Journalism Is Broken - Twitter, Trump, & The NYTimes

Authored by Chris Arnade via Medium.com,

Leaving Twitter means people send you articles about others who leave Twitter, so I saw the story of a NY Times reporter leaving Twitter, and then the follow-up analysis of what that means. That analysis article ended with these helpful guides:

My reaction was

  1. Congrats to the NY Times reporter!
  2. That the bullet points need to be stated is sad.

Five years ago I was a progressive that fully bought into the idea journalism was on the nasty end of a disingenuous conservative campaign to discredit it.

Then I joined Twitter.

Now I flip between two theses:

  1. On a good day: Journalism has been badly degraded by the twin forces of economic loss and the immediacy and brutality of Twitter.
  2. On a bad day: Journalism is fundamentally slanted, narrow, and nasty. Many journalists are removed, smug, know-it-alls who don’t understand or like voters.

When I joined Twitter I also changed jobs, leaving Wall Street to document addiction and poverty. This brought me to places that few journalists visit, beyond the quick jump-in jump-out for some breaking news.

I ended up spending roughly five years doing this, hanging in McDonald’s and drug traps and churches and community colleges and cheap motels. I ended up talking to countless voters about their pains, frustrations, fears, hopes, and dreams. I started writing about politics for the first time in my life, not because I cared all that much about politics, but because what I was seeing out in the country was so so so different than what the political journalist were writing.

They said Trump had no chance, they said Trump voters were just idiots or racists.

I was seeing that Trump had a damn good chance, if not this election, then the next election. His ideas, his brand of chaos, anger, and “Lets knock it all over and start again because everything sucks” was selling like, well, McFlurries.

I also was seeing that his voters were not this big blob of unrepentant dumb racists. I mean, I spent time in about 20 counties that voted twice for Obama, and then voted for Trump. I cannot tell you how many folks I met who voted for Trump and also voted twice for Obama. I guess they all were unrepentant racists who thought Obama was white. Or maybe voters were so desperate for something different that they voted twice for an inexperienced black outsider who promised change and when he failed to deliver they went with the next outsider who promised to shake shit up.

They were angry at politicians from both parties who came in and said they were gonna do something about the lost jobs, the open borders, the stagnant wages, and did nothing about them. Both parties promised them stuff and didn’t deliver. All they wanted was to find anyone who promised to really really listen to them. Even if he was crazy.

The other lesson was just how damn slanted and biased journalism was. Both sides. Conservatives and Liberals. The experience of talking to voters in places journalists on Twitter were laughing at, mocking, snidely calling the “real America,”, or “fly-over,” or whatever was the condescending Twitter meme of the day that they trafficked in. That was a damn eye-opening experience. One that made me realize that the cliched talking point of an out of touch biased media wasn’t entirely wrong or cynical or manipulative. Some of it was, but there was more than a grain of truth to it. A pretty big ball of truth to it.

Journalism is broken. No necessarily out of bad intentions, but because many journalists don’t understand how bubbled they are, and sadly Twitter is only making everyone, and them, more bubbled. And sadly many journalists have little choice but to be bubbled.

To succeed in journalism means you have to join the elites in NYC or DC, you have to play the game. You have to get on Twitter and signal how journalisty you are. That means joining in on the reindeer games. Blasting the meme of the day. Or comment on breaking news regardless of the validity of the information. You have to pile on the tweet everyone else is jumping on. The one where someone says something against the grain, or naive, or makes a mistake. You have to mock those who hold different views. You have to be snide. You have to be nasty. You have to signal to everyone else just how in the know you are.

You have to show you deserve to be in the little inner circle that elite journalists think they are in.

Doing that means you get rewarded for that. Stunningly so. You get more followers, bigger jobs, and bigger platforms.

Most damning, you have to make the news about you. You have to tell everyone how you see it. How you view it. How it impacts you. Not how it impacts, you know, the voters. That seems pretty much the opposite of what good journalism is about, which in my mind is how news impacts the country, not the person writing the story.

Twitter has made everyone into an op-ed writer, all the time. And now with almost everyone in journalism constantly on Twitter being op-ed-ey, it has revealed their biases. It has also exaggerated them, pushing them further and further into group think.

That was my own experience. Twitter was good to me because it gave me a platform to share the stories of those I was talking to. That was when I used it well. It was bad for me, and bad for others, when I let it become a platform to tell the world what I thought about everything.

As I have written before gut reactions are hardly ever good things and Twitter makes it easy to broadcast your gut reaction. So I found myself talking less and less about the people I met and more and more about my gut reactions. This became more pronounced when I wasn’t traveling and wasn’t talking to voters. So I left Twitter, at least until I start traveling again.

All of this is sad because there are a lot of great journalists out there, a lot of well-intended smart people who go into the business for all of the right reasons. But more and more the industry, especially now that it has become intertwined with Twitter, doesn’t work in their favor. It works for those less well intended, those who show they can build an audience, no matter how they do it, no matter how nasty, how biased, how disingenuous, how shallow, how selfish, they are.

And to finish with Trump, because Twitter.

Trump exploits this, not necessarily out of genius, but because exploiting things is who he is. He sees that many voters don’t trust journalists, and why should they, especially if they are on Twitter. They log on and see them mocking their way of life and their reality. They see how out of touch from them they are.

They see journalist say, “just trust the experts, like us.” Well a lot of Americans have good reasons not to trust experts. They have heard that line far far too long.

Trump sees that, sees how the blue check marks jump on every little thing he says and attack it and retweet it and make a mountain out of it. They are the dog with the Frisbee that won’t let it go, and it is good for Trump.

So when he needs to show he is draining the swamp he makes blue check mark Twitter yell. Because to much of America the outraged yells of the media IS the sound of the swamp being drained. Regardless of if the actual swap is being drained. And right now the actual swamp is NOT being drained.

So he tweets about absurd, nasty, gross, and divisive things and it makes waves and waves on Twitter and becomes a Tsunami that overtakes everything else.

No the media isn’t the source of the problem. I am not here to let Trump off the hook, but hopefully to think about how to lessen his impact. Trump is the problem. But his brand of divisiveness gets a lot more traction and does more damage because few trust the media.

And they have some very good reasons to not trust the media. And their behavior on Twitter is part of that.

So. To the NY Times reporter who quit twitter. Congrats! I hope more journalists follow. Or at least stick to talking about the news. Or cats. Or baseball.