The $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune merger will spread conservative propaganda throughout the country. Is Twitter our only hope for independent news?
My first four days without Twitter were full of the promise of a fresh digital sobriety. I booted the TweetDeck app off my computer and banished it from my phone. The 28,000 avatars in my pocket went quiet; for the first time in over ten years, I wasn’t carrying an audience with me to the bar bathroom and the dog park and the Target check-out line. I wrote a wanky Medium post about “learning to live life in paragraphs again,” and pretended like I was actually going to write that novel about a sixth century nun revolt in France. It was like starting a new exercise routine or moving into a new apartment: This time, I’ll really get up every morning and do those sit-ups. In this house, the stovetop stays clean.
That was June 12. Ten weeks later, I have not done my sit-ups. The stovetop is filthy. I am back on Twitter and it is as terrible and delightful as it always was. But the reason I came back has nothing to do with the reason I left. I ditched Twitter because I was tired of playing a version of myself online for an audience that never seemed to sleep. I came back because I haven’t been able to find a workable news substitute that combines the diversity of voices and perspectives that Twitter offers with the level of urgency and immediacy that the Trump era demands.
The news business has been a struggling enterprise for my entire life, and the dominoes continue to fall. This week, The Village Voice announced it will no longer produce a print edition. The news came on the one-year anniversary of Gawker’s shutdown in the wake of a right-wing legal tantrum over a Hulk Hogan sex tape. A journalism professor eulogized the gossipy news site in a Washington Post editorial, writing that the outfit “might have been foolhardy, reckless and ultimately self-destructive, but it was also, above all, courageous.”
I’m not sure I really miss Gawker — it wasn’t until the journalist faction of my Facebook news feed started sharing the WaPo piece Tuesday morning that I remembered the site didn’t actually exist anymore. But it’s true that the conservo-libertarian crusade against Gawker, led by Silicon Valley Trump bro Peter Thiel, ought to scare the shit not just out of journalists, but out of everyone who likes the idea of a free press. Billionaires shouldn’t be able to buy their way out of bad news.
But neither should billionaires be able to buy their way into good news, a prospect becoming ever more likely with the expansion of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns more television stations than any other media company, and it acts as a kind of news-lite generator for its outlets, tagging them up with conservatively skewed content. Sinclair has a long history of mandating that its stations air segments sympathetic to right-wing views, and more recently has been a friend to the Trump campaign, promoting and mandating pro-Trump segments for its affiliates and subsidiaries. Now, there’s a $3.9 billion deal on the table that would merge Sinclair with rival Tribune Media, pushing Sinclair into more than 70 percent of American homes. The Federal Communications Commission is looking into the mega-monopoly deal, which was made possible by Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
If it strikes you as kind of weird that Donald Trump is forever whining about “fake news” while, behind the scenes, his buddies are orchestrating a massive media merger with the express intention of increasing the already-incredible reach of their not-thinly-veiled pro-Trump propaganda operation, well — congratulations, you’ve identified yet another example of that thing Trump does where he accuses other people of the same egregious tomfoolery he’s guilty of.
For all the talk on the right of “fake news” and the “liberal media,” there is nothing, and I mean nothing on the left side of the political spectrum that compares to Sinclair’s reach into American households. There are no massive left-wing media conglomerates forcing progressive content into living rooms across the country before the evening weather report. There is not a “fake news” conspiracy to bring down Donald Trump — for fuck’s sake, his top advisor, Steve Bannon, just left the White House to return to his own right-wing media empire, Breitbart News. It is beyond rich — indeed, it defies belief — that Donald Trump would complain about ill treatment at the hands of the media when, by every indication, the largest media company in the country is happy to ship out fluff on his behalf.
There is such a thing as fake news — it is the substance-free jibber-jabber generated by Sinclair and outfits like Breitbart, which could hardly be closer to our commander-in-chief. I struggle even to describe this level of hypocrisy, because I don’t know how to explain it without treating y’all like you fell off the turnip truck mere moments ago. It feels like describing grass as green, or ice as cold. Trump has vast resources at his disposal that he and his closest advisors use to produce deliberately skewed, pro-Trump content and distribute it to local news stations that are obliged to air it without making it clear that they’re doing so at the behest of a politically biased parent company. It was a massive part of the campaign to elect Trump, even before the Russian bots came along. The fake news is coming from inside the house — the White House.
Curating a diverse and authoritatively sourced Twitter feed is the best way I’ve found to subvert the increasingly conglomerated broadcast landscape, and to sidestep the appalling lack of diversity in mainstream newsrooms. No major newspaper or national news site has the capacity to thoroughly cover every angle of the Trump era, and independent voices and local publications are essential supplements to traditional and establishment media outlets. I follow the major wire services and big-name organizations and nonprofits that tussle with the Trump Administration, but I’d be nowhere without the context and analysis that comes from the social justice-minded writers and thinkers who, despite endless trolling and harassment, continue to thrive online and, in particular, on Twitter.
I can’t tell you exactly where to start, but I can tell you this: Find the reporters, writers and thinkers who you respect most, follow them, and then follow the people they’re in productive public conversations with, especially if they’re disagreeing. I’m not suggesting you follow Nazis or stalk the Pepe crowd — but make sure you’re pushing the edges of your echo chamber. Make a deliberate effort to follow people who don’t look or think exactly like you; this goes double-triple-quadruple-infintuple for those of us who benefit from especially privileged identities — white folks, men, cisgender people.
And when I say follow, I don’t mean pull a Kool-Aid Man on somebody’s mentions or inbox the first time they say something that confuses or upsets you — I mean listen and contemplate. Twitter is a clearinghouse of brilliance; it can also be a latrine. Don’t be the person who leaves the seat up or an unflushable mess behind. My stove is already dirty enough, and nobody likes doing bathrooms.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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