It’s Not Journalism

If we were to survey the journalists whose work is respected for being great, we’d find – in general – that it’s the “investigative journalists” and the crisis reporters that dominate the landscape. The historians-as-reporters, such as Herodotus, and SLA Marshall, are also obviously important, even when we factor in later information revealing SLA Marshall as a phoney.

As I write this, I cannot help but think of ProPublica’s series Friends of The Court, [pro] which uncovered the corruption of the US Supreme Court by ideological billionaires. It’s a brilliant bit of investigative journalism; journalism at its finest. And then there was Sy Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai massacre, and the torture program at Abu Ghraib. [my lai] [abu] and the Watergate story, broken by investigative journalists Woodward and Bernstein. We later learn that these stories are not uncovered entirely by the reporter – the information was fed out to them by someone close to the incident, who decided to specifically feed a particular journalistic outlet. Sometimes, we wind up with an eminence grise journalist like Bob Woodward, who keeps turning the crank and publishing fascinating accounts summarized out of the mouths of the principal players, and other times we get reporters like Glenn Greenwald, who slowly slide into ideological irrelevance. It’s hard to quantify this stuff, and I’m aware that “proof by example” is weak. But just take a look at the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in any given year and you’ll notice that they’re the investigators or reporters of facts on the ground. [pulitzer] I’m tempted to say something like, “this is all inarguably great journalism” except this is an internet blog, and saying something like that invites some paladin to take up his +5 Shield of Endless Wanking and have at it. I hope I’ve made my point, whether you agree 100% with me, or not. It’s tangential.

Really, what I wanted to talk about is Twitter. In some of the forums where I hang out, there has been considerable anguish over the death-spiral Twitter has put itself into, “it’s an important source for journalists!” say the journalists whose writing seems to consist mostly of collected snark-postings from that forum. Perhaps you recall, at the height of Twitter, there were folks who posted long screed-reels of back-and-forth Twitter witticisms – and they thought they were engaging in journalism. I suppose, perhaps, that they were, but it’s barely journalism unless you want to claim that obsessively reading comp.lang.c on USENET was “software engineering.”

Since I’ve brought USENET into the discussion, let’s dwell there for a moment because it’s highly relevant. USENET was a “push-” information distribution system: you subscribed to various channels (e.g.: comp.lang.c) and you automatically got all the postings on that channel. It was, basically, a Bulletin Board System (BBS) that aggregated a large number of channels (BBS) and pushed them out so that the postings could be browsed using local bandwidth. I suppose that, since I am talking about historical artifacts, I should also mention that blogs are a form of push-media, too, with a channel model of their own. This is all relevant to journalism to the extent that, if I decided to read ProPublica religiously, and sometimes re-posted links to bits I thought were particularly interesting, I wouldn’t be a “journalist” I’d be more of a “filter feeder” or something like that. Sure, I might eventually attract a readership, if it turned out over time that I was preternaturally good at deciding what bits of ProPublica were unusually interesting, but “so, what?” comes to mind.

I read a few of the pieces from the siege of Mariupol, and they were well-written, fascinating, and upsetting. High human drama, indeed. Anyone who says that those reporters did not deserve a Pulitzer is, objectively, a poopy-head. But, what about the vast horde of journalists who watched a load of Twitter feeds, in real-time, and banged out articles describing the contents of some particular event? Are they even journalists?

There are some places where I’ve seen interesting analysis layered atop the Twitter feeds – someone sits there are tries to total up casualty counts from the videos of tanks being blown apart, etc., and concludes that the Russians are having a tough time in such-and-such a town. I’m willing to call that kind of analysis “journalism” but the magic, in that situation, is in the knowledge applied to the facts that were filtered out of the vast stream of other stuff. What I’m saying is that is possible to read comp.lang.c and write interesting articles about software engineering, inspired by analysis of the push-stream. [thvv] In that case, however, it’s pretty easy to go to a conference and have some conversations in the coffee line, and come back with fodder for interesting journalism.

It’s not just Twitter that’s the problem, of course. Daily Kos, for example, let go a few of their reporters and switched over to selecting a few articles from an AP news-push-feed. I used to read Daily Kos regularly because of Brandi Buchman’s reporting on the court performances of Jan 6 insurrectionists. [bb] In my terms, Buchman was doing journalism because she was there, reporting on a unique perspective of what was happening. When Daily Kos let her go, and started posting summaries from AP, they slid several fatal notches down the slippery slope of no longer doing journalism, at all.

I think of all of this as an information pyramid. Up near the top, are the maximum grazers – talking heads who do no analysis or thinking at all, and simply furrow their brows and read off a teleprompter. Tucker Carlson comes to mind: he’s dealing with information that has been so thoroughly picked-over and pre-digested that his chance of stumbling across anything newsworthy is approximately zero. The interesting stuff happens at the bottom and second tier of the pyramid. At the bottom are the people like Edward Snowden and the soldiers who told Sy Hersh about My Lai: the newsmakers and the people on the spot. Above them, are the primary consumers and analysts – people like Bob Woodward and Sy Hersh, who turn the information into a contextualized narrative. From there on up, I am puzzled why anyone bothers to care since it’s summaries of summaries of synopses with a bit of analysis sprinkled in like some pepper here and there.

When I see more than no extracts from Twitter, I know I’m not reading a journalist. Perhaps I’m reading an analyst, or a historian, who is assembling an interesting picture-puzzle out of the fragments that go flying by – which is a worthy task, but it’s not an approach that lends itself to daily postings. It’s the big postings that consist of a scrap-book of Twitter’s version of “witty repartee” that are going to go away when Twitter finally dies. There will always be push-feeds and there will always be lazy bloggers who summarize them. But they’ll never be journalists.

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When I was a kid, I read a bunch of SLA Marshall’s histories, and I was suitably horrified when I read that he was a phoney in Hackworth’s About Face and did more reading and analysis. [history] That profoundly impacted my belief in history at a distance, and I got much more interested in first person accounts. I had already read Marbot’s memoirs, and was skeptical when I read some of Hemingway’s stories about the liberation of Paris (Hemingway mostly liberated French wine) [ah]

I suppose that, with his love of high-impact brevity, Hemingway would have ruled Twitter. And, that’s probably enough said.


  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    One of my history professors served in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy as an infantry officer during WWII. Started as a Second Lieutenant, left as a Captain. Three purple hearts, a couple of other decorations. He went on to get his MA at Yale, PhD at Harvard, and spent time studying at Oxford. He ended up at a small liberal arts college because he hated writing, but loved researching and teaching. I clearly remember, in an historiography class, we talked about SLA Marshall. Dr. Rily quoted the ‘15%’ factoid, and wondered what company he spent time with. He also said that the ‘15%’ bit made him wonder about ANY of his other writings. (This was in the late 1980s)

    There have been so many great reporters who kept, very well, to the who, what, where, when, why and how formula, and kept it to what they saw, or heard, differentiating between the two. Most of them remain unrecognized outside of the very insular world of first line reporters, while liars (Bill O’reilly?) tend to rise in the ranks. Luckily, that never happens in work, education, art, or any other field of human endeavor.

  2. invivoMark says

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point (I’ve read your post twice), but I don’t think it’s “Twitter journalism” that (some) journalists are worried about losing with Twitter’s doom spiral. It’s Twitter’s ability to enable an article to reach an audience.

    In science communication, Twitter was probably the best tool to get information out to the public. Not many non-scientists have a subscription to Science, so if a journalist writing for their magazine wanted anybody to read their article, they had to use social media. And no other platform enables link-sharing quite as well, at least in terms of volume.

    The same goes for writing op-eds, which are one of the few tools that scientists have to enable their expertise to reach public awareness. An article isn’t going to get very far if it doesn’t get shared on social media.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Perhaps you recall, at the height of Twitter, there were folks who posted long screed-reels of back-and-forth Twitter witticisms – and they thought they were engaging in journalism.

    This still goes on, if you know where not to look. It is a regular feature at Puff Ho.

  4. says

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point (I’ve read your post twice), but I don’t think it’s “Twitter journalism” that (some) journalists are worried about losing with Twitter’s doom spiral. It’s Twitter’s ability to enable an article to reach an audience.

    That’s a good point and I didn’t address it. There is value to having an aggregator. Though I don’t see that other than Twitter’s emerging as an aggregator for certain topics, it’s any more ground-breaking than USENET. In some ways, it’s worse. But, yes, there needs to be a way for the bottom of the information pyramid to push their material out to the next tier up, and a broadcast medium is better than something controlled, gate-kept, or paywalled.

    I’m pretty sure that any broadcast medium that is not controlled, gate-kept, or paywalled will do the trick. Twitter’s OK in that regard but it was a strategic error and laziness that allowed it to become important in the first place.

  5. invivoMark says

    Marcus Ranum @2,

    Twitter is an aggregator AND a social media platform. You find content both by topic (hashtags and curation) and by the network of people you follow and interact with. Because of the potential reach of each tweet, back in 2019 and earlier I heard colleagues saying that every scientist should have a Twitter account. I don’t know of any other platform that gives the same kind of potential reach.

    It’s a double-edged sword, though, and in 2020 the conspiracy people showed they could scream louder than any scientist, even after Twitter decided to start moderating its content.

  6. outis says

    Never used the Twitter, but I’d venture to say that any value the platform gives (gave) is overshadowed by the inherent vice of its purpose. Like most of social media it’s there to make money for its creators, anything else is incidental. (*)
    Things can go well, but mostly they won’t and even when it goes well, it does not last because that’s not what it’s for.
    What’s unusual right now: it seems to be sinking not thanks to changing trends or fashions (remember MySpace and all the rest?), but through the incredibly ham-handed interventions of one single individual. I am vaguely curious to see how it’s going to end.
    (*) and yes, the money in question is brought by “advertising”, so it’s largely imaginary – but that’s a different rant.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    What’s unusual right now: it seems to be sinking not thanks to changing trends or fashions (remember MySpace and all the rest?), but through the incredibly ham-handed interventions of one single individual.

    You make it sound like Musk is merely incompetent. He seems to be both incompetent and to have a fascist orientation. His stated “freeze peach” goals led to much hilarity, but also to deep concern as he made deep cuts in content moderation. He seems to want both 1) for Twitter to retain its status as the preferred general ‘place to be’ and 2) to turn it into his own personal right wing echo chamber. These goals are clearly incompatible.

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