By King Kaufman
Are you on Twitter?
The hosts on C-Span have taken to asking the guests on their various shows some form of that question, and it turns out the answers are highly illuminating. This montage of them has been floating around since last week, and it reveals the stunning -- if not exactly surprising -- ignorance and incuriosity of the Beltway media elite. (More below video)
"The ones I've seen," says syndicated columnist Mark Shields, "have been so self-indulgent, and so narcissistic, Steve, that it just kind of -- you know, 'Here I am, I'm walking now. I just had a bite of my pizza. I'm walking into makeup.' I mean, they don't seem to be particularly reflective, insightful or thoughtful, rather than just sort of 'I know you'd be interested in my minor movements.' And I find that just a little off-putting, to tell you the truth."
You recognize that comment? That's right, it's what people say before they get to know Twitter. No one who has spent more than five minutes on Twitter would say that stuff about how it's all people talking about what they had for breakfast. Shields' first phrase is telling: "The ones I've seen." So he looked at it for a minute or two -- maybe.
Or maybe he's just read about Twitter. If so, he read something written by someone who doesn't know anything about Twitter. Two degrees of incomprehension: Your Washington press corps at work!
Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, which is trying to reinvent and reposition itself in this new era, is asked if he's using Twitter. "I'm not," he says. "I feel that if anyone wants to call me, I'm available."
Is that so.
I called. Meacham's phone number in the Newsweek directory is answered by a recording that says don't leave a message -- now that's what I call "available!" -- and offers his assistant's phone number instead. So it cost me another phone call to leave an after-hours message with Meacham's assistant. I didn't identify myself as a reporter. I just said my name and that I wanted to ask him about some comments he made about Twitter on C-Span. Think he'll call me back?
"I think it's a fascinating phenomenon," Meacham continues on the video, "but the people who know me certainly have to listen to me too much anyway. At least that's their view."
Charmingly self-deprecating, I suppose, but again, revealing. Meacham sees Twitter mostly as a way for people to listen to him. He's already got plenty of platforms. He edits Newsweek and writes books for major publishers and gets invited to talk on TV. He doesn't need Twitter.
The first part of his comment shows that he does get that people can communicate with him -- but heck, if it's so important, they can call. The idea that the hoi polloi would make the effort to call him, or that he'd listen to or return those calls, is absurd. Newsweek has a paper circulation of about 2 million. If one tenth of 1 percent of those readers called in a given week, that would be 2,000 calls. And that's ignoring the people who read Newsweek online.
If 2,000 people e-mailed Meacham, or direct messaged him on Twitter, he'd have a hard time reading those too, of course. But if he were really interested in participating in any kind of conversation with the people who buy his magazine and read his books, he'd be on Twitter. Or he'd at least have something more intelligent to say about it than "If anyone wants to call me, I'm available."
No. What it is is: You sit there, and Jon Meacham will tell you what's what.
Twitter's a "fascinating phenomenon," Meacham says. But evidently it's not fascinating enough for the editor of a major chronicle of American life to participate in, or even know much about.
Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it? Why do we trust these people to analyze the news for us? That's what each of them was ostensibly doing on C-Span in the first place, pontificating on the meaning of it all. And in the case of a phenomenon that's one of the major topics in their own industry, communications, these people don't even bother to learn much of anything about it before they start spouting opinions. The hell with it. They've come this far without understanding it, right?
What other subjects do they do that with? I'm asking because the people who defend print journalism talk a lot about trust, about how you can trust newspapers because they've been around so long, and you can't trust these fly-by-night bloggers. But we're supposed to trust people who wear their ignorance like a badge of honor? Ignorance about a "fascinating phenomenon" that's right up their alley?
Maybe what we should trust is their staggering ability to remain ignorant.
Michael Shear of the Washington Post says he tweeted a little from Europe when he was traveling with President Obama, but "I must admit I'm not sure I understand why." Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor says, "I have opened my own Twitter line but have yet to think of anything worth writing in it yet." Jonah Goldberg says, "I don't tweet. I've never thought that the world was suffering from a lack of outlets for me to express my opinions."
Because it's all about you. These people look at every communication medium as a place for them to express themselves, not as a place for people to communicate with each other. They'd be amazed to find out how much a person can learn from Twitter if they only had the slightest interest in learning about new things. They'd be shocked to find out that there are people who do more listening than talking, who use Twitter as their main news feed, who can't possibly get to all the great stuff linked to in that feed.
They'd be amazed if they bothered to find out about it before talking about it. Let's not hold our breath. "I just had a bite of pizza" indeed.
On and on the video goes. Rare is the comment that displays a hint that the commenter has given actual thought to the matter before speaking. Sam Donaldson, speaking generally about new media, calls it "a two-edged sword," good because so many people can now participate, bad because "there's a lot of stuff out there that I don't think they've checked out at all."
He then talks about how people might believe online Holocaust deniers, wild Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and the like, as if those things didn't predate the Internet. But the point is, at least he's given the matter some thought. How about that Sam Donaldson!
James Wolcott at least looks a little disappointed in himself as he says, "I keep thinking that the moment I get into it, it'll be over ... I keep thinking there's going to be something after Twitter." He also mentions the legitimate fear that it could become a time suck.
The first opinion in the video comes from radio host Bill Press, who couldn't be more emphatic or proud in his declaration that he doesn't know, doesn't want to know and isn't going to find out -- exactly the attitude we want from our big-time journalists!
"I agree with Maureen Dowd," he says, "that I would rather be eaten alive by ants than Twitter."
Sounds good to me, Bill. How's Tuesday? I'll bring the ants, you invite Maureen.