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.
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PRESS MAN: R U Tweeting 2 Much?
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.