Three insights into Elon Musk’s brief, narcissism-fueled reign over Twitter

Photo (cc) 2013 by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

When we learned last spring that Elon Musk might buy Twitter and transform it into some sort of troll- and bot-infested right-wing hellhole, my first thought was: Bring it on. Although I’m a heavy user, I had no great affection for the service, which was already something of a mess. If Musk ran it into a ditch, well, what of it?

On second thought, I realized I would miss it — and so would a lot of other people. In particular, Twitter has become an important service in calling out injustice around the world as well as a forum that gives Black users a voice they might not have anywhere else. My friend Callie Crossley was talking about Black Twitter on the late, lamented “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” ages ago. Black Twitter could go elsewhere, of course, but it would be hard to recreate on the same scale that it exists now.

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For now, I’m staying, but I’m also playing around. Mastodon meets a lot of my needs (I’m @dankennedy_nu@journa.host), mainly because a lot of media and political people I want to follow immediately made the move. But, so far, I see none of the non-Trump conservatives whose presence I value and very few Black users. That may be my fault, and it may change. I’m also skeptical of Mastodon’s extreme decentralization, with each server (called an instance) having its own rules of engagement. I’m also on Post News at @dankennedy_nu, but I really don’t like the micropayment scheme on which it’s staked its future, explained at Nieman Lab by Laura Hazard Owen.

Twitter really does matter. It may be the smallest of the social platforms, but it’s a place where people in media and politics have to be. I’m not sure it can be replicated. So much has been written and said about Twitter over the past few weeks, and no one could possible keep up with it all. Here, though, are three pieces that I think cut through the murk as well as any.

The first is from Dr. Meredith Clark, my colleague at Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Professor Clark is a leading authority on Black Twitter and the author of the forthcoming book “We Tried to Tell Y’all: Black Twitter and the Rise of Digital Counternarratives.” Meredith says she’s staying. In a recent interview with Michel Martin of NPR, she explained why:

We’re digging in our heels. We’ve been on this platform. We’ve contributed so much to it that we’ve made it valuable in the way that it is today. We’ve made it an asset, and so no, we’re not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we’re going somewhere else. We’re leaving for other platforms.

But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren’t many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn’t changed all that much. I don’t plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I’ll be the last one to turn the lights off if that’s what I need to be, because I’m certainly not going either.

By the way, Meredith was a guest earlier this year on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast hosted by Ellen Clegg and me. You can listen to our conversation here.

Taking the opposite approach is Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, who has suspended his Twitter account in favor of Mastodon — a step that he admits has cut him out of numerous conversations, but that he believed was necessary in order not to be a part of Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a reflection of his own obsessions and ego. Like Clark, Dr. Cobb is Black; unlike Clark, his reasoning makes no mention of Black Twitter per se, although he does note its value in bringing to light racial injustices. “Were it not for social media,” Cobb writes in The New Yorker, “George Floyd — along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — would likely have joined the long gallery of invisible dead Black people, citizens whose bureaucratized deaths were hidden and ignored.” But that, he emphasizes, was then:

Participating in Twitter — with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls — always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured — doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.

My own view of Trump’s reinstatement is rather complicated. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s easy to justify banning a major presidential candidate, which Trump now surely is. On the other hand, he was banned for fomenting violence — and now that he’s been given another chance, he’s likely to do it again, which means he’ll have to be banned all over again. Except that he won’t be with Musk in charge. (So far, at least, Trump hasn’t tweeted since his reinstatement.) In any case, I respect Cobb’s decision, even if I’m still not quite there.

I’ll close with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo. Like me, Marshall is dipping his toe into Mastodon’s waters while maintaining his presence on Twitter. And, like me, he’s trying to figure out exactly what Musk is up to. The other day he offered a theory that doesn’t explain all of it, but may explain some of it — especially the part that plays into Musk’s emotions and sense of grievance, which may prove to be the most important in understanding what’s going on.

Marshall sees Musk as traveling a path previously taken by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Musk is a narcissist who can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around his every need and want. Also like Trump in, say 2015, Musk was until recently someone with vague right-wing proclivities who has hardened his views and openly embraced white supremacy and antisemitism because we liberals hurt his feelings. Trump and Musk have both taken up with horrible people because they were offering support and friendship when no one else would. With Trump, it’s Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. With Musk, it’s, well, Trump and his sycophants. Marshall writes:

I doubt very much that in mid-2015 Trump had any real familiarity with the arcana of racist and radical right groups, their keywords or ideological touch-points. But they knew he was one of them, perhaps even more than he did. They pledged their undying devotion and his narcissism did the rest.

Elon Musk is on the same path. There are various theories purporting to explain Musk’s hard right turn: a childhood in apartheid South Africa, his connection with Peter Thiel, disappointments in his personal life. Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever right-leaning tendencies he may have had before a couple years ago appear to have been latent or unformed. Now the transformation is almost complete. He’s done with general “free speech” grievance and springing for alternative viewpoints. He’s routinely pushing all the far right storylines from woke groomers to Great Replacement.

If anything good can come of this it may be that we hit peak social media a few years ago. Facebook is shrinking, especially among anyone younger than 60. TikTok is huge, but as a number of observers have pointed out, it isn’t really a social platform — it’s a broadcaster with little in the way of user interaction. Now Twitter is splitting apart.

This may be temporary. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg or (most likely) someone else will be able to reassemble social media around the metaverse. For now, though, social media may be broken in a way we couldn’t have imagined in, say, 2020. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing — although I wouldn’t mind if someone put Twitter back together again, only this time minus the trolls, the bots and the personal abuse that defined the site long before Musk came along.

At Columbia, clashing views over the value and even the meaning of objectivity

Masha Gessen. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

I was struck by an argument that Masha Gessen made earlier this week at a panel  about objectivity. Back in March, Gessen wrote a harrowing 7,000-word account for The New Yorker about Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Her editors, she said, wanted to include a comment from the Russian government — a statement in which officials would deny the horrific reality of what she and photographer Jérôme Sessini had documented.

“The objective style would demand that we give the Russian government a platform to lie,” she said. She told her editors that it would have “contaminated” the entire story to include a few lines of official denial. She prevailed; but she added that if she had been writing about any other topic, “I would have lost that battle.”

At another point in the discussion she said, “If we’re going to have an ideal, then moral clarity would be a much better ideal than objectivity.”

Gessen made her remarks last Tuesday at a discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review and Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights called “The Objectivity Wars.” For the most part, the discussion was familiar and predictable, but there were a few moments of genuine insight.

The panelists were David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University; Lewis Raven Wallace, author of “The View from Somewhere,” best known for losing his job at public radio’s “Marketplace” after writing a blog post that was critical of journalistic objectivity; author and journalist Wesley Lowery, who left his job at The Washington Post after clashing with then-executive editor Marty Baron over his opinionated Twitter feed; and Andie Tucher, the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Moderating was Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the CJR.

The most outspoken defender of traditional objectivity was Greenberg, who said that opinion journalism and objective journalism have long co-existed, and each has an important place. He noted that, at many newspapers, journalists who had paid their dues by working as straight-news reporters were often rewarded with columns in which they could express their opinions. “There’s a certain prestige and freedom attached to that position,” he said.

Tucher added that objectivity arose as an antidote to the sensationalism of the 19th century. “Journalism was terrible,” she said. “It was embarrassing.” Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the lurid New York World, founded the Columbia School of Journalism, she said, out of a sense of “remorse.”

Lowery, whose critique of objectivity was best expressed in a New York Times op-ed piece published in 2020, argued that objectivity can’t be separated from race and gender, saying that the decisions that go into any conversation about what’s newsworthy and how stories should be covered are still overwhelmingly made by white men. “My piece will be different from your piece because we will make different subjective decisions,” he said. He said, too, that most news organizations have stopped providing information on how diverse their reporting staffs are (or aren’t) “because they don’t want to be embarrassed by it.”

Indeed, my Northeastern colleague Dr. Meredith Clark resigned from running the News Leaders Association’s diversity survey, she wrote earlier this year at Nieman Lab, because so few newsrooms were willing to respond. (Clark talked about her findings with Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast a few months ago.)

Wallace said his turn against objectivity was grounded in his experience in coming out as transgender when he was a teenager. He wanted his identity to be part of what he did, he told the audience, saying, “Objectivity has been a silencing force — literally, in my case.”

Objectivity will continue to be a fraught subject. Properly understood, it simply means a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, with journalists adopting unbiased methods of reporting in order to get past their biases. Unfortunately, objectivity is too often reduced to the mindless reporting of “both sides” and of engaging in false equivalence.

The Columbia panel shows that those various understandings and misunderstandings of objectivity persist to this day.

Meredith Clark on race, power and why the media have fallen short on diversity

Meredith Clark. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

On the brand new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Professor Meredith Clark, our colleague at Northeastern University. Dr. Clark is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern as well as founding director of the university’s new Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change.

Before arriving at Northeastern, she was a faculty fellow at Data & Society, an independent nonprofit research organization based in New York that examines some of the questions being raised by the massive increase in the use of data in all aspects of society.

Dr. Clark’s research is on the intersections of race, media and power, and she’s studied everything from newsroom hiring and reporting practices to social media communities. Her media diet is wide-ranging and eclectic. Our interview touches on many cultural icons, including poet Audre Lorde and Captain Olivia Benson, the fictional “Law & Order SVU” crime-solver.

Meredith is perhaps best known in news circles for her work in trying to revive an annual diversity census conducted by the News Leaders Association, an effort that fell short earlier this year after just 303 media outlets responded out of the 2,500 that were asked to provide data. Ellen and I asked Meredith why so few were willing to participate — and what can be done to encourage diversity at small start-up news organizations.

In Quick Takes, I discuss Gannett’s recent move to dismantle some of the chain’s regional editorial pages, which I see as not entirely a negative, and Ellen tips the hat to two of the 2022 recipients of the prestigious Freedom of the Press Award: Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and Mukhtar Ibrahim, founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

News organizations need to stop stonewalling on layoffs and diversity data

Photo (cc) 2009 by Richard Kendall

The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”

She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:

  • “Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
  • “A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
  • “Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”

Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:

The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”

Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend  meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?