Matt Lewis' latest column here at TheWeek.com — where, of course, I'm a columnist, too — caught my attention. Matt says he hates Twitter. He compares it to prison.
I've never met Matt, and he seems like a nice guy. But when it comes to Twitter, he's wrong.
In many respects, Twitter, a new media platform, reminds me of two old ones: television and all-news radio. I spent many years in both before retiring from the business a few years ago. Let's have a look at TV first.
In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, then as now the standard bearer of excellence in American journalism, gave a speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. In essence, he said that TV — for better or worse — is what you make of it. Here's the most famous excerpt from his speech:
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
And so it is with Twitter. Matt speaks of being sucked into small, petty battles, casting Twitter as an irritating game of whack-a-mole. But this isn't so much a comment about Twitter itself as it is about how Matt has chosen to employ it. "It's no way to live," he says. Indeed, it is not. Believe me, I understand. I'm bombarded daily with angry, insulting, condescending tweets from people questioning my manhood, patriotism, and intelligence. I usually don't respond. A thick skin is a good thing to have.
The cranky pusses who send their nasty-grams to me are often uncivil and narrowly informed. But above all, they're simply passionate about their beliefs. I'm flattered that lots of my 175,000 followers even write to me. That's a pretty good sized audience, and rarely a day goes by without me learning a thing or two from them.
The other medium that Twitter reminds me of is all-news radio. In both, journalists have to be quick and to the point — and then move on to the next item. These days, people are busier than ever. They consume information in small bites (I call them "nuggets"), and Twitter is the perfect platform for this. Anyone wanting more in-depth information, more probing analysis, a graph or chart, can simply click on links I provide. People can consume a little, or a lot. In this respect, Twitter is a wonderful enabler of content consumption.
There is indeed, as Murrow said, "a great and decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference," and the way I fight it is by respecting my audience (even when I think they're wrong), and dispensing facts, figures, and insights in a straightforward, non-incendiary fashion. I'm very fortunate to have traveled to some 53 countries (yes, I keep track), and to have worked everywhere from big TV networks, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and on Wall Street, among other places. It's an eclectic background and it has helped me provide facts, figures, and context to Twitter — useful when tweeting about the many complex issues our country is grappling with. But other people have interesting and intelligent backgrounds too, something I never fail to appreciate. Matt complains about all the folks in Twitterland who are awful. I find quite the opposite to be true.
As a journalist, it's my job — and talk about an old business model — to simply report on what I see and hear, as fairly and accurately as I can, without injecting personal opinion. What we're really talking about here is the difference between journalism and punditry. Matt is a practitioner of the latter. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But if your job is to tell everyone what you think, you should hardly be taken aback, see it as a burden, or a "prison," when other people who disagree with you tell you so. It goes with the territory. And that's not Twitter's fault.