Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, February 8, 2013

"What I meant to say was..." - Why I got into a twitter war with a fictional character.

So I got into this fight with Will McAvoy on Twitter. No, not Jeff Daniels. That would be too easy.

For those of you not in the know, a writer I'm quite fond of, Mr. Aaron Sorkin, wrote this show called The Newsroom. It's pretty good. There are the usual liberal tropes, which I mostly agree with, and a bunch of romantic entanglements with unnecessary misunderstandings and complications. Think Downton but in the modern day, not everybody is related, and it's set in a New York television newsroom instead of an Edwardian mansion in the English countryside. Got it?

Okay, so, as people do for TV shows they're fond of, somebody set up a Twitter feed for the main character, a man named Will McAvoy. He's portrayed on the show by Jeff Daniels. The character is neurotic, curmudgeonly, profane, morally courageous, short-tempered, and smarter than you. Typical Sorkin leading man, sort of a revenge of the ubernerd. All well and good.

And the person behind this fake Twitter feed is pretty good. He's got the curmudgeon thing down, for sure, and the moralizing high-handedness.  He's smart enough for mass consumption, and he says things that sound pretty close to what the character would say. It's good stuff. Twitter as fan fiction. I'm quite fond of the feed.

(Side note: "Fond of the Feed" should be the name of a podcast about Twitter. That one's free: use as you will)

Until one day, and it's really kind of stupid, but the other day, there was all this fuss in the papers and whatnot about the folks who make Monopoly changing out one of their playing pieces. They took the iron (one of those old-fashioned ones that's basically a heavy slab of metal with a handle) and replaced it with a cat (because it was voted on by the internet and the internet is ALL about cats).

So this person, whoever they are, behind this fictional newsman's twitter feed says, "Eh, it's not news, and the people reporting it aren't journalists."

This got up my nose for some reason. So I picked a fight.

Now, don't get me wrong. I knew, and know, that I was not picking a fight with the character "Will McAvoy". He is a fiction. He is not real. I get that. I was not arguing with him. I was arguing with a point of view, which, regardless of who holds it, is very real. This point of view says that certain things are news, that certain people have the education, right and obligation to discern and report upon those news-y things, and that anything else is "not news" and that these things are not worthy of report by serious journalists.

There's a whole series of assumptions we need to unpack from that point of view. The idea is that there is a group, let's call them "journalists," who know what the news is, and what it isn't. They report the news, you watch/read/listen to their reportage, and you go away, edified and able to make informed decisions about the world, and you vote and change the world. It's a lovely concept, and it has a lot to recommend it.

It is, however, bullshit. It's bullshit because it presumes to tell you/me/everybody what the news is, and that they know it, and that we, the unwashed masses, do not. It suggests that we, said masses, would, if given the option, gorge ourselves on nothing but Lucky Charms and Pixie Stix, and that it is up to the adults to make sure we eat our vegetables. There is some evidence that this is the case (cf. all the Entertainment Journalism shows like TMZ and whatnot).

The problem with this point of view is that it promotes a gatekeeper mentality, and that it works both ways. These people, whomever they are, tell us the news. Not only do they report, they define what news IS. They say, "Kim Kardashian is not news." Okay, fine. We're tired of hearing about her anyway.

But these same people can say, "Brown people dying half-a-world away is not news." And we say, "Oh sure, you're right. What brown people?" And that's the end of it. Out of sight, out of mind. We have defined an entire narrative out of existence.

Please note, I am not advocating that all stories are equally important to everyone. That would be stupid. Kim Kardashian is not on the same level as drone strikes in Pakistan. To me.

What I am saying is that no one gets to say what stories are important to me. I get to decide that. If I choose Kim Kardashian over drone strikes, that's on me. Or vice versa: if I choose to ignore the latest celebrity news, I am free to do so. The point is that the information must be available. No one gets to say, "This is not news. This doesn't bear reporting by anyone."

Now - and this is important - this doesn't mean that everyone must report everything. People are free to report what stories they believe to be important. If a news program has decided that they want to report only on "important" stories, that's fine. They are allowed their point of view. I am free to choose their point of view. This doesn't make other points of view less valid. A point of view could only be said to be invalid if it is factually incorrect.

Saying something is "not news" also presumes a sort of Malthusian model of attention and information delivery, i.e. that there are a finite number of broadcast hours, a finite amount of information delivery channels, and that a person watching this cannot watch that. If "this" is some thing that Journalist X has deemed to be unimportant ("Kardashian ass") it necessarily preempts "that" ("drone strikes") and leaves "that" by the wayside, ignored.

This ignores the internet entirely. On the internet, there are a functionally infinite number of ways of getting information, and as many points of view as there are people. All of them are available 24 hours a day and archived for as long as there are servers and electricity and the will to keep them in existence.

To sum up: I got irritated and said that I thought somebody saying something was "not news" was high-handed and presumptuous. Ultimately, I also think it's dangerous. The world is too big, and there's too much information for anyone to think that they have the line on what everybody else gets to talk about. It seems like a small point, but like many of the things in my life, I develop a certainty about minutiae over which I will fight a principled (read: stupid) battle to the death.

I didn't change anybody's mind, I don't think, and a couple of people called me an asshole on the Internet. That's the way it goes.

That's how I spent my Wednesday night. I did learn something, though. Nobody EVER wins a Twitter war.


  1. I just read through your argument with Will and it made me think a lot of things. In general I agree with the concept that no one gets to decide what news is. The internet with its aggregatin' ways may make this argument practically irrelevant. I've unfortunately only seen one episode of the show, but his Twitter persona seems pretty inline with his character. He has to be that arrogant to be a leader. But to play devil's advocate, as you say people are allowed their point of view, I would suggest there is an implied "I think" in front of his original statement and we can take his opinion for what it's worth. But he's an old media-ist, and on old media there IS a finite amount of time and coverage possible, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he's speaking to the reporters rather than the consumers, and in that context it becomes even more acceptable-- he's commenting on practice in an industry he's a part of (if only fictionally). Additionally, if you compare it to something like the education system, we don't teach anything and everything either. There is a finite amount of schooling time available and the educators do the best job they can to decide what's worthy of teaching. That may be elitist, but it's still their job, and journalists and reporter have the same kind of role. For you to say all news is valid news is a fair statement; for Will to say it is to invalidate his existence. But to take a step back, this story is a human interest story, and if I were in the news business I would probably know very well why they do human interest stories. But my guess as a layperson is because we build relationships with newspeople and news agencies in the same way we do with people. And no matter their importance, if the stories from a particular person are all bad, we will start to avoid that person. To trust and like a person we need to know that they are sane and well-rounded, and that they are able to shift their thoughts from a global context to a local context, and care about big things as much as little things, because that's what makes us human.

  2. Really thoughtful comment Tim.

    I could see your "I think..." preface to his comments, if he wasn't coming at it from a position of (fictional) power. Admittedly, Twitter is not a particularly effective vehicle for the communication of nuance, but really, this character is expressing an opinion that a lot of people have, and has the potential to influence a lot of people. Perhaps more so as a fictional character than if he were a real journalist.

    As far as the education argument goes, the internet might make that argument moot, as well (cf. The Khan Academy, Wikipedia, Wolfram-Alpha, etc.). The autodidact has never had it better in the history of civilization.

    On a side note, I read something interesting yesterday about education that I've been thinking about along those lines. Haruki Murakami wrote a section in Norwegian Wood where one of his characters, a Japanese college student, asks her fellow student why they need to learn the subjunctive tense in English. Her friend answers that it's not so much for the knowledge itself, as it is for the ability to think about things in a systematic fashion.

    Now, of course this is not why most teachers teach anything at all, but it is a fascinating way to think about the problem. We learn, not to learn facts which we can look up at any time, but to learn a style or method of thinking that will allow us to understand things and solve problems.

  3. It's true. Fictional characters have the best of both worlds- a sort of purity of ideas without unintended context, and an absolution of blame. I think Stephen Colbert has been enjoying that position.

    I think I understand what you're saying about education. I know as Oscar goes through school, it is a constant balancing act to make sure he knows the facts he needs to know without killing the desire to learn that we are trying to instill in the first place. That is slightly different but I think along the same lines as what you're talking about.

    I never read that Murakami book I had checked out. It was just TOO BIG. If only they would post it in blog format.

  4. 1Q84 actually was originally published as three books. That might have made it easier for you. Norwegian Wood by him is a slim book, and an easy read, but it doesn't have a lot the weirdness that Murakami was known for.

    Right now I'm reading a book of short stories by another favorite of mine, Michael Chabon. Good stuff.