behind the news

Under Presser

Okay, maybe it was "the first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter." Is that really a story?
January 5, 2009

It’s a pattern familiar to the point of clichĂ©: an international crisis—or, to be slightly more precise, a crisis that takes place in a foreign country—occurs, and in its aftermath, American media outlets produce think pieces considering how the media performed in covering said crisis. These articles will almost always find that the mainstream coverage was somehow wanting. They will almost always find that the coverage produced by citizen journalists (they’ll almost always mention the citizen journalists) was both valiant and instructive, and that the news-sharing platform used by said citjos, be it a blog or a podcast or, most recently, a Twitter feed, offers enticing answers to the question of Where Journalism Will Go from Here.

At their best, these post-mortem efforts encourage critical thought about the progress of new media; even at their worst, they provide revealing snapshots of journalistic history. Yet occasionally these stories seem perfunctory, belying the editorial pressure to find something new to say about an impulse as old as history itself: the desire to share news of an event one has just witnessed.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza has produced treatments of both varieties. During the (first?) week of the crisis, in addition to the articles that focused on foreign journalists’ exclusion from Gaza and the pro-Israel bias in the American coverage and American media’s reticence in coverage, we’ve gotten the predictable—vaguely celebratory yet also vaguely cursory—citizen journos covering the crisis write-ups. And most of these have, not surprisingly, focused on everyone’s love-it-or-hate-it platform du jour: Twitter.

To (t)wit, yesterday’s New York Times piece, “The Toughest Q’s Answered in the Briefest Tweets,” which is the latest article to explore the use of Twitter and other new media platforms by Israeli officials during the Gaza crisis. Here’s its lede:

The Israel Defense Forces, recognizing that success in neutralizing the Hamas movement in Gaza is as much a public relations challenge as a military one, has enlisted an arsenal of Internet tools to take their message directly to a global audience. There is a military channel on the video-sharing site YouTube where you can watch suspected Hamas sites being obliterated by ordnance; blogs that spread the message of the foreign affairs ministry; and in the newest wrinkle, a news conference conducted through the microblogging service Twitter.

The piece goes on to highlight the key element of the IDF’s message-based Shock and Awe strategy: a press conference conducted last week, by officials at the Israeli consulate, via Twitter. (This was, the article goes out of its way to note, “the first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter,” and is therefore, one presumes, news chiefly by virtue of being new.) The use of Twitter is essentially youth outreach, according to David Saranga, Israel’s consul for media and public affairs. “We wanted to outreach to the young generation, who does not read the conventional media, but is still interested in events in the Middle East, so we thought this is a good way to be an official voice for the questions people are asking,” he told CNN. As the IDF’s Foreign Press branch head, Major Avital Leibovich, told The Jerusalem Post, discussing the YouTube clips that depict the attacks, “The blogosphere and new media are another war zone. We have to be relevant there.”

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Blogosphere as war zone. The metaphor probably rings true to any blogger who has faced the wrath of a disgruntled reader, but to be used this literally? The theater of popular opinion, to be sure, has never been a demilitarized zone—but, then, there’s a fine line between information and propaganda—and, more to the point, as far as media coverage is concerned, there’s a fine line between exploration and boosterism. The Times piece, in the gee-look-how-tech-savvy-Israel-is tone it adopts to tell its story, reads like a press release full of Billy Maysian enthusiasm for What Twitter Can Do. (First press conference conduced via tweets! Illustrates the new ways military powers are relating to the public! Hints at journalism’s Web-democratized future! And will get your dingy socks looking sparkling white!) As Poynter blogger Alan Abbey noted, discussing the conference, “The briefers were extremely well-informed and kept peppering their answers with links to online content that backed up their positions. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that any positions were changed through this direct contact. Still, this approach to getting the message out is definitely forward-thinking.”

Abbey is correct in all that. (And his comprehensive look at new media’s role in the Gaza attacks, it’s worth noting, is both informative and nearly clichĂ©-free.) But his choice of words, I think, is telling. There’s a tendency, in the often frenzied coverage of new media developments (what’s the newest thing?! could it be…The Future?!?), to conflate forward thinking with good thinking. Yet new, of course, doesn’t always equal better, and being internationally popular doesn’t automatically make something good (fast food restaurants, reality television, Britney Spears, etc.). Indeed, the Times piece—and others that rather unquestioningly hail the “global reach” afforded by YouTube and Twitter and the like—tend to treat such a widespread presence not as a means, but as an end in itself. Twitter reaches a lot of people, the logic goes; it must therefore be good.

To an extent, fair enough: It’s a logic, after all, based on the general truism—and the general truth—that democratization is good. (See the Times article’s focus on Israel’s taking their message “directly to a global audience.”) But this logic has a rather deleterious effect, too, as far as media criticism goes, in that it tends to preclude qualitative analysis of our new media platforms. (See the fact that the Times article provides no criticisms of these platforms.) Once you decide that, for Twitter, a wide audience is a journalistic end in itself—once you decide, in effect, that quantity is quality—then you effectively render the specifics of Twitter–its usefulness as a platform, etc.—to be nearly moot points. And there’s much to criticize—or, at any rate, there’s much to question—about Twitter’s shift from a tool of average citizens, journalists included, to a tool of the military and the government. As is evidenced by the particular bits of text of the Twittered press conference around which the Times wraps the mantle of Historical Precedent:

Question from peoplesworld: 40 years of military confrontation hasn’t brought security to Israel, why is this different?
Answer from israelconsulate: We hav 2 prtct R ctzens 2, only way fwd through neogtiations, & left Gaza in 05. y Hamas launch missiles not peace?

EhsanAhmad: you didn’t get my point that Hammas is an elected govt and if u keep attacking them they got right to attack you
israelconsulate: if hamas’s goal were 2 btr the lives of its cit. they wouldn’t target IL. they would invest in edu/hlth not in bombs

explore4corners: How many attacks have there been against IS in the last 6 months? How many casualties? The MSM doesn’t report that here.
israelconsulate: ovr 500 rockts Hit IL in the 6 mts of CF. per the last 72 hrs mre thn 300 hit IL. kiling 4 ppl & injuring hndrds

carrotderek: On what conditions would Israel consider a ceasefire?
israelconsulate: CF must ensure no more rockets on IL+ no arms smuggling. btw crossings for Human Aid r open and trucks are entering

backlotops: 1 side has to stop. Why continue what hasn’t worked (mass arial/grnd retaliation)? Arab Peace Initiative?
israelconsulate: we R pro nego. crntly tlks r held w the PA + tlks on the 2 state soln. we talk only w/ ppl who accept R rt 2 live.

shahidkamal: Your nation has been disgraced on Twitter. This inverted Nuremberg Trial will not rescue your image.
israelconsulate: the point of this was to hear what ppl say and to share our POV with fellow twitters.

On the face of things, this is all fantastic: regular people—not just press-pass-wielding journalists—asking questions of people in power, and people in power responding, using the digital vernacular of the regular people. How transparent! How wonderfully democratic!

And yet, again, this angle emphasizes the mere fact of democratization over the more salient question of what, exactly, is being democratized. Call it, in this case, the “R rt 2 live” problem. Reading the text of the Israeli consulate’s answers here—rather than hearing them, as we’re used to doing with press conferences—highlights just how glib and PR-y (and, therefore, non-democratizing) the consulate’s messages were. And reading them in texting shorthand, in particular, as if the latest Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been playing out in the barely-there lyrics of a tuneless pop production, doesn’t help matters. As long as the people answering questions have public relations, rather than public information, as their primary goal, throwing the doors to a press conference open to the general public won’t make the press conference any better. It’ll just make it more crowded.

Still, a Twittered press conference can be a valuable thing, if only because the platform’s innate brevity—you could even say its innate glibness—works as a fairly damning commentary on the innate glibness of press conferences in general. Twitter, in the crunch of its 140-character cap, affords no room to pretend that a PR person’s answers are, generally speaking, anything but self-serving and perfunctory. On Twitter, in other words, PR people can’t hide behind the false authority of a presidential seal and a tailored suit. All they have is text.

On the other hand, all they have is text—140 characters of text for each tweet. Which is, in nearly every sense, limiting. Considering that those in power, given a choice, would generally opt to say as little as possible during press conferences, should we really be extolling a platform that not only discourages, but prevents, lengthy answers? I’m all for individual journalists tweeting bits of information—or opinions, or observations, or random updates, or what have you—to their readers. I’m all for citizen journalists doing the same. (Al-Jazeera English has some good examples of tweeted reporting about the Gaza situation.)

But when government or military officials are doing the tweeting, that changes the terms of Twitter’s cost-benefit analysis. “The Israeli government is trying to explain a conflict that people write books about, a conflict that newspaper writers struggle to explain in 2,000 words, in 140 characters at a time,” the normally tweetophilic Rachel Maddow scoffs in the Times article. Audiences deserve depth—at all times, but particularly when it comes to a situation as complex as the Gaza crisis. Why, in this context, celebrate discussion of that situation via a platform whose chief drawback—and chief asset—is precisely its simplicity?

If the Israeli consulate were truly interested in having a thoughtful, democratized, Web-based conversation with the global public, you’d think they’d have at least held their press conference as a Web chat—or a similar platform that, while affording widespread participation, also affords the sharing of nuanced information and the provision of necessary context. A platform, in short, that allows for answers to people’s questions that are as long as they need to be.

But hosting a Web chat wouldn’t provide the PR coup that “the world’s first Twittered press conference!” did. Media critics looking for their requisite new angle wouldn’t have found one in a tired old Web-chatted conference. Twitter, on the other hand, is so now—a topic mainstream journalists are eager to write about, a topic many audiences are eager to read about. So what the Twittered conference lacked in substance, it made up for in publicity for the Israeli perspective in the Gaza conflict. (Care to guess how many Americans read Israel’s self defense, unfiltered, courtesy of the Times article?)

And the publicity, while its copy was written by the Israeli government, was given its megaphone by American journalists. It’s telling that, in the Times article, the fact of the press conference’s newness was attributed to Saranga, the media consul—rather than simply stated as fact. And Saranga’s “first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter” claim echoes one of the first tweets he posted to the Israeli Consulate feed: “The conference presents a unique, never-before-seen opportunity for a government to create an open platform for global discussion during a time of crisis.”

The medium, in other words, is part of Saranga’s message—and it’s a message that, apparently, perked the ears and piqued the interest of mainstream journalists. Perhaps the savvy Israeli officials demonstrated in this case, then, lies not just in how well they understand the new media, but in how well they understand the old.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.