On MSNBC, Angelo Carusone discusses how free speech is on the line in Media Matters' lawsuit against Texas AG Ken Paxton

“We're sort of the canary in the coal mine here. This is the new reality for the future is that you don't just flood the zone with extremism and lies. You also then try to cut off the truth tellers.”

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Citation From the December 17, 2023, edition of MSNBC's American Voices

JULIAN CASTRO (GUEST HOST): Last week, Media Matters filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Texas. The media watchdog group says Ken Paxton violated its First Amendment rights when he launched an investigation into their coverage of the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. In the complaint, Media Matters is asking a judge to rule that Paxton, on behalf of Texas, violated their free speech rights. They're calling Paxton's investigation retaliatory. Paxton has not commented on the Media Matters lawsuit. Last month, Paxton launched the investigation after Media Matters reported ads from major corporations on X could be seen next to Nazi and white nationalist posts on the platform. Since then, many of those companies – Disney, Apple, Comcast, which is the parent company of MSNBC – all of them pulled their ads from the platform. Elon Musk, who owns X, is also suing Media Matters over the report. With me now, the president of Media Matters, Angelo Carusone. Angelo, thank you for joining me. So explain to me why you felt a lawsuit against the Texas attorney general was the right path for Media Matters.

ANGELO CARUSONE (MEDIA MATTERS): In some respects, it was really our only path because the alternative would be to do nothing and have him continue to barrel ahead with this investigation, which he says could be both civil and criminal. And the effects of that are more than just a nuisance. There are harmful effects of it because, as you noted in your opening, this all stems from a report that was put out by one of our investigative reporters that looks at what's happening on the platform. And he responded to that report by launching this investigation. The intent there is it is specter and cloud to chill our speech, to slow us down from engaging.


CASTRO: Talk to me about this relationship between Elon Musk and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who, by the way, also headed up Donald Trump's reelection effort in Texas a couple of years back.

CARUSONE: Yeah, I think the genesis of this is very significant because what happened is that, you know, Elon Musk threatens to sue us. He obviously follows through with it. But in the context of those threats, he engaged with an idea from a Stephen Miller, a former Trump adviser, where he said, you know, in addition to suing Media Matters, you should pursue – state attorney generals, Republican state attorney generals should pursue fraud investigations into them as well. And so Elon Musk promoted that idea. And almost right away, you started to see people like the Missouri AG and Ken Paxton take up that call and initiate these actions. And what's significant about it is when you dig into the complaint, it's pretty clear that, you know, he didn't even attempt to explain how we violated the acts that he's claiming, you know, he has the powers to exercise on here. It very much appears, at minimum, that he was just responding to this very broadside public appeal from Elon Musk to do something to further slow us down or take us down.

CASTRO: Well, it's important to note that your reporting about ads appearing next to extremist content on Twitter came the same week Elon Musk amplified an antisemitic trope on X. That post was also an important factor for advertisers leaving the platform. What do we know about the financial situation at X and its ad revenue since then?

CARUSONE: I mean, the ad revenue for this year so will be will be down somewhere between 50 and 65%. You know, the numbers have been variously reported. Just to put that in real numbers, that somewhere around a little more than $2 billion of straight revenue for the platform. So it is a very significant amount. And a lot of this is the result of Elon Musk's own behavior. And then the types of investigative reporting that we've done, that other news outlets have done, that researchers have done that chronicle the descent of X now into a sort of a supercharged engine of radicalization. So it is more impactful than just the users on Twitter. It actually has a spillover effect for our entire country. That's why this work is so significant.

CASTRO: Well, let's talk about that spillover effect. Put this in the broader context of free speech and the state of our democracy. Do you see your organization and this moment as part of that equation?

CARUSONE: Yes, I think that that is you know, as much as it seems self-serving, it's just it also happens to be true. In some respects when we've seen the increase of attacks and threats against media outlets from MAGA Republicans, from Trumpworld, from elected officials. This is a Nevada-based corporation, X, that operates in California, suing a DC-based organization in the north District of Texas. And, I mean, then subsequently helped ginning up a Republican official to take retaliatory actions against us and to slow them down from speaking. And Ken Paxton has filed with the court to defend ExxonMobil from other AG investigations, making the same argument that when you issue these types of very broadside letters, the only effect can be chilling speech. So he knows what he's doing by his own words. It's not just us. We're sort of the canary in the coal mine here. This is the new reality for the future is that you don't just flood the zone with extremism and lies. You also then try to cut off the truth tellers. And so we won't be the only ones that will be in the barrel. This will be the new normal.

CASTRO: Angelo Carusone of Media Matters. Thank you.