The misguided outrage over an FCC investigation of Stephen Colbert shows how the left can get stories wrong.
Welcome to Evesplaining, politics writer Eve Peyser's new column about why everyone else is wrong and she's right.
This weekend as every weekend, liberals on the internet were buzzing with rage about Trump. This time, it was about an FCC investigation of Stephen Colbert, the late-night host who made waves last week for a monologue joke with this punchline: "The only thing [Trump's] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's cock holster."
Now, friends, this is a bad joke. There's a whiff of weird homophobia, it doesn't accurately describe the current tense state of US-Russia relations, and "cock holster" makes it sound like Putin is putting his cock in Trump's mouth when it's at rest. It wasn't long before the right-wing internet took a break from calling liberals "snowflakes" and got outraged, throwing around the rather troll-y #FireColbert hashtag. Some people complained to the FCC about the joke. And that's when liberals decided to start a cycle of counter-outrage.
An article on the Hill headlined, "FCC to investigate, 'take appropriate action' on Colbert's Trump rant," which currently has more than 101,000 shares, seems to have been the spark that ignited the left-wing firestorm. To prominent liberals like Sarah Silverman, this was evidence of a Trump administration effort to censor comedians.
"Wow. This is chilling. This kind of shit has to be fought hard at every turn," Silverman wrote on Twitter. And she was not alone in her analysis.
"This is what government censorship looks like," Teen Vogue columnist (and VICE contributor) Lauren Duca remarked, linking to the same article.
"Good thing there's no way this could have a chilling effect on speech critical of the president," Politico reporter Eric Geller wrote.
"States becoming authoritarian often go after comedians early. And remember, there's a woman serving jail time for laughing at Jeff Sessions," liberal commentator Sarah Kendzior opined, referring to a Code Pink activist convicted of charges relating to a protest at Sessions's confirmation hearing.
"When they start to take away our jokes, we should all be worried. All Americans. Regardless of party. This is not normal," comedian Mike Birbiglia asserted.
Except an FCC investigation of obscenity complaints is normal. Really, really normal.
Although free speech is protected by the First Amendment, there are still rules about what can be shown on TV—that's why you don't hear "fuck" on primetime TV and graphic sex scenes are quarantined on networks like HBO and Showtime. The FCC website is pretty clear about this, and also clear that it takes complaints seriously.
"FCC staff reviews each complaint to determine whether it alleges information sufficient to suggest that a violation of the obscenity, profanity or indecency prohibition has occurred," the organization's website explains.
So why were prominent liberals up in arms about this routine FCC investigation? In part, it had to do with how the media framed this non-story. Most people don't know how the FCC process works, and "investigation" is a scary word. Moreover, the "resistance" thinks of Trump—who is notoriously hostile to the media and political comedy—as an authoritarian trying to stifle free speech. The idea that the FCC is now engaging in witch hunts of anti-Trump jokesters is a convenient falsehood.
There are lots of legitimate reasons to criticize the Trump administration's relationship to free press and the First Amendment—this FCC story is not one of them. And in an age of mass misinformation, especially from the conservative media, it's bad for the public to have these false stories circulating. Fighting fake news with more fake news only creates mass confusion.
The FCC investigation into Colbert's scandalous joke isn't the only questionable story the liberal media has embraced to fit its narrative. Last week, New York ran an article with the headline, "In Trump's America, Being Sexually Assaulted Could Make Your Health Insurance More Expensive," which aggregated a Mic story espousing a similar claim. The libertarian website Reason debunked these claims, explaining that the truth was a lot more mundane and complicated:
Nothing in the new Republican health care bill specifically addresses sexual assault or domestic violence whatsoever. What it does say is that states can apply for waivers that will allow insurance companies, under certain limited circumstances, to charge higher premiums to people based on their personal medical histories—that's it. (States that are granted the waivers must also set up special high-risk insurance pools to try and help defray costs for these people.) Under Obamacare, no such price variances based on preexisting conditions are permitted.
BuzzFeed was among the few generally left-leaning websites that focused on debunking questionable claims made about the AHCA. The AHCA is a devastating bill that stands to make healthcare unaffordable for the majority of the country, but there's no clause that explicitly makes rape a preexisting condition.
Again, there are plenty of real and dangerous things to be outraged over, and plenty of ways Republicans advance policies that hurt women in particular—but fudging the truth about whether a frighteningly cruel healthcare bill categorizes rape a preexisting condition doesn't do the resistance any favors. It delegitimizes the real story, which is just as sinister as the false narratives that get spread on social media.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.