Media watchdog group Media Matters published a report last week, which allegedly showed that a number of prominent corporate advertisers had had their ads displayed next to Nazi-related content on the social media network X (formerly known as Twitter). The report, along with general concerns about hate speech on the site, has prompted many prominent advertisers, like Apple, Sony and IBM, to pull off of the platform in recent days.
In response, X owner Elon Musk is suing Media Matters in federal court for defamation, claiming that the watchdog manipulated searches to produce the results they wanted to report on (claims that have yet to be proven in court). Additionally, indicted Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, who will go on trial early next year, facing two unrelated counts of securities fraud, jumped into the fray, announcing a state investigation into the liberal organization.
It’s a one-two conservative punch against free speech and media accountability. But flying under the radar in the discourse over this case is the threat it presents to queer people and our media. Before I dive any deeper into this, I should disclose that in January 2020, Media Matters flew me to Dallas to speak on their panel at the LGBTQ2S+ rights conference Creating Change, though I have no existing or ongoing relationship with the organization now.
The panel I was on was organized by the group’s LGBTQ2S+ team, who do a great job debunking many of the most common false media portrayals of queer and trans lives. For example, in 2014, a full two years before the infamous HB2 bathroom bill in North Carolina, Media Matters published a thorough debunking of the trans bathroom predator myth that is still pernicious today. In 2019, they published a piece detailing how a false story about the alleged harms of puberty blockers for trans kids went viral on social media.
Way before a group of hundreds of the Gray Lady’s writers and contributors wrote a letter to the New York Times’ management about the paper’s problematic coverage of trans issues, Media Matters was on the case, tracking the paper’s false narratives on the issue as far back as 2015. More recently, the organization debunked false claims made by Florida health officials who proposed ending coverage for gender-affirming care for adults on Medicaid.
If the case succeeds, it will be a big win for the censorious, and Media Matters will likely face financial hardship the way Gawker did after Peter Thiel’s lawsuit against the publication in the mid-2010s. Potentially losing a strong voice for LGBTQ2S+ rights like Media Matters would be a heavy blow at a time when our existence is so precarious.
The organization is a much-needed voice of clarity when it comes to debunking the constant stream of disinformation spread by the right these days. Not so coincidentally, both Paxton and Musk are extremely prolific when it comes to churning out anti-trans disinformation themselves. Musk has previously blamed a school for his own trans daughter’s gender identity.
Paxton, meanwhile, has been on the leading edge of developing ways for conservative states to meddle in the private lives of their trans citizens. In 2022, Paxton was at the forefront of an unpopular state initiative to have the state investigate parents who medically affirmed their children’s gender identity.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are the two conservative men leading the charge against Media Matters. The lawsuit itself is unlikely to succeed, and the written complaint basically confirms the reporting in the original Media Matters report. The state investigation is entirely another story.
Official investigations are costly to deal with, and this case is an example of Paxton wielding his state power against critics who disagree with him politically. No matter where you stand politically, or what you think of Media Matters—or even the trans people they protect—you should all be concerned about the petty fiefdom the law allows people like Paxton to use against those he dislikes personally or politically.
In all of the free speech and cancel culture discourse we’ve been subject to over the years, this type of threat—rich and powerful people using their money and influence, and the justice system, to target their critics—has strangely never become a conservative flashpoint. It’s always a small group of Oberlin sophomores objecting to the inappropriate behaviour of a professor or a small handful of mean tweets made against some blowhard mainstream media columnist that enrages the anti-cancel culture set.
But in actuality, the real threat to free speech has always been state officials and the rich wielding the power of the state to quell dissent, as Paxton and Musk are doing with Media Matters. If Paxton and Musk succeed in silencing or shutting down the liberal media watchdog, queer and trans people everywhere will lose.