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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No, Twitter Hasn't Replaced CNN

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2011 at 3:27 PM

It's become perfectly predictable: Every time there's a major news event, people spend several days talking about how Twitter and Facebook are replacing traditional news organizations -- the (sigh) "MSM." Even if the word "replacing" isn't used, that's often the implication

In the present case -- the assassination of Osama bin Laden -- the notion is especially ridiculous.

Don't get me wrong -- Twitter is where I heard the news, and, together with Facebook, it was where I continued to track and discuss the unfolding events. Indeed, I get much of my news from Twitter and Facebook, which are revolutionizing -- almost entirely in good ways -- the way news is delivered. Normally, I'm in the position of defending Twitter against notions that it's filled with nothing but inanities and announcements of what people are eating for lunch.

What it really is -- for me anyway -- is the best real-time headline service yet invented, and a place to come across news I wouldn't otherwise see.

For the most part, Facebook and Twitter aren't organs of journalism, rather simply organs of dissemination (both of journalism and of sentiments like: "hell naw at 2 something n the morning i was tlking to somebody dat called me private lmao i was half sleep.")

Twitter was abuzz with news on Sunday night -- nearly all of it reported by the (sigh) "MSM."

That night, I saw on Twitter that President Obama was planning to address the nation on some "national security" matter. It was late -- about 10 p.m. on the East Coast. That lateness combined with the fact that, unusually, the subject of the address hadn't been leaked, gave me an ominous feeling.

Speculation ensued, on Twitter and on my Facebook page -- speculation I happily contributed to. Did we kill Qaddafi? One Facebook friend suggested -- in the absence of any cities blowing up or Chinese soldiers landing on the West Coast -- that perhaps a meteor was headed toward Earth. Finally, facts (or facsimiles of facts) started appearing on Twitter: bin Laden was dead; bin Laden was killed by an American air strike; No it was Special Forces; bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan; No, it was Pakistan.

In every single case, whether the fact was erroneous or accurate, it was linked, or at least attributed, to a journalist or a news organization. It was easy to tell what was being reported by journalists (even if erroneously so) and what was being guessed by tweeters.

Nonetheless, in the wake of the assassination, new-media pundits are hailing the event as another victory for social media over traditional media.

Steve Myers of The Poynter Institute declares that Sohaib Athar, a guy who lives near bin Laden's compound, is a "citizen journalist." Athar, an IT consultant, wondered what the hell was going on when the helicopters arrived in Abbottabad. Because he wondered on Twitter, in real time, now he's a "citizen journalist."

Even Athar, who had 750 followers as of Sunday night and now has tens of thousands, knows this is ridiculous. Nonetheless, Myers attempts to explain how Athar became "so influential so quickly," while offering no examples of Athar being influential.

"In 24 hours," Myers writes, "Athar went from someone who jokes with friends on Twitter and invites people to his coffee shop, to someone who broadcasts his thoughts to more than 86,000 followers."

Good for him. But does having 86,000 followers make him a journalist? For that matter, did his real-time tweets of the events make him one? Maybe in a small way, and very briefly, but he didn't know what was going on any more than anyone else did until he heard about it from news sources (via Twitter). Moreover, he was really only tweeting to his friends. His feed wasn't widely known until after the fact. Now he's posting pictures and videos of the compound. That is cool, but now the place is swarming with reporters with much better equipment and access to better information.

Wondering on Twitter why there are helicopters flying around your neighborhood isn't journalism. The world learned that bin Laden had been assassinated after the U.S. government told several big news organizations that that would be the subject of Obama's forthcoming announcement. Nonetheless, Myers says "traditional media was at the end of the chain."

Yes, the end of the chain of learning that a guy in Pakistan had tweeted there were helicopters buzzing around. Big deal.

In a particularly ludicrous account, Matt Rosoff of Business Insider hewed to that site's typical breathlessness and insensibility by declaring that the assassination represents Twitter's "CNN Moment" (a reference to the notion that CNN came into its own with its live coverage of the first Gulf War.)

Twitter, Rosof declared in the middle of the night, just hours after the announcement, "was the first place to report that President Obama would address the nation on a national security issue." Actually, the White House issued that announcement to the news media. Then a lot of people tweeted it. Twitter didn't "report" anything -- at least not any more than space satellites and television sets "reported" that bombs were dropping on Baghdad on February 13, 1991.

Rosof, like many others, makes much of a tweet by Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld's former chief of staff and a guy few people knew existed, minutes before any news outlet reported it, declaring that bin Laden had been killed. But he was just a guy tweeting something -- just like when my friend posted that the big announcement would be that a meteor was coming.

I was following Twitter very closely, and never saw Urbahn's tweet or any reference to it that night. The first mention I saw that bin Laden had been killed came from Jill Jackson, a Washington-based producer for CBS News. Her tweet was mentioned and retweeted many times over the next half-hour. I never knew about Urbahn's tweet until the next day -- in articles pronouncing Twitter as the new CNN.

Urbahn's tweet was found under one of the many rocks turned over by new-media pundits looking for clues to the demise of traditional news media. Many of those pundits are not unlike the most wild-eyed political ideologues: Turning over rocks to find evidence confirming a preconceived worldview is what wild-eyed ideologues do.

Dan Mitchell has done work for nearly every media organization in the world. That's an exaggeration, but he has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly.
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