Twitter’s Elon Musk is wrong about newspapers and the Internet


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Companies that started with printing presses and horse-drawn carts are now churning out real journalism online around the clock.

Companies that started with printing presses and horse-drawn carts are now churning out real journalism online around the clock.

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Elon Musk may know many things: electric cars, space flights, tunnel digging. But The increasingly erratic new owner of Twitter he continues to prove time and time again that he is incredibly ignorant when it comes to journalism.

“Newspapers just search the internet and print it,” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon, attributing the inanity to “SJM” — his Saxon son James Musk, whom he occasionally mentions in his feed.

Where to start with such a fundamentally false idea?

First of all, in 2022 it makes almost no sense to refer to the “newspaper industry”. The hundreds of major American news organizations that started with printing presses and horse-drawn wagons in the 19th and 20th centuries are now best characterized as websites still publishing a broadsheet edition. Today, most metropolitan newspapers throw tens of thousands of newspapers onto driveways and lawns, while their digital counterparts reach millions of readers churning out updates throughout the day.

Furthermore, the online audience is no longer limited to the range of delivery trucks. When big news hits Kansas City, it can spread instantly from The Star to Toronto, Nairobi and beyond. It took days or even weeks before the internet.

And the backbone of these newsrooms are the thousands of professional journalists who report, write, edit and publish countless words of journalism every day, just as they have for decades. Newspaper reporters have long rolled their eyes as they hear their stories from the morning paper, sometimes slightly reworded, read by radio announcers en route as they make their way to the office. Today, traditionally trained journalists are used to watching as their hard work “goes viral” when it’s stolen — all too often unattributed — in someone else’s list, roundup, or social media post.

Musk obviously doesn’t know this, but real journalists don’t take each other’s word as gospel about anything. They check the facts before publishing them. The fundamental journalistic principles of truth, public service and independence they never change, regardless of the delivery method. When they make mistakes, they transparently correct them.

Traditional newspaper companies operate the largest and most credible newsrooms in communities around the world. Every day, hundreds of new and unique stories about real people and events are published online, verifiable by anyone willing to dig into the facts. “The Internet” does not send reporters to City Hall, nor does it assign photographers to get pictures of criminal walks and house fires. And any digital-native news source worth paying attention to centers its reporting on exactly the same practices and ethics as every other reputable newsroom.

Those newsrooms employ editors, whose important job is to make sure what they publish is accurate and correct. The credibility of a journalistic enterprise is its greatest value. If he lies repeatedly — and his audience cares about it — he won’t stick around. The founding fathers were clear that an independent and free press was central to a functioning democracy.

Twitter induces a strange kind of brain rot: The more time you spend on it, the more important it seems than it really is. Part of that reality-distorting effect is that, as the most time-based of the major social media networks, it has been the platform of choice for politicians, journalists and many celebrities for several years (although that may change as Musk is reinstating the Nazis, molesters and other unbelievers who earned themselves exile under previous ownership).

And as publishers of any medium have long known, keeping the inherent contentious nature of human beings in check is a never-ending chore. Newspaper letter-column editors have worked for decades to keep trolls and liars off their pages for decades. Multiply that difficult task exponentially and add anonymity into the mix, and you’ll understand why social network moderation is such a headache.

Musk continues to release what he imagines are shocking smoking guns in his “Twitter files”: internal company communications, handpicked by journalists with checkered credentials, demonstrating that Twitter’s previous management worked to combat disinformation and misuse by its users.

Anyone who has worked with comment moderation sees this debate for exactly what it is: people in charge of a huge platform who work to maintain the reach of bad actors on their service. If so-called “conservative” content seems to have been disproportionately suppressed, that can be attributed to every ex-enforcer on the right who has given away the truth to the likes of Donald Trump and his alternative facts.

Musk seems determined to hijack the Twitter plane he bought, and a smooth landing seems more unlikely with each tweet. (By the way, Tesla stock owners—don’t you wonder what he’s doing for you since he seems to obsessively wrestle online with his critics all day?) As one of his most popular he users, he thought this Twitter thing would be easy. It’s increasingly obvious that even the Dirty Boss doesn’t know the difference between a reporter and an online troll.

This story was originally published December 20, 2022 4:49 pm.