Commentary Magazine

PRESS MAN: R U Tweeting 2 Much?

I had most of the week in a far country, where the cell-phone coverage is poor. When I arrived at dawn on Saturday to make the only weekend flight home, I was glad to find, in the lounge of the tiny regional airport, a free Wi-Fi signal. Hungrily, I linked up to the wired world. I pressed the tiny Twitter icon. And the tweets rushed in like river water through a breached dam. I was back.

Tweets appear in the order they’re received, so I was able to work my way down my “timeline” to see what my Twitter comrades had been up to through the week. Here at the top was a tweet sent only seconds before from Michele Norris, the NPR host. “Chicago is so majestic,” she wrote. I was drawn up short. Chicago? Michele is in Chicago? I should mention that I don’t know Michele Norris. I wouldn’t recognize her if she sat on me. Yet here in the unheated waiting room I found myself wondering why she would be in Chicago. I didn’t wonder very long, however, because instantly another tweet popped up. Michele had the Twitter bug this morning!

“Everybody at an airport is living for the clock,” she pointed out. That was a clue: Michele must be traveling. “And yet you can never find one when you need to check the time. Why? Why? Why?” It’s a good, tough question, the kind we journalists are trained to ask. But if Michele was worried about being late and missing her plane, I thought, why had she stopped rushing to her gate long enough to type a tweet about being late and missing her plane? Why why why?

I’ll never know. This was the last I heard from Michele. Perhaps she was stampeded to death when she paused in the middle of the concourse at O’Hare, tweeting. But there was no time to linger over Michele’s fate. Mark Knoller, the White House correspondent for CBS Radio and a tireless, obviously insomniac twitterer, was up with the larks and, as always, tweeting like one.

“McConnell also needles Obama,” came Mark’s latest tweet, “that Republicans are more inclined to support such trade deals than Democrats.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He was probably referring to—or “referencing,” as we say nowadays—an earlier tweet that was buried farther down in my Twitter timeline. I knew I’d get to it soon enough. I sipped my coffee. It was six a.m., and after three days of deprivation, I was already back in Twitter rhythm, pleasantly confused.

I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of weeks now. For an up-to-the-minute journalist, it has become a professional obligation. Many news organizations require their employees to tweet, and most journalists I know have willingly succumbed. Twitter has replaced the blog as the indispensable technology of the working press.

Blogs are totally 2009. They’ve gotten so wordy. For bloggers, it’s just scribble, scribble, scribble; for the rest of us, it’s just read, read, read. Sometimes blog posts go on for 200 or even 300 words. Imagine what you might be missing while you’re slogging through all that blah-blah. Worse, on a blog there’s a huge lag time—minutes often!—from the moment the blogger writes a post to the moment the reader can read it.

The temptation to edit oneself, to clarify and revise, to entertain second thoughts of any form, is simply too great for a modern journalist to risk it. Nobody these days wants to know what a journalist thought three minutes ago. A tweet is a blurt. We want to know what a journalist is thinking right now, this second.

And he better not be thinking too much: no tweet can be longer than 140 characters. Twitter demands brevity and immediacy, creating a kind of journalism that’s shorter and quicker than ever. Up-to-the-minute journalists seem particularly to welcome the word limit. Karl Kraus has said that if you give journalists more time, they’ll write worse. Twitter raises the question: what happens if you give them less? Scrolling down my timeline, I saw, as you might see a squall forming on a distant horizon, a series of tweets from Katrina Vanden Huevel, the editor of the Nation magazine.

I’ve never met her either. She’s one of my chattiest tweetmates, though. In its 145 years, Katrina’s magazine once published some of the most invigorating writers of prose in the English language, from Mencken to Orwell, Rebecca West to the James brothers (William and Henry, not Frank and Jesse). Now I was reading Katrina’s latest: “68% of Americans believe spending 2 much on war?/?Time 2 spend more @ home. Use $ internationally 2 create more secure?/?less militarized world.” Karl Kraus has been dead, like, a hundred years.

I subscribe only to tweets from journalists. As I swiped my finger down the timeline—through Knoller and Katrina, past ABC’s Jake Tapper and Politico’s Jonathan Martin—I was reminded that journalists are not only excitable; they are also indiscriminate in what excites them. The variety of events that had been deemed Twitter-worthy would surprise a non-Twit. Andrea Mitchell, the TV correspondent, had reported this: “deficit comission [Andrea competes in TV news, not spelling bees] member Andy Stern: potus has obligation during the SOTU to make his case on what’s his plan.”

“Tough loss for BC Women’s Soccer tonight,” announced Luke Russert of MSNBC. “Great season ladies!”

Katie Couric’s “wonderful assistant” had a baby while I was gone, Katie told her followers, including me. “So happy for Lauren!” Lauren’s parturition, along with the approach of Christmas, moved Katie to poetry: “Numinous: adj spiritually elevated. The seasons lights are luminous?/?to help us sense the numinous.” Then she went off to interview Condoleezza Rice at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to her Twitter home page, 111,591 have signed up to receive Katie’s tweets in real time; 28,000 follow Luke Russert, and 18,000 follow Andrea. Reading the tweets fresh, I had to wonder about these thousands who had volunteered to read them. Who are they?

The answer is, they’re twitterers too. Twitter is a community of interest in which journalists have adopted the techniques and habits of America’s compulsive sharers. The urge to leave no event untweeted, no matter how microscopic its news value, is part of a larger exhibitionism that contemporary journalists have in common with all avid twitterers, who are often satirized for their willingness to tweet their every burp and giggle. “Just bought a hard copy of the NY Times. First time in ages,” David Corn of Mother Jones tweeted. Jonathan Capehart, a writer for the Washington Post, followed up: “Enjoying an amazing whole roasted chicken for two @ Balsan. YUM!” You can’t stop a tweeter, even if he gets his iPhone all sticky.

My boarding call came as I chewed over this last post of Capehart’s. I was less unsettled by the fact that he wrote it than by the fact that I read it. Is there such a thing as information gluttony? We speak of “news consumers,” which raises at least the possibility that we will consume too much. Twitter invites overconsumption. It’s like living next door to Baskin Robbins.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stay with it. As we prepared for takeoff, I was losing my appetite. I snuck a last glimpse at my timeline anyway. Anderson Cooper was in Milan, at a Lady Gaga concert. “The show is amazing,” he tweeted. Enough! When the flight attendant told me to turn off and stow my electronic device, I felt almost grateful. But by the time we were in the air, I began to worry whether Michele had made her flight.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.

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