Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Twitter isn't a tool for groupthink

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 4:05 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
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
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT