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Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Twitter as Institutional and Self-Corruption

At his Substack page, Josh Barro has a useful intervention into the relationship between Twitter and journalism. As a former journalist--very briefly, but it was a formative experience--with an abiding interest in the press and its role both in the First Amendment and in our social, legal, and political firmament, I found it to be a good one-stop source of reasons why the addictive relationship between legacy press institutions and social media has been so damaging. I say so somewhat sympathetically, since it is clear that the managers of those institutions hoped they would help stave off decline in an industry facing so much competition from online sources and so much apathy from readers. But only somewhat sympathetically, since it has long become clear both that this is a dubious hope and that the strategy has maimed the patient to a degree that calls into question the point of keeping it alive. Barro's bottom line is that rather than demand that journalists recently thrown off Twitter (quite wrongly, although I think Taylor Lorenz is a one-person wrecking crew for the quality of any serious newspaper she has worked at) be reinstated, newsroom managers should treat the event as "an opening for [them] to do what they ought to have done long ago: Order their employees to drop their Twitter addictions, stop sharing their pithy opinions in an effort to build a personal brand, and get back to work." Some arguments he offers, mixed with a few observations:

  • "Twitter’s usefulness for reporting has sometimes turned into a dependency." Quite right. It is astounding the number of stories in the Times--the serious paper I read most frequently, despite its evident flaws--that report on Twitter controversies, rely on tweets for color and quotes, or use Twitter as their sole or near-sole fund of sources. As he notes, using social media as a databank for sources and quotes is "also biasing and distorting — the loudest voices on Twitter within a given field, such as medicine, often aren’t representative of broad opinion within the field." And it fosters incredible laziness. Former American Lawyer editor Steven Brill, a great journalist in his own right, used to instruct his reporters, when working on a piece about a lawyer at a firm who declined to cooperate with a story or profile, to pick up the phone and call every single person at that firm until they found people willing to talk. When Woodward and Bernstein received a list of employees of CREEP, they visited every person on that list, in person and often multiple times. That's called "shoe-leather reporting"--talking to numerous people, reading innumerable documents, and doing it all over again. Trawling or cherry-picking social media is no substitute for it. But it is easy--and, not insignificantly for newspapers, fast and cheap. 
  • "Twitter has made it very difficult to enforce editorial standards." That's a correct claim, in my view, although very broadly stated and without much causal explanation in itself. But Barro offers more here. One problem, he notes, is that reporters' addiction to opining online has damaged readers' trust. Of course this is not the fault of social media alone; in the last several years many journalists have argued that journalists ought to abandon what's been called "a model of professed objectivity." I think they're wrong. (And the rote response that "objectivity is a myth" is woefully insufficient. Of course it is: It's an organizing belief and model of conduct, one tied to that institution's model of professionalism. That it is not perfectly achievable has been understood by just about everyone always. It is still a better organizing ideal for most news organizations than the alternative--and although its contemporary critics argued that abandoning it would help readers, lead more clearly to truth, and avoid obfuscation, it has achieved none of those results. Exploring the nature of a myth is always useful; equating "myth" with falsehood or assuming that the opposite of that myth is necessarily a good thing is fatuous.) Twitter and other social media have intersected with that point because loudly stating those views online drives up the (online) popularity of those individuals and is good for their personal advancement and their egos. That doesn't mean it's good for their institutions or for journalism.  Barro adds that the tendency toward conformity online, the desire to keep one's admirers and avoid getting shot at from within one's own lines, exacerbates the tendency of the reporters who are eager to share their views and politics--which are generally the same views, within the elitepress--to fall in line and avoid messing with the conventional wisdom of the moment, while causing others to remain silent for the same reasons. 
  • Barro argues that "Places like The New York Times — having observed that their staffs are constantly expressing their biases out in the open, in a format that admittedly gets a lot of engagement — have increasingly brought that viewpoint-driven journalism into their news pages, becoming explicitly liberal rather than implicitly so." Again, I think this is right. To use the overused buzzword of the day, we might see this as a problem of political economy. In their effort to survive, newsrooms have been less likely to insist that journalists maintain professionalism and more likely to give in. That's true both at a micro level, since individual reporters develop their own fame and constituencies online and make it costly to resist them, and at a macro level, as newsrooms both adapt to and buy into the raft of premises that encourage some reporters to opine all day long. That is not to deny the presence of sincere beliefs about these things. But like anything else in America, these beliefs are also monetized and incentivized, and their formation and growth is in part a matter of the economic incentives to act in this fashion and then construct, knowingly or not, a set of beliefs and rationalizations to justify it. Many newspaper reporters who abandon old-fashioned standards of professionalism to opine about politics and culture "sincerely" believe what they argue, but those views are also shaped by ambition and the love of fame. Many newsrooms that justify this behavior "sincerely" believe they are evolving to meet changing views and a new generation of reporters, but those views are also shaped by a love of clicks, a need to survive, and a fear of online and offline staff rebellion which they lack the backbone to resist. (A.G. Sulzberger has many possessions, but a backbone is not one of them.) 
  • Barro argues that "marinat[ing] in the stories and the viewpoints about those stories that dominate on the platform" has "impaired news judgment." One might fairly observe, perhaps by quoting Pauline Kael, that reporters at the Times and similarly elite institutions were always marinating in something, a culture or locale that affected their worldview. But that does not make his observation incorrect. The stories and debates that draw the most attention on Twitter and other social media do not necessarily reflect the lived experience of millions of other people and most certainly do not necessarily reflect their priorities; but they increasingly seem to dominate what gets reported and how--and what gets neglected. I don't mean that in a conspiratorial sense, but in the sense that the fact that their staff live in a 24-hour world of artificial controversy has led these papers to ignore or give unduly short shrift to many other stories while focusing inordinately on the kinds of pseudo-events and pseudo-controversies that dominate that space and get attention there. 
  • Barro argues also that Twitter and other social media sites, or semi-social media sites like Slack, have encouraged newsroom revolts. He adds, "Of course, a lot of people like the idea of more worker power, but the workers here tend to have bad ideas about how to run a news organization because they are so ideologically unrepresentative." I would put the latter point a little differently. I agree that they may well have bad ideas about how to run a news organization, but I'm not sure the problem is ideological. It's more that they don't care about running a news "organization" qua organization. Their interests are more personal and individual than institutional. In truth, many of them doubt the value of institutions altogether, at least insofar as those institutions act as if they have a particular function--and thus limits on what is within the expertise and jurisdiction of that institution, and on what they should and should not do, concern themselves with, or allow within the context of that institution's operations. Others, to be sure, are pushing on the definition of the institution and its function, and this is a natural and valuable part of debate and change within institutions. But in some cases the argued limits are so vaporous, the arguments for the interconnectedness of everything (and thus the obligation of the institution to do and say everything) are so vague and encompassing, the institutional loyalty is so thin, and the sense that an institution has particular functions and limits, that this is a good thing, and that people who want to do other things might perhaps do so elsewhere, is so lacking that the position is closer to calling for the dissolution of institutions and institutionalism than of calling for their evolution or reform. To maintain institutions under those circumstances requires managers who have both a sense of what the institution is there for and a willingness to assert and defend that sense, including against its own members. Although many discussions of these issues focus on the younger rebellious generation and its arguable errors, the primary responsibility and the greater problem is the lack of either will or a clear sense on the part of the older managers. The greatest crisis of our time is institutional, and the crisis lies as much or more with those who are charged with maintaining them as with those who are challenging or simply not interested in them.
  • As Barro notes, that institutional point is closely related to another one: individual reporters, especially star reporters, "have gained unsustainable power at the expense of institutions." (As he notes, citing a useful piece on the relationship between stars and institutions by economist Allison Schrager, this issue is not limited to newspapers, but applies to a number of institutions today.) "One reason it’s been hard to rein in reporters on Twitter is they have their own reasons for behaving as they do." By being loud and opinionated and frequent in their tweets and posts, they get attention. (Not that that had anything to do with the rise of Prawfsblawg!) They become famous. They become "brands." They can monetize those brands. They can advance their own careers, with or without any benefit accruing to their institutions. The quality of their underlying and actual work, the thoughtfulness of the opinions they needn't voice but keep voicing anyway, the falsifiability of their claims, their willingness or unwillingness to admit error or correct the record, all these have some effect. But all of these are dwarfed by their fame and their "brand." (Not least because of polarization: their friends will happily forgive their errors or skip checking for them, and their adversaries will realize their own reputational and financial gains by harping on those errors. In the status game, polarization is a win-win scenario.) They needn't care about their home institutions; they can always leave, and as long as they remain, their weak-willed managers will probably give in to them. Of course part of this is about money, for both the reporter and the home institution, and about self-advancement in a fairly mundane sense. But money is not the only good people like to amass, and surely the profit to their status and ego is a significant element.

I would add that because the data show a strong liberal identification in reporters at elite newspapers, a lot of this can be viewed in tediously political or ideological terms. (I leave out things like magazines that take openly political views, and where it is perfectly natural that most people who work there will be associated with a set of political and cultural views.) But that seems beside the point. Their politics dwindle in importance next to their revealed preferences. They may call themselves liberal, progressive, conservative, anti-liberal, anti-capitalist, anti-elite, pro-justice, communitarian, integralist, or anything else. But their actions suggest the standard American loves: of fame, status, and money. Those are the truest, deepest politics of most social-media celebrities who are both addicted to those sites and addicted to leveraging them for personal gain, whether in financial or ego terms. (This is true even of some of the voices who rail most loudly about things like "disinformation" and "misinformation," however poorly defined, and argue for greater control of social media and perhaps of information more generally. They may believe these things; but what matters most is that they have built a profitable brand by arguing for them on social media.) Unless they are willing to take strong stands and suffer for them in the short run, institutions are no match for this kind of rampant self-serving individualism.

We could call this a social-media problem, or we could see it as a cultural problem, an institutional crisis more generally in contemporary society, that is amplified and exacerbated by social media. Either way, I think Barro is right to see the current moment not in pro- or anti-Musk terms but as an opportunity that has been handed to legacy news institutions. They ought to use the moment to reassert a modicum of responsible control: to take their reporters, qua reporters, off Twitter and other social media and to break a cycle of addiction that has not only failed to rescue them but has done incalculable damage to them as institutions.  

Does any of this apply to other institutions? Does it apply, for example, to academics, including legal academics? Does it apply to their own relationship to Twitter and other social media, their own interest in individual self-advancement, their own ideological conformity, their own damage to the general profession and particular institutions they are supposed to serve, and the failure of their institutions to address it--indeed, in many cases, those institutions' complicity in encouraging it? That question will have to wait for another time. (But the answer is yes.)  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 21, 2022 at 01:44 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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