Josh Barro is not entirely a bad guy. It took considerable stones, in 2016, for the then-senior editor at Business Insider to break publicly with the Republican Party, denounce Trump, and announce himself a newly-registered Democrat who would be voting for Hillary Clinton. However, through his tenure at Business Insider, and later as the “center” (snort) host of KCRW’s “Left, Right and Center” in L.A., Barro’s vibe has ever been that of a teacher’s pet who simply cannot abide his tattooed pinko classmates and their protesting, guitar-strumming ways. Journalist he may be, Democrat and gay married he may be, but Barro is fundamentally, unshakably on the side of the Man.
And so, in response to the ongoing implosion of Twitter under Elon Musk, Barro wrote a blog post arguing that it’s all to the good that journalists are leaving Twitter, whether willingly or under duress, on the grounds that their bosses ought to have forced them off the site long before. Newsroom managers, he wrote, should “order their employees to drop their Twitter addictions, stop sharing their pithy opinions in an effort to build a personal brand, and get back to work,” because “journalists waste a lot of time on Twitter, writing tweets that don’t make their employers money instead of stories that do.”
This is rich on about a dozen levels but let’s just mention four.
- If ever a pundit was about his “personal brand,” that pundit is Josh Barro;
- It’s nearly impossible to imagine how any business journalist can fail to understand that building a “personal brand” is the demand of employers everywhere in this industry, they solely and exclusively want journalists with a “personal brand”;
- Having a “personal brand” makes money, and that is why Josh Barro (Twitter followers: 287,693, tweets: 56,000+, please refer to the illustration of this post) has taken so much time and trouble to “build a personal brand,”’ for himself, on Twitter;
- Nowhere in this ridiculous blog post do we hear a syllable about the significance, to media, of Twitter’s shift from a public company with a board and some kind of regulatory oversight to a private one wholly owned by a single person.
A private company and a public company in the United States are two entirely different animals, and it’s remarkable that so few are inclined to mention this. At this point there is no compelling reason to believe anything that is posted on Twitter, because its owner is under no obligation whatsoever to publish anything on the platform other than what he himself wants to see there.
Barro is borrowing the kernel of a correct insight: Journalists should be fleeing Twitter en masse. No person with a commitment to truth in the public sphere should be contributing assets to a platform that is owned and operated, with no transparency at all, by forces openly malevolent to truth in the public sphere.
But Barro is simply seizing the moment to vent the complaints he had about Twitter all along, since the days when Musk was just another incompetent poster in the herd. Barro’s grudge is that Twitter “distorts [journalists’] judgment about which opinions are normal,” and “provides them a platform to air the industry’s dirty laundry in public.”
These were, in fact, two of Twitter’s key benefits: it was a venue for journalists to learn and register, in public, the fact that the old roster of “normal” opinions was not normal! The old normal is what ushered in a fascist Republican party. And the former Republican Barro knows this.
As for the industry’s dirty laundry—it’s not a journalist’s job to protect “the industry” from embarrassment! Quite the opposite. Barro knows this too, which is why this blog post itself purports to be telling uncomfortable truths about what’s wrong with the media.
Unfortunately, Barro’s idea of truth-telling amounts to repeating a bunch of the nostrums management wants to hear about what’s wrong with the business. It’s those darn self-expressive kids and their liberal groupthink, drowning out the temperate and objective sensibility the bosses were trained in. The whole hierarchy has broken down!
In principle, it’s not beyond the pale for employers to set limits on their employees’ tweeting. Anyone with “New York Times” in their bio, for instance, should anticipate that their tweets will be read uncharitably. Reporters can make things hard for themselves by mouthing off. We get caught up in stupid, pointless fights; it can sap focus and energy from our work.
Negotiating these blurry lines is the actual work of every single person who works in journalism. It is a real and serious job that requires careful attention and mutual respect between journalists and their employers, so that open public discourse can take place within rational parameters.
But discourse itself is what Barro is fuming about. From complaining about how reporters broadcast their opinions to the general public on Twitter, he pivots to complaining that “Twitter, along with Slack, has fostered newsroom revolts.” Along with…Slack? The internal communication app? Barro’s real problem is that people who work in newsrooms are talking to each other.
Twitter, at its best, provided journalists the chance to contend in public with readers all over the world, to expose our ideas to a multiplicity of perspectives and arguments; now, unfortunately, it directly contributes to the welfare of the enemies of the press. To post on Twitter is to provide free content for a man who may no longer be the richest, but who has few rivals as the biggest jerk in the world.
Maybe Josh Barro should worry less about the vulgar careerism of noisy, disobedient journalists, and more about how he’s liable to become one of the baddies, after all.