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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Twitter Fetishists Can't be Stopped

Posted By on Tue, May 7, 2013 at 2:30 PM


The horrific heaps of misinformation that spewed from Twitter and other social media services during the Boston Marathon bombing saga haven't slowed down the Twitter fetishists. If anything, they've doubled down.

For some reason, these people believe that Twitter represents some kind of earth-shattering revolution for the news business, when it's really just a platform for delivering short messages in real time.

To be sure, on that basis, Twitter is a big deal. The existence of a stream of constantly updated real-time news and information, coming from all points on the globe all at once, does represent a major development for the news ecosphere. But some observers, for whatever reason, tend to get ridiculously carried away with their enthusiasm.

"Twitter pretty much proves a lot of people want to be part of the future of news. Why doesn't ONE news org try to tap into that[?]" Tweeted technologist and pundit Dave Winer, a reliable critic of the idea the professionals should have anything to do with disseminating news, and a champion that news spread by the masses is inherently superior.

Winer blithely ignored the fact that Twitter, Reddit, and other sites were sources of all kinds erroneous information about the bombing suspects, which in one case caused the New York Post to publish a giant picture of innocent people on its front page, tagging them as suspects. The Post quite clearly did "tap into that" -- and look what happened.

Raising such points inevitably causes the Twitter fetishists to note that the professional media got stuff wrong, too. Look at CNN's John King, they said in this case: He reported the falsehood that a "dark-skinned male" had been arrested. Everything about what he said was untrue -- no arrest, no dark skin. The arrest of a suspect who was born in the Caucasus region came later.

First, at this point, we shouldn't rely on CNN any more than we should rely on what some joker says on Twitter. The network has become as big a joke as the New York Post or Fox News, for different reasons. Second, much of what some parts of the media do either comes directly from Twitter (as with the Post front page) or happens because of the kind of thinking that Twitter tends to encourage: ready, fire, aim. Get the information out there fast, and worry later about whether it's accurate.

But most of the media didn't do that in this case. The New York Times and NBC News, just for two examples, both did stellar work in covering the bombings and their aftermath. They got lots of information before anybody else, and they reported it only when it was confirmed. There is simply no reason to report anything before it's confirmed. You got it first? Good for you, but nobody else gives a shit.

And now Twitter is hiring a "head of news and journalism." This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Twitter itself is not to blame for the people who fetishize it and who mischaracterize its strengths and ignore its weaknesses. In fact, judging by Twitter's want-ad, it seems like the whole idea might be to add more professionalism to Twitter as a news-delivery vehicle. They're looking for a big-time pro -- one with at least 15 years in the business and lots of experience managing a newsroom. And the ad emphasizes Twitter's relationships with professional news organizations.

But that's not enough for Michael Wolff, the media opinion-slinger whose aim is always to provoke rather than to enlighten. You can almost hear him struggling to force air into his lungs as he writes:

This is, arguably, a bigger news job than Jeff Zucker's job running CNN. Given the choice between being the executive editor of the New York Times or being the first Twitter news chief, you'd be well advised to think twice.

It is, very possibly, a job on the order of running a network news division in the 1970s or '80s, the biggest job that there has ever been in news. There are the historic, possibly even Murrow-like, implications to this job. This is the first time a technology company and platform has decided that one of its primary functions is news. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, have all, to varying degrees, devoted resources to news and seen opportunities in it, but as an information commodity -- redistributors instead of shapers. They never saw themselves as having a news-gathering and filtering function.

The stuff about how important the job is compared to running CNN or the New York Times is ridiculous on the face of it. It could end up being a big job. Or it could end up being a big nothing. Note that Facebook, which also had for a while been called the "future of news," recently lost its "managing editor," Dan Fletcher. He said he left because, even though news gets spread on Facebook, it's not a news site. Neither is Twitter.

Wolff's declaration that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft "never saw themselves as having a news gathering and filtering function" is transparently false. All of them have. Yahoo runs a bunch of news sites, staffed by paid journalists. Microsoft did the same when it owned half of MSNBC, and also when it launched Slate (now owned by the Washington Post Company). Google doesn't pay any journalists for anything, but it surely "filters" news through Google News. Twitter's plans are far from representing the "first time a technology company and platform has decided that one of its primary functions is news."

But then, Wolff is the guy who declared that the Columbia Journalism School had made a big mistake by hiring Steve Coll -- one of the best and most widely respected journalists in the history of the business -- in part because Coll doesn't tweet.

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Dan Mitchell


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