Twitter files raise concerns
If the story had been covered in the run-up to the 2020 election. Voters would have been better informed, conspiracy theories might have been kept at bay. (Getty Images)
We will be inclined to move on again quickly as we usually do – commentators in both of the major tribes already are labeling it a “nothing-burger” or a “snooze-fest” – but last weekend’s release of Twitter emails about the platform’s handling of a news story near the end of the 2020 presidential campaign has a lot to teach us.
Substack-based writer Matt Taibbi’s “Twitter Files” is a story about a story about the actual story: the New York Post’s October 2020 exclusive on the contents of a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden at a repair shop.
If only the actual story had been covered in the run-up to the 2020 election. Voters would have been better informed, conspiracy theories might have been kept at bay, and our political culture today would be at least marginally healthier. It is important to understand how we ended up on another path.
First, a general point – one that would have been considered absurdly self-evident until recently: covering a story does not mean necessarily validating let alone endorsing it. Covering a story means fact-checking all of its components, exploring the bona fides of everyone connected with it, looking for additional players who might shed a different light on it, and considering all plausible alternative explanations.
In response to the New York Post’s initial reporting, most of America’s elite media did none of those things. Instead, they ignored the story entirely. The October 2020 “Public Statement on the Hunter Biden Emails,” signed by a group of former intelligence professionals and disingenuously amplified by many in the media, is among the darkest of the proliferating examples of “authorities” managing to pass off baseless partisan fabrications as facts or serious analyses.
Two years on, the nation’s once-revered news organizations one–by–one have acknowledged that the Hunter Biden laptop and the emails it contains are real. Since there is no reporter more zealous than a reporter who believes a competitor got the story wrong, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the media establishment’s indifferent, way-late efforts in this case simply confirmed what most reporters already knew in their guts in 2020.
That’s a problem for America – a big one. Objective news reporting always has been an aspiration. Reporters have political leanings and other biases as much as anyone does. But it was precisely the aspiration to objectivity that long carried the day in American journalism, as the essence of professionalism. Until very recently, highly credible information linking a presidential candidate to foreign influence-peddling by a close relative would have been a big, all-hands-on-deck story – regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation.
Last weekend’s “Twitter Files” release shows us why serious journalism remains especially important when so many get their news on social media. Had the entire journalism establishment taken the New York Post’s revelations seriously, Twitter executives would have been under no pressure to align with a side and try to shield the general public from one particular conclusion. The story would have taken on the proverbial “life of its own” (usually a good thing), to be debunked or validated as serious investigations unfolded. The hive mind of Twitter users would have grappled with all perspectives – variously leading to edification or nonsense, as usual, depending on the thread. Joe Biden likely still would have been elected president, given the alternative.
What actually happened was much worse. Echoing most news outlets and other social media platforms: Twitter suppressed the story entirely, removing links to the New York Post’s coverage and putting up warnings that it was somehow “unsafe” (in the antiseptic language of contemporary cancellation and censorship).
In his reporting, Taibbi notes the overwhelming partisanship of Twitter’s staff – its employees directed a mind-boggling 98.38% of their federal candidate donations to Democrats in 2020 – which made it even less likely that the company’s executives would resist external and internal pressures to shut down the Biden laptop story.
Whether they foolishly trusted the faux judgment of journalists or simply failed to rise above their own partisanship, Twitter executives extended a chain of deception from editors, reporters, political operatives, and intelligence professionals all the way to the digital town square itself.
This is a story of our time, in which principles are naïve and the truth is negotiable. Americans need to decide whether or not it will be the blueprint for our future as well.
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