Many journalists are very indignant that Trump allies are reportedly combing through social media to identify embarrassing things they may have posted long ago that can be used to discredit them. In this case, I’m afraid, the outrage seems to be missing the point.
What exactly is happening here? According to the New York Times, a “loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House” has “compiled dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements” by lots of people who work at major media outlets. They plan to release these tidbits at politically advantageous times in order to discredit the employees and the media outlets themselves. This is all portrayed in formal and quite ominous language. There is a name for this that political reporters are all familiar with: opposition research.
But there is another name for this that is also accurate: media reporting.
Twitter is public. Journalists, who work in the publishing business, can hardly claim that it is unfair to publish things that they published. “Laughing at bad tweets by New York Times reporters” is a time-honored and, I would say, honorable activity. There is little meaningful difference between what this shadowy group of “conservative operatives” is doing and what media reporters at Gawker or the New York Observer did for many years, save for the motivation. The media reporters were mostly motivated by laughs and kicks and a belief in editorial transparency, whereas the conservatives are motivated by, you know, a deep affinity for fascism. Still, the actions themselves are basically the same. Social media is a powerful tool for making us all look like idiots. Twitter is a machine that allows you to show the entire world what a dumbass you are. I, and every colleague I can think of who uses Twitter, have made bad, dumbass tweets, that certainly make us look like idiots, because it is impossible to use Twitter for a long period of time without doing so. Most people in the world are at least part dumbass. Our tweets prove that. I do not think of this as a major crisis.
So what is really at the heart of the respectable media’s panicked and outraged reaction to the news that right wingers are searching their social media for things to troll them with? Well, clearly the right wingers can be expected to weaponize this information in bad faith—rather than saying “ha, look at this dumbass bad tweet,” they will be saying “The New York Times is not a credible news outlet because someone on its staff made this bad tweet, and therefore you should disregard that huge feature on Trump’s tax evasion and whatnot.” Yes, they will do this, of course. They are political snakes. This is what they do. This is what they have forever done. But why do those in the respectable media find the prospect of such bad faith attacks so upsetting?
The real problem—the one that lends this entire conversation about basic media reporting tactics the ridiculous overtone of “This is an improper activity!” rather than “Ha, bad tweets” lies within the respectable media outlets themselves. It is the false notion that “journalism” is an identity. This notion holds that real journalism is something that is done by real journalists who are objectivity-producing automatons, insulated from the world and concerned only with Capital T Truth That Does Not Favor One Side Or The Other. This notion is and has always been absurd. Respectable media outlets perpetuate this idea because, historically, it has benefited them. It lends their news stories an often unwarranted sort of credibility, and allows them build a moat around their product using the illusion that it is produced by an unparalleled set of professionals whose output is not replicable by lesser brands. The New York Times, for example, is a great newspaper—all things considered, the best newspaper in America. It also traffics in a silly amount of narrative-spinning in its political coverage, which is closer to soap opera script writing than what would strictly be defined as “news.” This sort of narrative-pimping does make the news more interesting. It is a form of entertainment, and it draws in readers, which has always been an important part of selling news. If everyone was honest about this, it would be okay. But the Times and other prestige outlets tend to smother this fact with boasts about the professionalism of their staff. This inflation of their own reputation is a balloon that is vulnerable to being pricked.
Journalism is not an identity. Journalism is an action. It is something you do. If you go out and gather true facts and write them in a true and readable way, you have done journalism. (Note the use of word “true.” The fact that anyone can do journalism doesn’t mean that everyone does journalism.) There is not a priestly class of people called “journalists” who are able to produce Certified Real Journalism, which exists on a higher plane from the tawdry musings of the rabble. If you find out true things and write them, congratulations: you’re a journalist, at least for the length of that story. Journalism is an open door. It is a standard that anyone is allowed to meet if they are willing to do so. This fact is precious, and it makes our democracy infinitely stronger that it would otherwise be. Anyone who works to move away from this arrangement and towards the idea that “journalists” should be considered a separate, special class of people are not friends of democracy.
It is unfortunate that many of our nation’s best and most prestigious publications fall prey to the temptation of believing that they are something more than humans who can collect, organize, and deliver information well. Many journalists have been seduced by the respect that can be earned by tricking the public into assuming that journalists are qualitatively different from the average citizen. We certainly are not. We might take better notes. But we make just as many dumbass tweets. Don’t get too worked up about it.