NY Times opinion writer Farhad Manjoo made the case in yesterday’s paper that journalists should probably stop tweeting or at least stop tweeting as much on the grounds that Twitter is ruining journalism. While I’m sympathetic to stepping back from Twitter, what’s revealing about his argument are the reasons Manjoo thinks journalists, in particular, should avoid the site. You see, Twitter is just too good and revealing them to be the knee-jerk progressive hacks most of them are. Case in point, the Covington Catholic saga:
Over the weekend, thanks largely to amplification on Twitter, MAGA-hatted high-school kids from Kentucky — and whether they did or did not harass a Native American elder during a march in Washington — eclipsed all other news. At first, the Twitter mob went after the kids from Covington Catholic High School. Then, as more details of the incident emerged, a mob went after the people who’d gone after the kids. No one won; in the end the whole thing was little more than a divisive, partisan mess.
So it was just another weekend on Twitter. But in its zigs and zags, the Covington story made one thing clear: Twitter is ruining American journalism.
The Covington saga illustrates how every day the media’s favorite social network tugs journalists deeper into the rip currents of tribal melodrama, short-circuiting our better instincts in favor of mob- and bot-driven groupthink. In the process, it helps bolster the most damaging stereotypes of our profession. Instead of curious, intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs, Twitter regularly turns many in the news — myself included — into knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause, misspelled presidential missive or targeted-influence campaign…
In the initial rush of outrage about the Covington kids, before many details were in, many in the media — many of whom have since confessed they should have waited a little longer — got caught up in the fracas. They said things they shouldn’t have. They shut down dissent, chilling more measured thinking, because the tide of Twitter umbrage narrows one’s gaze and discourages empathy.
Forgive me for snickering under my breath, but the idea that journalists are merely “intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs” is a bad joke. I’ll grant there is some really good journalism out there that deserves respect regardless of the outlook of the people behind it. For instance, the Atlantic’s piece yesterday on Bryan Singer or Tablet’s piece on anti-Semitism in the Women’s March. I would guess that all of the authors involved are left-wing and it doesn’t matter a bit because those pieces stick to the facts and show no favor.
But Manjoo is correct that we’re seeing something else from journalists on Twitter, i.e. left-wing reporters acting on left-wing impulses to offer quips written to appeal to a left-wing audience. Journalists weren’t dragged toward the Covington High story by some Twitter tractor beam. They leaped toward it because it confirmed all their cherished assumptions: about people who wear MAGA hats, about pro-lifers, about racism. It was a perfect story for most in the media and it blew up because they instantly loved it to pieces.
If only it had been true.
If you have any doubt where Manjoo is coming from, he’s the same guy who made a plea for the Democratic Party to embrace open borders last week. He is on the far left. And to his credit, Manjoo admits he wanted to jump in with both feet on the Covington kids just like everyone else and would have except for his recent decision to back away from Twitter:
I will confess that when I first saw the video of a smirking teenager staring down a drumming elder, I, too, was stirred to outrage. My politics lean against the kids’, and something about their smugness and certainty — they seemed to be doing tomahawk chops and were wearing hats supporting a racist president — confirmed all my priors about the ugliness of our Trumpian times…
The only reason I didn’t beclown myself this time is that I’ve significantly cut back how much time I spend on Twitter…
His argument for stepping away from Twitter boils down to this: Stop us before we beclown ourselves again! Over at CNN, Brian Stelter suggests Manjoo is on to something and lets an unnamed “tech exec” speculate about a Twitter strike:
A longtime tech exec sent the link to me and said Manjoo is right. “You guys are the lifeblood of Twitter right now,” they said. “A huge part of Twitter’s current value is journalists creating content for the site.”
I’ve known this person for years. They don’t have an axe to grind against Twitter, they just want journalists to think critically about what Twitter does to news coverage and the civic conversation. I asked: Do you think we should go on a Twitter strike? Maybe, they said — or at least take a hard look at the value exchange that’s going on.
I used to think the transparency of Twitter helped improve trust in media. I think that’s true around the edges. But I’m leaning toward the Silicon Valley exec’s view that the incessant tweeting undermines trust. “You guys are down in the mud with the bots and the bad faith actors,” the tech exec said.
Maybe the reason more engagement seems to equal less trust is the one Manjoo himself offered, i.e. journalists just keep revealing what they really think. That’s certainly what happened with the Covington story. The lesson to be learned here isn’t that Twitter is bad it’s that’ journalists are badly biased and Twitter keeps showing us that’s the case.
Yesterday I wrote about Caitlin Flanagan’s excellent summary of the Covington story and I’m going to quote her conclusion once again because it applies. She’s speaking of the media here, in particular the NY Times: “Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will causally harm them.” So long as journalists remain on Twitter they will continue to reveal to the rest of us what knee-jerk, smug, contemptuous left-wing hacks many of them are behind the facade of neutrality. As a window into what journalists really believe, Twitter may be a danger to their individual reputations, but it’s a public service to the rest of us.