‘Sad Day for Free Speech’: Media Matters Layoffs Follow ‘Thermonuclear’ Attack by Elon Musk

“This is how free speech is actually chilled—vengeful dipshit billionaires,” said one media executive, after more than a dozen staffers let go from nonprofit watchdog whose mission is to combat right-wing disinformation and propaganda.

By Jon Queally. Published 5-24-2024 by Common Dreams

Elon Musk, CEO of X, SpaceX and Tesla. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus/flickr//CC

Just months after mega-billionaire Elon Musk launched what he termed a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against Media Matters for America, the nonprofit media watchdog outfit announced a round of punishing layoffs Thursday which it in part attributed to the financial strain imposed by the legal battle it now faces.

What triggered Musk’s initial outrage in November was MMFA reporting about “pro-Nazi content” on the social media platform X, owned by Musk, appearing alongside ads by prominent corporations in the content stream shown to users.

In his post threatening the lawsuit, which was later filed in Texas, Musk vowed to target “Media Matters and ALL those who colluded in this fraudulent attack on our company.” Noting the scope of his retribution, Musk then added: “Their board, their donors, their network of dark money, all of them…” would be included in the suit’s scope.

In the organization’s Thursday announcement of layoffs, Media Matters’ president Angelo Carusone said: “We’re confronting a legal assault on multiple fronts and given how rapidly the media landscape is shifting, we need to be extremely intentional about how we allocate resources in order to stay effective. Nobody does what Media Matters does.”

Due to the pressures, Carusone explained, the group was “taking this action now to ensure that we are sustainable, sturdy and successful for whatever lies ahead.” More than a dozen staffers, including researchers and digital producers, were among those terminated.

“Many of my best colleagues at Media Matters lost their jobs today,” Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, said Thursday on X alongside individual posts from many of those laid off. “However you feel about our work, it should worry you that any billionaire could do this to any outlet at any time for any reason. It’s a sad day for free speech.”

Media Matters for America (MMFA) is a 501(c)3 registered nonprofit—which describes itself as a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media”—founded in 2004 at the height of the George W. Bush administration.

Ever since it has targeted the right-wing media echo chamber, including Fox News and other prominent cable, newspaper, and radio broadcasters who coordinate the messaging of pro-corporate and reactionary forces within the Republican Party and beyond.

In a post on X shared Thursday afternoon, laid-off Media Matters journalist Kat Abughazaleh lamented the firing of her talented colleagues (and encouraged outlets that are hiring to consider them) as she also directed her ire at Musk for his possible role in the downsizing decision.

“There’s a reason far-right billionaires attack Media Matters with armies of lawyers,” said Abughazaleh. “They know how effective our work is, and it terrifies them (him),” with the parenthetical a seeming reference to Musk.

Responding to her message on the social media platform now owned by Musk, media executive Ben Collins, current CEO of the satirical website The Onion, doubled-down on the charge against the Tesla founder and on-again-off-again world’s richest man.

“Fuck Elon Musk,” Collins said.

“This is why right-wing billionaires sue people reporting on them,” continued Collins, who previously worked as a reporter for NBC News covering, among other thing, right-wing disinformation. “They know they can’t win these lawsuits. But they also know legal fees will cripple the little guy reporting on their lies and crimes. This is how free speech is actually chilled—vengeful dipshit billionaires.”

Musk has championed himself as a devote “free speech absolutist,” but his time at the helm of X, which was Twitter when he purchased it, has repeatedly exposed the limits of his commitment.

“This is the latest example of billionaires and pandering politicians abusing the legal system to retaliate against their critics and harm the public’s right to know,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in result to the layoffs at MMFA. “The result is that the American public loses access to information in a critical election year.”

Stern identified Musk’s use of a what’s called a SLAPP lawsuit, which stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation, as increasingly commonplace by powerful figures and corporations who go after groups they don’t like in court knowing full well that the financial resources required to fight the lawsuits can force their opponent into submission, regardless of the veracity of the allegations, or even force it into bankruptcy.

“States that don’t have laws in place to combat SLAPPs should pass them,” argued Stern. “Those that do should strengthen them. And Congress needs to pass a strong anti-SLAPP bill at the federal level right away. This isn’t a partisan issue. While this time it’s a right-leaning billionaire going after a left-leaning organization, the shoe could easily be on the other foot next time.”

In 2007, in one of the most famous cases of its kind, the Gawker media group—which controlled a number of online outlets—was sued by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, a lawsuit later discovered to be bankrolled by right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel due to a preexisting grudge he had against the site’s reporting, which ultimately led to its bankruptcy.

In March of this year, a federal judge in California threw out a similar lawsuit brought by X under Elon Musk against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit group that had publicly accused the platform of profiting off hateful content published on the platform.

In tossing the case, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer cited the transparent motivation behind the suit as part of the reason it lacked legitimacy.

It was “evident,” said Breyer in his ruling that “X Corp. has brought this case in order to punish CCDH for CCDH publications that criticized X Corp.—and perhaps in order to dissuade others who might wish to engage in such criticism.”

As Tim Karr, senior director at the media advocacy group Free Press, wrote in an op-ed for Common Dreams last year, Musk’s “attempts to silence his critics are not surprising to anyone who has followed Musk’s erratic behavior” over recent years.

“The magnate positions himself as a champion of free and open debate,” wrote Karr, “while taking extraordinary efforts to silence any honest criticism and independent research that might negatively impact Musk and his many businesses.”

Citing the specific attack on CCDH at the time, Karr concluded that the “only thing absolute about Elon is his refusal to give a fair hearing to any of his critics. And that’s absolutely not free-speech absolutism.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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