New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has a pretty self-serving explanation for why so many Mainstream Media journalists so prematurely joined the Outrage Mob that was so eager to condemn a group of Kentucky Catholic high school students for an alleged display of smirking racism on the National Mall on Friday: Twitter made them do it.
Sorry, but I ain’t buying it, and neither should you. And as I’ll see, Manjoo’s concluding recommendation – that these reporters and editors (and possibly pundits?) should abandon Twitter – is also completely wrong.
In case you’ve been ignoring the news for a while, these high school students, who were in Washington, D.C. for the “March for Life” last Friday were widely accused of treating a Native-American also in the capital for a (separate) protest with shockingly disgraceful disrespect and displays of outright bigotry. But this initial conclusion – which was based on a short video clip taken at the Lincoln Memorial scene of the confrontation – was quickly debunked by much longer videos that both absolved the students of all the serious allegations, and raised big questions about the role and background of Native-American protester Nathan Phillips and other groups on the scene.
Manjoo is absolutely right in lamenting how many journalists – including news reporters and editors, who are supposed to shunt aside their personal opinions on the job, go the extra mile to describe events as accurately as possible, and weigh information carefully – rushed to judgment about the students’ guilt. But he’s absolutely wrong to blame a social media platform – and in the process, spread the laughable idea that journalists who have been accomplished enough to secure employment at the nation’s most prominent news organizations are as incapable of resisting the temptations created by a new technology as a child is incapable of resisting gorging on candy.
According to the author:
“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.”
“Twitter isn’t just ruining the media’s image. It’s also skewing our journalism. Everything about Twitter’s interface encourages a mind-set antithetical to journalistic inquiry: It prizes image over substance and cheap dunks over reasoned debate, all the while severely abridging the temporal scope of the press.”
Yet these arguments completely ignore what has to be the real explanation for this behavior: The journalists in question were all fully formed adults by the time they began tweeting recklessly, and have never prioritized telling their stories intellectually honestly. The only possible alternative? These folks weren’t fully formed adults by the time they began such tweeting, and/or by extension when they were hired. That sure doesn’t reflect well on the individuals and news organizations that gave them their weighty responsibilities.
Moreover, two prominent New York Times-related journalists themselves seem to disagree with Manjoo that the news business’ irresponsible tweeters should be let off the hook. Here’s Times columnist Frank Bruni, assessing how (and why) opinion journalists have dealt with the Mall confrontation story, and many other events recently:
“With everything from Twitter followers to television bookings, we’re rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past. We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.
“We react to news by trying to fit it into the argument that we routinely make, the grievance that we usually raise, the fury or angst or sorrow that we typically peddle. We have our narrative, and we’re on the lookout for comments and developments that back it up. The response to the initial footage of the Covington boys — and, in particular, to the one who wore a red MAGA cap as he stood before and stared at the drumming veteran — adhered to this dynamic.
“Was that a smirk on the teenager’s face? A sneer? His expression was just indefinite enough to become a symbol of entitlement for the pundits who favor that locution, of the white patriarchy for another group, of the wages of Trumpism, of the fraudulence of Catholicism.”
But Bruni also wrote (correctly) that “the rest of the media didn’t behave all that differently” on and off Twitter. (A superb description of The Times own overall record in this incident – and the incident itself – can be found in this article in The Atlantic.)
His views also have been supported by no less than Jill Abramson, the recent (and fired) Times news chief. In a forthcoming book (as reported by Fox News‘ Howard Kurtz, and not denied by Abramson or anyone else at The Times), Abramson
“describes a generational split at the Times, with younger staffers, many of them in digital jobs, favoring an unrestrained assault on the presidency. ‘The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures; the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards,’ she writes.”
And as is clear to anyone following them, most of the most aggressive and biased tweeters from the news profession are well short of middle age.
All of which is why I so strongly disagree with Manjoo’s belief that journalists, and especially straight news reporters, should tweet much less – and try to steer clear of controversy. Nothing would make it easier for them to keep hidden the biases that surely have been shaping their reporting and editing. In fact, I hope they tweet even more – and more candidly.
After all, the great early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis rightly observed that “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Twitter is proving to be a great source of the kind of light that unmistakably needs to be shined on journalism these days.