Dear Alessandra Stanley: you’ve missed the point.
This weekend, the Times’s TV critic trained her focus and her TV Watch column on news anchors’ infatuation with Twitter. And that focus is both narrow and surprisingly bitter. Stanley resents, apparently, the me-ness of Twitter, the casual solipsism inherent in, say, this tweet (courtesy of noted Twitterphile David Gregory): “It’s 830. Rehearsal done. Guests should arrive anytime now. This is a good time for me to go thru my q’s one last time. Maybe a bagel b4 air.” Or in this one (from noted Twittervangelist Rick Sanchez): “I watched the Obama speech on treadmill after getting home late from daughter’s softball practice. Now I’m going to study it on paper.”
Stanley seems to be genuinely surprised that the anchors she calls out in her piece—Gregory, Sanchez, David Shuster, Norah O’Donnell—would have the audacity to think that people care enough about them to want to know what they’re having for breakfast, or how they’re getting their day’s cardio. And she seems to be genuinely fearful about what that audacity suggests for, you know, The Culture at Large.
Those who say Twitter is a harmless pastime, which skeptics are free to ignore, are ignoring the corrosive secondary effects. We already live in an era of me-first journalism, autobiographical blogs and first-person reportage. Even daytime cable news is clotted with Lou Dobbsian anchors who ooze self-regard and intemperate opinion.
Stanley’s surprise here—the earnestness with which she describes Twitter’s “corrosive effects”—is surprising in itself. Because to the extent that Gregory and the other members of Team Twitter are journalists, they’re also celebrities. People care about their eating and exercise habits for precisely the same reason they care about Brad Pitt’s eating and exercise habits: because we like information that humanizes our cultural figures, that flattens our relationship to them, that makes us feel, you know, close to them.
Stanley mentions new-to-Twitter Norah O’Donnell’s followers—1,509 as of Wednesday afternoon—but fails to mention the fact that Gregory has (as of this writing) 113,061 followers, with Sanchez ringing in at 60,199. (David Shuster, who ends up coming across as something of a—do we dare?—twoseur in the piece, has 6,609.) Thousands of followers don’t lie: given the fact that, on Twitter, you can “un-follow” people as easily as you can follow them—both through, literally, a single click—you have to think that these journalistic celebrities are giving their followers something they like.
And that something is access—proximity to the professional (and, often, personal) lives of journalists who occupy the echelons, and determine the course, of the news cycle. Following these journocelebrities offers the chance to pull back the curtain that formerly divided the powerful from the non-: in shedding some light (however dim, however banal) on the lives of news personalities, Twitter sheds light on the news itself. It represents in many ways the anti-commodification of journalism.
Which is a point—and a rather obvious one—that Stanley either rejects or blissfully ignores. Instead, she concocts a fanciful metaphor, comparing Twitterers to Wall Street traders (both groups being so out of touch!). “At the height of the subprime folly, there was not enough outside regulation or inner compunction to restrain heedless excess,” Stanley writes. “It’s too late for traders, but that economic mess should be a lesson for those who traffic in information.”
In other words, per Stanley, Wall Street’s infamous “bubble”—not merely the economic one that’s already burst, but the bubble of self-imposed isolation that allowed for all the hot air in the first place—is meeting its metaphorical match among the media. Who are currently taking up self-imposed isolation in the informational bubble that is Twitter.
Which is a baffling argument to make, considering that Twitter is…well, if we’re going to keep with the bubble metaphor, it’s a giant pin. It doesn’t expand the bubble of power; it pops it. Not to belabor Stanley’s flawed analogy, but if Wall Street’s problem (well, one of Wall Street’s problems) was its isolation from the “real world”…wouldn’t that mean that any platform that connects powerful people to their constituents is, generally speaking, something to be celebrated rather than decried? Even if that platform has, you know, a silly name?
Sure, you could deride the Twitterers called out in Stanley’s story—and their thousands of counterparts in the Twitosphere—as narcissistic/solipstistic/needy/greedy/what have you. Frankly, I don’t really care what their motivations are, or, for that matter, what combination of psychic needs has made them want to Twitter. Because the net result of a tweeting journosphere—one that makes conversation an integral part of the journalistic mandate—is transparency.
Rick Sanchez, for his part, responded to Stanley’s piece in a series of, yes, tweets: “wow, we made today’s new york times”…”know what’s cool,6 months ago we took out a laptop during a sunday newscast and twittered on air.100 of us. now NY frigging times.so cool!”… “best part, no marketing! no branding! no bs! no real cnn push.all you! totally organic, totally self derived. ground up.truly participatory!”
Sanchez’s cheerleading—essentially, in this case, one long, three-tweeted “wooooooooo!” —is…well, extreme. Twitter isn’t “totally self derived.” It isn’t “truly participatory!.” The wizard’s curtain hasn’t been completely pulled back—there’s still a selectivity, of course, to the information journalists decide to share with their followers, and knowing that David Gregory is currently eating a bagel doesn’t do much for consumers’ overall informational needs. But, still, it’s a start.
Given the choice between unedited exclamations from Rick Sanchez or, on the other hand, silence from him…I’d prefer the former. Given a choice between knowing how David Gregory prepares for Meet the Press, and not knowing…I’d rather know. Or, well, I’d rather know that I have the option of finding out. The net benefit of Twitter isn’t in individual tweets, but in the trajectory they suggest in the aggregate: with Twitter—and on Twitter, and to some extent because of Twitter—journalism is becoming, if not fully transparent, then ever more translucent. It’s becoming, quite literally, more enlightened. And that, Ms. Stanley, is a good thing.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.