’s questions and criticisms are censored and suppressed, no one with power has to think about them. That’s why the answers we get on the rare occasion when questions get through are simplistic and uninformed.
That’s why the policies can be too. Without critical questions and debate, policymaking can devolve into mere sloganeering. Politicians can say a few feel-good words about how they want to keep everyone safe, and then sign their ill-considered rules into effect with an emergency executive order. That’s pretty much how things went down in New York City in 2021.
It’s Not Too Late, AOC!
That video with AOC has gotten a lot of attention. There are a lot of people saying mean things about her on social media right now. Many of her detractors call her stupid, but I’ve never seen her that way. Over the years I’ve seen her give thoughtful, well-informed answers to questions on a wide variety of topics (albeit questions that are almost always screened and selected).
I asked her about reinstating workers because she’s a leader in progressive politics and a labor advocate, and I think her position on this issue is important. I hope she’ll give some more thought to it. I invite her to listen to the conversations I’ve had with many affected workers on my podcast, so that she can have a better understanding of how mandate policies play out in real life.
It would be great if she gave our conversation another shot and was willing to address some of the tough questions about mandates and reinstatement. I would be happy to get a group of workers who were fired under the mandates together to talk about the issue with her.
She doesn’t have to do any of that, of course. She and all of the politicians and big media entities who think “potentially dangerous” discourse should be suppressed can ignore my questions and silence all of the voices they don’t want to hear. They can decide that some things are just not up for discussion and never give them a second thought.
That’s the problem with censorship by omission. It isn’t just that we plebes don’t get to talk about censored issues. It’s that the powerful don’t even have to think about them.
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