13 Nov 2022

Annoying both sides doesn't equal getting it right

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 13 November 2022

Amid a barrage of criticism from across the political spectrum, Elon Musk reached for a defence beloved by editors and journalists. 

Elon Musk bought Twitter on 27 October and promptly started unpacking a Russian Doll of crises.

Elon Musk bought Twitter on 27 October and promptly started unpacking a Russian Doll of crises. Photo: Screenshot / YouTube

It’s been a relatively eventful few weeks for Elon Musk.

The world’s richest man bought Twitter on 27 October and promptly started unpacking a Russian doll of crises.

One of his first moves at the company was firing half its workers. 

Then a few days later came the news that he may have acted a little hastily, with multiple outlets reporting that just-fired workers were being asked to return to their roles.

As he haphazardly took a buzzsaw to Twitter’s workforce, Musk was asking shell-shocked employees who remained to roll out a new feature allowing any user to be ‘verified’ and get a blue check mark next to their username.

Initial reports had placed the cost of that feature at $20 a month. That appeared to change after Musk got into a Twitter exchange with the horror author Stephen King who said he wouldn’t pay, prompting the billionaire to make an $8-a-month counter offer.

It turned out setting a price point was the least of Musk’s troubles. 

The scheme sparked a revolt among Twitter’s existing verified users, many of whom changed their usernames to Elon Musk, in an effort to point out one of the issues with allowing anyone to get verified status.-

"I am a freedom of speech absolutist and I eat doody for breakfast every day," wrote the comedian Sarah Silverman while posing as Twitter's owner.

Musk promptly announced that those impersonating someone without clearly labelling their account a parody would be suspended from Twitter, meaning Silverman and other users, including some with millions of followers, are now banished from the platform.

At the same time, Musk was telling a conference audience that tweet replies from unverified accounts would be shunted below those from verified accounts.

"We're going to prioritise Twitter search, replies, mentions by verified first," he said. "If someone risks losing even $8 the net effect will be over time that the verified users will always be at the top of comments and search, and you'll have to scroll far to be the unverified users that will be the bots and trolls and whatnot."

Many people pointed out that the more likely net effect would be that the site would be wrecked for a lot of people who would no longer be able to see comments from their non-verified friends.

Meanwhile, those who want to harass people or generally be trolls would be able to do so far more effectively for just $8 a month.

All these moves have resulted in a barrage of criticism for Musk from all corners of his own website and the media.

He responded with a defence that could have come from some of the editorial leaders taking aim at him.

"Being attacked by both right and left simultaneously is a good sign," he wrote on Twitter.

That tweet from Musk has been echoed by a host of local media executives over the last few months.

In a chat with Herald premium subscribers in March, Weekend Herald editor Miriyana Alexander responded to someone asking about bias with the line “it feels about right to me when we get equal criticism from those from the left and right”. 

TVNZ said something similar recently after its political editor Jessica Mutch McKay was accused of bias for a throwaway comment on RNZ where she talked about encouraging Luxon to "do some more photo opportunities" and said "people need to get to know him".

When critics accused Mutch McKay of giving PR advice to National’s leader, TVNZ said her comments were misconstrued, and noted she and TVNZ "receive complaints of this nature from both sides of the political spectrum, suggesting balance in reporting".

The presence of criticism from across the political spectrum seems to be a kind of editorial north star among some of our media leaders.

On one level, it makes sense. It’s good for journalists to be willing to annoy politicians of all stripes without fear or favour. Independence is a virtue.

But its most obvious problem is that criticism from the right and left wings simultaneously isn’t necessarily a mark of impeccable fairness and balance: it could just be that you’re screwing up so catastrophically that your foolishness is now the subject of a bipartisan accord. 

The approach is also often criticised for giving rise to a kind of false neutrality.

Climate coverage might be the clearest case in point, with the media for years giving dishonest or misinformed climate deniers a platform alongside scientists in the name of balance.

"Truthful, not neutral. There's a difference," CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour once said.

"Truthful is bringing the truth. Neutral can be creating a false equivalence," she added.

In other words, there’s no immutable law saying the truth is located in the middle of prevailing right-wing and left-wing views.

Sometimes one side might be a bit closer to the evidence than the other and if that’s the case, it’s not a journalistic obligation to annoy or contradict the people who are saying stuff that makes sense.

As the old adage goes, when someone tells you it's raining and another says it’s not, it's not your job to print both views, it's your job to look out the window. 

One place where that’s particularly relevant right now is the US, where Republicans have welcomed a coterie of election deniers and conspiracists into their party.

MSNBC presenter Medhi Hassan has argued that a pro-democracy lens is fundamental to a free media and that should shape coverage in a way that might seem like bias to some editors.

"As a journalist I'm not here to speak for a political party. But I am damn well here to speak for democracy, for free and fair elections, for voting rights.

"You can't sit on the fence and be neutral when our voting rights are under assault. As journalists we should have a bias toward democracy. And as citizens, you should also have a bias toward democracy, regardless of whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent."

But just because New Zealand's political system is more balanced, it doesn’t mean Musk is right. It’s not always a good sign if you’re being attacked from the left and right. 

Sometimes it just means you haven’t done your job of looking out the window, and checking who’s telling the truth.