Twitter’s Elon Musk wrong about newspapers and the internet

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Companies that started out with printing presses and horse-drawn carts now churn out real journalism online all day long.

Companies that started out with printing presses and horse-drawn carts now churn out real journalism online all day long.

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Elon Musk might know about a lot of things — electric cars, space flight, digging tunnels. But Twitter’s increasingly erratic new owner keeps proving time and again that he’s shockingly ignorant when it comes to journalism.

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

Where to start with such a fundamentally false idea?

First of all, it barely makes sense to refer to the “newspaper industry” in 2022. The hundreds of major American journalism organizations that got their start with printing presses and horse-drawn carts back in the 19th and 20th centuries are now better characterized as websites that still put out a broadsheet edition. Today, most metropolitan dailies throw tens of thousands of papers on driveways and lawns, while their digital counterparts reach millions of readers churning out updates throughout the day.

What’s more, those online audiences are no longer limited to the range of delivery trucks. When big news breaks in Kansas City, it can spread instantly from The Star to Toronto, Nairobi and beyond. That 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’ve done for decades. Newspaper reporters have long rolled their eyes as they listen to their stories from the morning paper, sometimes slightly reworded, being read by drive-time radio announcers as they make their way into the office. Today, traditionally trained journalists are accustomed to watching as their hard work “goes viral” when it’s stolen — too often unattributed — in someone else’s listicle, roundup or social media post.

Musk obviously doesn’t know it, but real reporters don’t take others’ word as gospel on anything. They verify facts before publishing them. The basic journalistic principles of truth, public service and independence never change, regardless of the method of delivery. When they make mistakes, they correct them transparently.

Traditional newspaper companies operate the biggest and most credible newsrooms in communities around the globe. They post hundreds of new, unique stories online every day, about real people and events, verifiable to anyone who wants to run down the facts. “The internet” doesn’t send reporters to City Hall, or assign photographers to get pictures of perp 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 respectable newsroom.

Those newsrooms employ editors, whose important job is to make sure that what they publish is both factually accurate and fair. A journalistic enterprise’s credibility is its greatest value. If it repeatedly lies — and its audience cares — it won’t stick around. The Founding Fathers were clear that they believed an independent, free press is crucial to a functioning democracy.

Twitter induces a strange sort of brain rot. The more time you spend on it, the more important it seems than it really is. Part of that reality distortion 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 be changing as Musk is reinstating Nazis, abusers and other miscreants who earned their banishment under previous ownership).

And as publishers in any medium have long known, keeping human beings’ inherent quarrelsome nature in check is never-ending toil. Editors of newspapers’ letters columns have worked to keep the trolls and the liars out of their pages for decades. Multiply that difficult task exponentially, and throw anonymity into the mix, and you see why moderation of social networks is such a headache.

Musk continues to release what he imagines are shocking smoking guns in his “Twitter files” — internal company communications, cherry-picked by journalists with checkered credentials, showing that past Twitter management worked to fight disinformation and abuse by its users.

Anyone who’s worked in comment moderation sees this debate for exactly what it is. people responsible for a huge platform working to limit bad actors’ reach on their service. If so-called “conservative” content seems to have been suppressed disproportionately, that can be laid at the feet of every former guardian of the right who has yielded 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 every tweet. (By the way, Tesla stock owners — don’t you wonder what he’s doing for you as he seems to be obsessively fighting online with his critics all day long?) As one if its most popular users, he thought this Twitter thing would be easy. It’s increasingly obvious that even the Chief Twit doesn’t know the difference between a journalist and an online troll.

This story was originally published December 20, 2022 5:49 PM.

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