Buried in a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists — a report focused on the Obama administration's unprecedented push to hold leakers and journalists accountable for leaks — is a point that's often overlooked in modern politics. Politicians and the people they lead have entered into a symbiotic exchange of information that excludes a third-party filter. And that's almost certainly a problem.
The White House, like businesses and sports teams and, well, everyone, wants to communicate directly with other people. The hostility to the media that the CPJ documents isn't just that the media bolsters people like Edward Snowden, it's that the media acts as a filter on everything. That might have worked for Jack Kennedy, but Jack Kennedy didn't have Twitter. The pertinent snippet from the report:
"When you call the White House press office to ask a question or seek information, they refer us to White House websites," said Chris Schlemon, Washington producer for Britain’s Channel 4 television news network. …
The Obama administration is using social media "to end run the news media completely," [former CNN reporter Frank] Sesno at George Washington University told me. "Open dialogue with the public without filters is good, but if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope."
At a bar called Javelina, I ran into a twenty-five-year-old employee of a social media startup, backed by Marc Andreessen’s high-flying venture capital firm. We were both attending yet another party hosted by yet another tech firm. When I told her I was a journalist, she showed her disgust by pantomiming a hand job. Why, she asked me, speech slurred almost beyond intelligibility, do we need journalism when we have social media?
"Why do we need journalism when we have social media" is the rallying cry of those who have a perspective to share. If you have something to say — a cool link you saw or a photo or a review of a restaurant — you go on Facebook and Twitter and Yelp and say it. Why do you need journalists to tell you about links or how good restaurants are when you have social media?
The short answer is: you don't. The long answer is: You need journalists when you want an independent perspective. And that perspective — particularly for decision-makers — is essential.
The people on Facebook who share only selfies taken from particular angles, people like this guy, aren't reporting on themselves, if you will. They're propagandizing. President Obama's goal is like those selfie-takers, to present very particular images and to encourage his friends to share them. Political communications has long been about determining the best frame through which actions might be seen, but social media makes that process instantaneous — and a game. Tweets are ideological flair that are retweeted as badges of honor. (The badges themselves have become an industry, but that's another topic.)
That interaction, the "please approve of this" request, generally gets the desired approval, and a lot of disapproval. One of the tacit lessons we all learn as we live on the internet is the urgency of tuning out those negative responses — avoiding the trolls and haters and so on. And the positive feedback, we can't help but use to confirm our bias.
In the aftermath of the Ted Cruz filibuster, Gail Collins wrote a piece in The New York Times that suggested some reasons for why Congress was getting squirrelly. (And this was even before the shutdown.)
Twitter in particular makes politicians even more self-obsessed than they used to be. "Talking about tomorrow’s #DefundObamacare vote tonight on Hannity. Be sure to tune in!" twittered Senator Ted Cruz on Thursday.
Cruz kept demanding that the Senate "listen to the American people," but he really meant that they should listen to his Twitter followers. A politician riding on a wave of tweets feels as if the nation is cheering his every word, even when the nation is actually reading the sports page while a select splinter of hard-core supporters manically pound away on their smartphones.
Political candidates and politicians have always surrounded themselves with fans, of course. They've often, as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein lamented, put on blinkers when it comes to the feedback they want to receive and the media they use to receive it. But there's something about social media — the clustering of opinion, the immediacy, the sense of hearing directly from people — that seems qualitatively different. Klein's point in the article linked above is that the proliferation of partisan news outlets allows an elected official (or a member of the Supreme Court) to easily seek out only affirmative information.
But Klein neglects to notice that every Facebook account and tweet and retweet is itself a news outlet, as that social media company employee at The Baffler's bar points out. The filter provided by journalism is an accident that became essential, a way of providing information and perspective that people once couldn't otherwise get. It is and has always been word-of-mouth brought to scale. The difference between you saying what you saw in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and what the Associated Press reporter saying what he saw was that the number of people that heard the reporter was much, much larger. Journalism has always said, "You may not have known this." You may not have known that the restaurant you gave five stars on Yelp just failed its health department inspection. Or: You may not have known that the NSA is collecting information about every phone call you make. The official media outlets that existed when, say, Thomas Jefferson was president were more partisan than those today. But Jefferson had to work with his political opponents, had to spend time with them, had to hear their opinions in a way that Ted Cruz does not. Collins' point isn't just that the media is bifurcated. It's that we can all, any of us, live in a world in which the majority of what we hear is what we want to hear.
At The Week, Matt Lewis suggests that this shift has transformed the republic set out in the Constitution into something akin to an ad hoc direct democracy. "The idea" that founders like Jefferson set forth, he writes, "was to avoid a form of government susceptible to being swept up in the emotions of the day and subverting checks and balances. They wanted to avoid mob rule and the tyranny of the majority." He continues:
But the amount of information and input [politicians] receive from constituents and interest groups and basically anyone anywhere in the world who has an opinion on something makes it almost impossible for them to ignore the stimuli. Today's politicians must feel more like American Idol contestants who survive by constantly seeking our approval than statesmen who are empowered to take tough stances. …
Everyone might not get to vote on everything, but they have a giant megaphone with which to weigh in.
Ted Cruz calls for his supporters to rally to him, to use that megaphone to shout "hashtag defund Obamacare!" They do so, and Ted Cruz sees this as real-time validation of what he's doing. And those fans — especially those fans whose tweets he read from the floor of the Senate — build a bond with the politician. When the media steps in, points out that Cruz's plan to enact that defunding is doomed, that perspective isn't just ignored, it's unheard. When members of his own party confronted Cruz during a luncheon earlier this month, even then he was certainly buttressed by the knowledge that in his pocket at that minute was a small device of glass and plastic filled with messages cheering him on. Neither he nor his fans needed to hear from anyone else about what was really happening. They had each other.