Tuesday, December 27, 2022

'This is the reality they stole from us!'

First thing that came to mind on reading "Twitter Files" writer Matt Taibbi's "delerious reflections" on the process was: Did anybody think about getting him an A.J. Liebling anthology for Christmas? Because he might see something in Liebling's reflections on the World's Greatest Newspaper from 1950:

The visitor to Chicago, awakening unalarmed in his hotel room and receiving the Tribune with his breakfast tray, takes a look at the headlines and finds himself at once transported into a land of somber horror. ...  As he turns the pages of the Tribune, the stranger is likely to get the feeling that some of the people and events he is reading about superficially resemble people and events he remembers having read about in the world outside, but he never can be sure.

That's been my overall response to the "Twitter Files" frenzy. If you're concerned that "the version of the world that was spat out at us from them seemed distorted," wait until you hear about television! Or radio. Or, given that Hearst papers accounted for nearly a fourth of US Sunday circulation as FDR began his first term, the humble newspaper. If you're new to framing theory, here's Robert Entman's explanation from 1993:

To frame is to  select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

If you can shake off the moral panic over the smartphone as your overlord, you could bring in a number of other theories as well. Cultivation (people who watch a lot of TV tend to think the real world looks like its televised counterpart), agenda-setting (people tend to think issues that get a lot of coverage are important) and the "hostile media" perception (partisans of opposing football teams, or political parties, tend to think the game story is biased against their side) all explain different aspects of how the world outside -- stealing one from Walter Lippmann here -- comes to form the pictures in our heads. There's no constitutional right to a comfy world in which the other idiots out there agree with you.

How long have those pesky media been stealing reality from us? In American journalism, since before there was a United States. I won't complain if you say the Elizabethan age; here's one from the Big Securitization Book:

If you encountered the right balladeer at the right public square in London in 1588, you could learn the names of the 14 recently executed traitors, embedded in a moral lesson about the deserts of treason and conveniently sung to “Greensleeves.”

So aside from the persistent inability, First Amendment-wise, to reliably distinguish social media from the government at better than coin-toss levels, what baffles me most about the "Twitter Files" is the quaint belief that someone -- generally "our elite overlords" or some variant on that -- monkeyed with Twitter and ruined forever the level media playing field on which American politics had played out from the dawn of time through 2019 or so.

To which one could go on and on, but -- has AM radio just entirely vanished from public consciousness, or did none of you out there hear Rush Limbaugh's "Largest Radio Rally in History," featuring two hours or so worth of Donald Trump (to the point where Limbaugh was trying to nudge him off stage*) four weeks before the 2020 election?

True, the infamous Hunter Biden laptop (or the copy of its hard drive, or whatever) doesn't come up in that transcript, but it was certainly no secret to the Limbaugh audience in the weeks before the election. You can try your own site search at foxnews.com (replete with complaints about the rest of the media). What you can't do is say that reality was somehow stolen from you because your message wasn't front and center on every platform. That's Richard Hofstadter territory:

... The modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

The Twitter Files don't presage another Great Brown Scare (in which assorted "vermin press" figures actually did go on trial) or a crusade against the African American press like J. Edgar Hoover's earlier in World War II (cheered on by right-wing columnists like Westbrook Pegler). They don't herald a war of extermination like the one against the German-language press in the US in 1917-18 (to the satisfaction of the big conservative papers). That's not to say the files raise no concerns at all; it is a mild suggestion that we pay a bit more attention to what reality looks like before we report it stolen.

Yes, we need to stick up for the First Amendment when it's under threat. Yes, it protects your right to say what you damn please about public affairs. But it doesn't require me to go down to the basement and find an amplifier and an extension cord to help you out.

* I was listening, kids. It's my job.


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