Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Twitter isn't a tool for groupthink

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz says it's wrong to say Twitter pressures journalists into a consensus
  • Twitter allows users to broadcast their views; diverse ones encouraged, he says
  • Some journalists have followed conventional wisdom for decades, he says
  • Kurtz: Twitter is a cauldron of ideas -- some brilliant, some witty, some wacky

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's Reliable Sources and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Is Twitter forcing journalists to march in mindless lockstep?

On the surface, the notion seems absurd. Media folks may hang out on Twitter as the new cool-kids' club, but isn't the point to broadcast your own brand? Why would anyone in the news racket want to echo what the rest of the gang is saying?

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank conjured up the thesis after seeing hordes of colleagues tweeting away at a presidential debate. It is on all those laptop screens, he says, that "the conventional wisdom gels -- and subsequent tweets, except those from the most hardened partisans, increasingly reflect the Twitter-forged consensus."

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Before explaining why this is utterly wrong -- OK, mostly wrong -- a little background on what has become a powerhouse social media network.

Twitter is the new AP, I like to say, a place where journalists often break news, even before feeding it to their employers. This happened to me a couple of weeks back when I learned from a source while driving that Roger Ailes had signed a new four-year deal to run Fox News. I pulled over, tweeted it on my iPad and watched it ricochet across the Web well before I could write an actual story.

Watch: Why do reporters stand out in the rain?

This is a bit of a problem, as news organizations aren't getting the traffic from these posts. But they are still getting credit, and the truth is we have no choice but to be part of that conversation. With its plethora of links and more than 500 million users, Twitter is a heck of a self-promotional vehicle for those trying (sometimes relentlessly) to publicize their own work.

But the site can also be a minefield that claims journalists as collateral damage. Precisely because it's so instantaneous -- type 140 characters and click -- a growing number of media people have been fired, suspended or removed from stories for insensitive messages and jokes.

It happened again recently when a New York Times Magazine writer was put on hiatus for a month after insulting a female critic of his interview with an actress by saying the woman wished she could sleep her way to the top.

Twitter's clout extends well beyond those who check it every 10 minutes. Since most journalists these days wants to know what's "trending," what's hot on Twitter quickly makes its way onto websites and cable news shows that desperately want a hipness injection.

There is something uniquely democratic about this, because millions of ordinary people can "vote" a story -- or bit of silliness -- onto the national agenda. That breaks the power of the old media oligopoly.

Watch: Are the media helping Romney measure the drapes?

Presidential race a political circus?
Obama goes off the record
Media and "Moderate Mitt"
Obama's MTV moment

Of course, this zeitgeist-shaping can manifest itself in odd ways. When I was at the second presidential debate, I was blissfully unaware that Mitt Romney had stepped in it by uttering the phrase "binders full of women" until I noticed it exploding on my Twitter feed.

The campaigns have also used Twitter as a weapon, not just by exchanging snarky tweets but by pushing mocking hashtags, or searchable phrases -- sometimes through "promoted tweets," as Obama's side did with the "binders" comment.

That brings me back to Milbank's argument that Twitter prods the journalistic lemmings in the same direction. They "want to make sure that their opinions are not veering from other opinions," he told me. Otherwise, "it'll look like you don't know what you're talking about if you defy the conventional wisdom."

Watch: Female debate moderators slam-dunk the guys

It's worth noting that Newsweek started its Conventional Wisdom Watch back in 1988, well before we were all using the interwebs. And I'm sure a few journalists rely on Twitter as a digital weathervane to make sure they're pointing in the right direction.

But I view Twitter as a cauldron of ideas -- some brilliant, some witty, some wacky. I see lots of people take issue with each other (or with me), sometimes less than politely. Since I make a point of following people on the left and right, I get revealing glimpses into what's cooking across the spectrum.

In this kind of crowded marketplace, most media people and civilians try to stand out with smart and edgy insights, rather than just repackage what everyone else is dishing.

I guess it all comes down to who you follow and whether you escape the hall of mirrors by occasionally shutting the thing off.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT