Stop hating your readers
So incredibly illuminating and simultaneously depressing as always.
It's funny... Twitter lags behind many other social media apps in terms of active users (https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users), but since the news media is addicted to it, it punches far above its weight.
I hate Twitter. I hate it so, so much. At one point, I actually rooted for Elon Musk to take it over, not because I like Elon Musk, but because I wanted all those sneering, haughty, condescending shitheads to cry. I wanted them to fail. I wanted them to lay awake at night wondering how it all went wrong.
What it comes down to is this: most people hate piety and heavy-handed social control. They hated it when the Right did it with the old Moral Majority. And now they hate it when the Woke Left does it.
It's all the same shit, just coming from a different side of the isle.
I'm so sick of the woke scolds. They are as tedious as Jerry Falwell was in 1991. Cut from the same cloth really.
I no longer read the NYT, Washington Post, or Boston Globe. There may still be some actual journalism going on at these publications, but if so it's buried beneath the screechy hyperbole and partisan propaganda. They seem clueless to the caricatures they've become. It must be frustrating to be a real reporter at a paper that elevates emotional hand wringing over factual journalism.
Here's a simple, measurable example of how far gone the NYT has become: On any day, go to nyt.com. Do a text search on the word "Biden" and then one on "Trump." Nine times out of ten Trump references surpass Biden, usually by a wide margin. (Today -- 9/30 -- is a RARE exception: a 2-2 tie.) How whack is that? Two years after Trump left office and on an almost daily basis the "journalists" at the NYT continue to treat him as more relevant than the Leader of the Free World. It's bad and irrelevant writing. And unless you're a partisan, mind-numbingly BORING, like a friend who can't stop babbling about how much they hate their their ex. The NYT has abandoned their mission of reporting news in favor of keeping their audience agitated.
I still read the WSJ, which still makes an effort (though not always successful) to separate news from opinion. Al Jazeera gets a read too, mostly for their international coverage.
[The reason why we described him as good-looking was because that is his M.O. — what I’m saying is yes, he is using his good looks as a tool to try to make the alt-right more popular, to try to put a pretty face on the alt-right. So I’m describing Spencer — who he is and what he does, and the issues taken with the piece were that I did that.”]
This is a very important point. If, for example, historians completely refused to acknowledge that Hitler was a compelling public speaker because that would "normalize him" or somesuch, then we would miss some very important perspective / lessons about the phenomenon of pre-WWII (and during WWII) Germany. It's important to understand why something works or what it does well, even if you find it repulsive. I think this instinct toward "moral clarity" in journalism is why the mainstream/center left seems to be stepping on rakes constantly as of late, it's leadership can't bring itself to acknowledge areas where their political opponents may have a good point or be doing something that resonates with voters.
Could this movement realistically have emerged without Twitter, or is it fundamentally inseparable from the quick-shouting species of social media?
Thank You. I do not agree with Chris Rufo on most issues, but I do not believe he is a "sick, racist, homophobe." I think he's just a religious conservative.
When people are slandered in hyperbolic ways for disagreeing with journalists, the readers lose trust in journalism.
What a great deconstruction of the current media “morality football” landscape.
This is of a piece with the concept of “toxic fandom”. It brands anyone having a viewpoint that might value innate quality and integrity over delivering a “message” for a specific brand of moral certitude as an inherently evil actor.
Twitter corrupts media because it is purely designed to deliver marketing as content. That makes it easy to accuse others of selling propaganda (directly or indirectly) because all you can ever do on social media is advertise yourself.
I agree with all of this, but it's worth noting that some of this bad stuff is a reaction to the opposite mistake: that of "he-said, she-said" journalism. The media was very used to just saying "Democrats say this, Republicans say that" and washing their hands of who was telling the truth, in order to preserve the appearance of being unbiased. Trump's strategy of constant outright lies made he-said-she-said untenable, but unfortunately the result was not a fealty to truth at all costs, but a decision to become cheerleaders for one side.
We have the term "reader-response theory" for the idea that the meaning of a text is (re)created by those who read it. We now need a term for the idea that the meaning of a text is created by those who don't read it, and that this meaning is somehow truer than the meaning created by either the writer/s or the reader/s of the text.
Feels related to the impulse not to report certain things if the bad guys on the right might use it against the good guys. In both cases, a general desire to control the reader. And no particular compulsion to do a good job as a journalist.
Headline writers have a lot to answer for.
Further proof social media will Destroy Civilization As We Know It.
I'd like to add that the news media is returning to it's roots as partisan hack tools. Every city used to have newspapers for vested interests. Now you can find them online.
This is a brilliant article, Jesse. Thank you for touching grass on this.
All I could think about while reading this from start to finish was that 2 months ago Jesse wrote this:
Jesse attacking Greenwald for failing to make Jones look bad enough doesn't seem far from many of the examples maligned above.
"Journalist" increasingly becomes a synonym for "Activist"
I agree that the piece about Spencer was fine, and we shouldn’t want or expect journalists to lead people by the hand to specific beliefs.
I do not share the faith that people draw rational conclusions from the things they read, and I think downplaying that means we miss why it happens and how it might eventually be repaired in the longterm. I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss things because dim people will form dim conclusions, but more like we can’t address core reasons why people draw dim conclusions if we say they aren’t dim, or we say concerns about them are too overblown to take seriously, or we assume it’s helpful to to treat them as capable of rationally evaluating things when they can’t actually do so until certain needs are met in their psyches. It’s not within the scope of basic news pieces to fulfill those needs, no, but the sorts of things that could help go ignored if we don’t seriously acknowledge how much help people need, and how many people need it.
For example: Of *course* some people read stuff like the Spencer piece and, bafflingly, walk away liking Richard Spencer. The Boston Marathon bomber *did* have a lot of weirdos swooning over that cover. It’s right to characterize such people as idiots, but I think it’s inaccurate to characterize that as a distant or insignificant hypothetical.
After all, a lot of the things covered in this newsletter, including this article, and on BARPod, are about people drawing insane and extreme conclusions from the things they read. If an overly woke person can steel man the Spencer piece as some kind of persuasive argument for white supremacy, so will an unsophisticated thinker walk away thinking Spencer said some thought-provoking things. After all, the people who come across Spencer’s half-baked ideas in non-media contexts do exactly that. It’s sort of funny that people misinterpreting the portrayal of Spencer’s views do accurately recognize that people on the other side of the political spectrum will misinterpret the portrayal of Spencer’s views.
For whatever reason, a lot of people are somewhat immune to the context in which a bad idea is shared; when people try to debunk conspiracy theories, it signal boosts them to people who are susceptible even if it’s hard to gauge how much. I have a relative who is prone to believe anything she sees people debunk, and a rebellious friend who instantly questions anything everyone else thinks is rational. Of course, that sort of contrarian personality would only respond even worse to the sort of moral signposting people demand, and that’s just another reason why we shouldn’t expect to discuss any bad ideas without some people thinking they’re good ideas. But my point is the phenomenon overly woke people fear *is* real and not as uncommon as I feel this piece implies it is.
I mean, you’d think nothing could make someone think they’re transgender or gay when it turns out they’re actually not, right? People are too rational for that. If you just write things out plainly, surely they will draw the obvious conclusions. But plenty of people literally don’t understand how to process their own physiological sensations and emotions, much less entire philosophical frameworks and big personalities they run into in the wild. It’s partly *because* of that haze of confusion people get drawn to people like Spencer who seem to have confidence they’ve figured things out.
And of course people are not wrong to recognize that over-the-top moral signposting is an effective persuasion tactic for plenty of people, or there would be no extremism at either end of the political spectrum.
As much faith as I have in communication as the only real solution to most societal issues, I think it’s important not to underestimate how confused and impressionable most people are. It’s just true that if you spread a shitty idea, you inevitably create more vectors for the idea no matter how obviously dumb it is, and whether you stridently insist it’s dumb or not. You tell people not to cook chicken in NyQuil and some people do it because of that warning. I don’t think someone has to have contempt for their audience to struggle with whether they need to morally signpost things, I just think the internet has made a lot of us hyperaware of how fast “obviously” terrible ideas get out of control. It’s simply realistic to internalize that some surprisingly large segment of any audience is guaranteed to be suffering from cognitive chaos.
The problem is that confused people don’t know how to evaluate information, are susceptible to a number of contradictory tactics no writer can combat all at once, and are prone to latching on to the first frameworks they encounter that confidently tell them why the things they’ve suffered are someone else’s fault. Then they get the relief and illusion of feeling like they know how to process the world and some veneer of community. I don’t think that deep down most people *want* to be brainwashed into hating other people, it just ends up feeling like the only safe option because they quit exploring before they learn how to evaluate things. They mistakenly think they *have* learned how to evaluate things.
That’s why I think it’s important to not dismiss it as “oh, audiences aren’t that stupid.” I think solutions actually do start to come into focus when you accept that they are really confused on a much bigger level than any individual topic, and ask what they’re looking for when they latch on to things that seem obviously stupid and ultimately make them feel more agitated than they do vindicated. It’s not that people ought to be told what to think, or that they want to be told what to think (they sort of do), but that people *really* wish they knew how to navigate life *without* much help. They *wish* they could read articles without editorializing and just know how to feel about it.
I think people need non-extremist, non-controlling strategies that give them enough confidence to begin evaluating things on their own. They need to be made comfortable with not being sure about things. They need something whose underlying values are the opposite of “other people are always victimizing you” and “groups delineated by superficial traits are monoliths and you’re safest if you evaluate individuals through a prejudiced lens.”
I just don’t look at these societal dynamics and see many rational thinkers. Every article anyone writes is more like a rorschach test of the spectrum of reactions humans have when they fear they won’t know how to foresee or navigate potential pain. People very much not knowing how to evaluate ideas seems like the core of all our problems. There’s nothing a writer can do about it (unless they’re writing about that problem head-on) but people as a whole are not nearly as sophisticated as we’d hope. If they were, society would be pretty harmonious.