Leonard Pitts: It was a bad Monday for freedom

I’m probably out of step with many of you.

Everywhere I turn, folks are discussing Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. I certainly get it. After all, it was Monday’s biggest domestic story.

The sale sparked fears that the petulant billionaire will turn one of the world’s leading social-media platforms into an even greater transmitter of disinformation and hate than it already is. Given his history of petty online bullying, his ownership of a car company described by Black employees as a nightmare of racist harassment and discrimination, and his infantile conception of free speech, which equates the policing of disinformation and hate to so-called “cancel culture,” those fears are surely reasonable. And given Twitter’s importance as a news aggregator and meeting place, the realization thereof would be deeply and widely felt.

But to be honest, I find myself fixated on another story that is, I must admit, objectively less important. It’s this whole matter of “Yes, sir.”

You may have missed that one. It seems that on the same day Musk’s acquisition was announced, CNN reported it had obtained 2,319 text messages that passed between Mark Meadows, then chief of staff to Donald Trump, and sundry oddball characters from the right-wing cabal that conspired, between Election Day in 2020 and Inauguration Day in 2021, to prevent Trump’s eviction from the White House. There is plenty in that trove to vex you, perplex you and dispel for you any lingering doubt that these people are not rowing with both oars in the lake.

Take, for instance, Ivanka Trump going full Vince Lombardi on her fellow conspirators (“You are all WARRIORS of epic proportions!”) and Rep. Louie Gohmert baselessly blaming the Jan. 6 insurrection on “Antifa dressed in red Trump shirts & hats.” Take MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell claiming the Almighty is pulling for Trump (“God has his hand in all of this”) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about turning to something she calls “Marshall law,” by which she likely means “martial law” given that the former is a character from the Tekken video game franchise.

But it’s the “Yes, sir” that makes me reach for Pepto.

Those words were texted by Sean Hannity of Fox “News” on Election Day after he reached out to Meadows asking what message he should impart to his audience. Meadows gives him his marching orders, and Hannity responds like Beaver Cleaver getting a talking to from dad.

“Yes, sir,” he says.

Maybe it’s a journalism thing. Maybe I’ve seen “All the President’s Men” one time too many times. But it wedges in my throat like a bone.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Yes, sir.”

Beg pardon, but journalists don’t take orders from chiefs of staff. And they sure don’t tell them, “Yes, sir.”

It is accurate, yet beside the point, to note that Hannity is hardly a real journalist. In the first place, he is happy to cosplay the role when it is convenient. In the second place, he and Fox are where millions of Americans turn for news. If it’s true that an informed electorate is the bedrock of democracy, then the dangers of even a pretend journalist behaving as Hannity did should be obvious.

Ultimately, then, this week’s headlines point, in disparate ways, to the same threat. Meaning a corrosion, not simply of the people’s right to know, but of their very ability to know. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether you and I are in step on which story left us most dyspeptic. Either way, this much is inarguable:

It was a bad Monday for freedom.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com