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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Why I tweet

Posted by James McPherson on February 25, 2015

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

The title above is of course a variation on the title of one of my favorite essays, George Orwell‘s “Why I Write.” Joan Didion liked the title, too, borrowing it for one of her works.

“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” Didion wrote in a sentence that might have characterized social media at least as well as anything Orwell came up with. That is, assuming there’s any longer such a thing as “private space” — which brings us back to Orwell all over again.

Orwell’s best-known work is 1984, a book that may have killed him. Like many other great (and countless not-so-great) writers, Orwell “had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity,” and his death at age 46 came not via evil government agents, but via illness aggravated by trying to beat deadlines.

Orwell might also have argued that he was far from alone in his appreciation of adversity; as pointed out today in a Washington Post piece about an Orwell review of Mein Kampf, Hitler knew “that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” Considering the number of mindless Americans and ignorant politicians who now apparently favor getting involved in another ground war, Orwell obviously had a keen understanding of people.

At least since the 1985 arrival of Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, one cannot meaningfully discuss 1984 without considering another dystopian view, that of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Postman, in the forward to his book (a forward so brilliant that it has been illustrated via a Stuart McMillen comic and a YouTube video), compares the two worlds.

He notes that in Brave New World “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” and that the sheer amount of information would become so great that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism” while “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” It may seem incredible that Huxley was writing before the arrival of television. At least as impressive is the fact that Postman wrote his book warning about “a trivial culture” before the arrival of the Internet or smart phones.

Few things exemplify this trivial culture better than the social media with which many of us spend much of our time. After I finish this blog post, I’ll post links to it on both Facebook and Twitter, where it will compete for attention with information about lying “news” anchors, war in the Middle East, Congressional inaction, vaccines, various health scares, funny cat videos and countless other messages.

I’ll post links on those social media sites despite the fact that I have regularly denigrated “anti-social media,” especially Twitter (also here, here, here, here and here). I have proclaimed that I would avoid Twitter, and for five years or so I did. But this past weekend — in what may prove to be the dumbest Sunday decision since the Seahawks failed to give Marshawn Lynch the ball at the end of the Super Bowl — I began tweeting at @JimBMcPherson.

“Why?” Three reasons: First, much of the news is being reported (and sometimes misreported) via various media organizations first via Twitter, so it relates to my job to my job as a journalism professor. Second, I found when I was making contacts for a recent off-campus study program that some media professionals probably would have been easier to reach via Twitter than they were through other means.

And finally; as I’ve managed to demonstrate here on my blog and on Facebook, I’m an egocentric fool who often thinks his thoughts about media and politics worth sharing. In that, I am like Orwell, who offered as his first reason for writing:

Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Orwell offered three other reasons; I also agree with those (and will let you read them for yourself) before noting in his final paragraph, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” Perhaps so, though he adds, in conclusion:

One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

My own writing may be driven primarily by ego. But for better or worse, what I write — even in 140 characters — rarely lacks a political purpose.

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21 Responses to “Why I tweet”

  1. melfamy said

    We’re dinosaurs, James, still writing complete sentences that respect Strunk’s elements.

  2. Funny you should mention that, particularly in reference to Orwell. You may recall that The Elements of Style includes an Orwell rewrite of Ecclesiastes 9/11, the King James Version of which goes, “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    Orwell’s bureaucratic version: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

    I share those with my writing classes, and then offer a journalistic version that I wrote myself: “Luck beats skill.”

    Or, with proper attribution, “Luck beats skill, Solomon wrote.”

  3. melfamy said

    During the run-up to the 2004 election, both Air America and Right-wing radio hosts were using Orwell’s 1984 to buttress their arguments. Mr Blair would have been amused.

  4. wmgates68 said

    What’s up guys?

  5. Back to school for me, after spending all of Spring Break suffering from bronchitis and bad NCAA bracket picks. I getting a little excited about the GOP primary, and the fact that the Republican clown car will have Cruz control. But I’m less excited about the Hillary-vs.-whomever matchup to follow, and expecting to once again vote for neither major party in the presidential race. How about you?

  6. wmgates68 said

    Working hard every day. Trying to stay away from Spring Breakers.

  7. Reuel said

    Hello my Friend. I like your write here, “but as we all know I are a Engineer” <<<<Say that with a Forest Gump voice., so I shall have to read it twice. Took a long break from 24/7 news, well because it isn't NEW news as it was intended to be. What a refreshing experience. As for 2016, I really don't give a ( ), neither side will be able to do what they say they will. So I will watch the debates during the General Election and pull the lever for the one that promises the less. My thought on the matter is "Why would anyone want that job?". Well, I shall check in once in a while to take a brain break from technical reading from time to time. One thing that has gone up in my absents from here is, the murder rate in Big cities and it isn't even summer yet. I predict a lower than normal temperature for the country with a much higher intercity kills. It seems all life's really don't matter.

  8. jm said

    Dear Professor:

    Both you and I have been out of the loop for awhile.
    As I have stated before, only to be repeated here, political media need you-and, for the Election 2016 cycle, need you badly.
    You have that rare combination of education, skills, practical experiences and keen insights which make your commentary interesting, engaging and influential.
    I know you are busy. But, if you post no more than a short post once a week with a long form piece on occasion, I would rather have that than nothing at all. Even if you do not have the time to research and source your writing, you are generally in point so speaking for me, and I’m sure others, I don’t care if your writing is not sourced.
    Indeed, you may consider co-writing some pieces with your students, interns and graduates.
    Again, get back into the game.
    America needs you.

  9. Thanks, Reuel and JM; very kind of both of you to check in, and your words, JM, were gratifying and encouraging. I have to admit that I’m not overly enthused about what choices we’re likely to have in the general election, but actually am looking forward to the Republican debates.
    I’ve been posting regularly on Twitter & Facebook, because it’s easy to do in a few minutes, but have to admit that I was surprised to see how long it had been since I’d posted here.
    I’ve been out of the loop in terms of both reading and writing. One big reason: My wife and I are in the process of buying a new house, which means I’ve been doing lots of work to get the one we’re in ready to sell.
    I always enjoy doing manual labor for a while after school is out, because it makes me feel manly — and then quickly reminds me that I’m not, which is why I went back to school. 🙂 I hope you’re both doing well.

  10. jm said

    Dear Professor:

    Thank you for your reply.
    I have bookmarked your Twitter feed, thanks.
    I plan to launch a new blog which will focus on political strategy and media which will link to Twitter and Facebook. I will give you links when launched.
    In the meantime, you may wish to experiment with a recent WordPress feature called: Microblog Poster which allows one to publish content automatically to blogs, Twitter and other social media including Facebook without pasting. I’m not a tech person, but I’m sure one of your students probably can show you how to use it unless, of course, you already know how.
    One idea for you which I think is clever, and when I find another link I’ll send it. One blogger did a weekly roundup in which she pasted selected copies of Tweets, Facebook posts and photos on her blog. I thought it was quite effective. And, of course, it saved time writing original content for her blog.
    Good luck on your house hunting, and I’ll try to post to your blog more frequently.

  11. […] « Why I tweet […]

  12. Thanks, JM; I should have read your comment about Microblog Poster sooner, and will check it out. In fact, your previous comment had inspired me to do a blog post summarizing some of what I’ve been doing on social media. I probably made it more difficult than necessary. I had done one roundup as part of a post a year and a half ago (https://jmcpherson.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/riding-writing-and-resting/); that’s not a bad idea.
    I look forward to seeing your blog. I’ll link to it here, when you’re ready.

  13. jm said

    Dear Professor:

    Saw your post, and it was great. I’ll get a reply posted in a bit.
    You laid out more substantive content in an hour than most writers post in a week.
    Keep up the good work!

  14. jm said

    Professor:

    I thought about you and this post as I fell out of my chair listening to Donald ‘Mighty Mouth’ Trump announce his candidacy for President.

    Perhaps he was inspired, in part, by this Tweet from Geraldo:

    “Geraldo Rivera
    ‏@GeraldoRivera @realDonaldTrump is more competent, creative, tough, experienced, courageous and bold than most of the announced candidates for president”

    I suspect that Twitter traffic will go viral. I hope you’ll get into the fray.

    Let’s see whether ‘The Donald’ will trump the GOP field and make the cut for the FOX News GOP Primary Debate, or whether when the dust settles, he will get trumped himself!

  15. Reuel said

    I am waiting for the Democrats debate, Hillary VS ? Will she answer any questions? Well she has a long history and very little accomplishments. Yes the Republican debate is going to be a circus and will not be as exciting, well except Trump reminding everyone how arrogant and richer he is to everyone else. Just a thought, the Donald does know how to handle bankruptcies. He might be just what we need to resolve our current 18 Trillion dollar question. I suspect the Donald will drop out soon, rich men like him have lots of secrets and have screwed a lot of people over to get where he is. The airing of his dirty laundry will hit him hard in the pocket book. The Donald is the master of stunts and that is all this is. My guess is a Jeb/Hillary general election. Think Bill will move back in with his wife at the White House or stay up at the Snake pit up in NY? 2008 I supported Hillary, she has changed and this time I hope that both sides find a replacement. I also think a reasonable third party would stand a chance if it were a middle of the road. God help us!

  16. Reuel said

    No I don’t Twitter. Why? because in the quickly changing tech age, that to will be so 4 hours ago soon.

  17. jm said

    Reuel, like you, I have not been tweeting. But, after reading the Professor’s post, I have reconsidered, and I plan to get on Twitter soon.

    In any event, it is valuable following Twitter trends. They can be enlightening. I follow the Professor’s tweets through an Internet link. I also will follow other Twitter links to media organizations, web sites, blogs and political campaigns.

    My take, for now, is that the contenders in the general election probably will be Hillary and Jeb. But, Donald potentially could be disruptive during the primaries. Should that happen, the various new media platforms will be quite active.

  18. And, catching up here. I now tweet for the reasons above, but I’ve found it even more useful for keeping up with news. I strongly recommend something called “Tweetdeck,” which lets you organize your various feeds into different columns. I have columns for “news,” “local news,” “politics,” “sports,” “media criticism,” “history” and “friends.” You can designate a source you’re following for more than one: For example, one former student’s posts appear under both “friends” and “local news.” Through Tweetdeck I can skim tweets in a given category quickly, choosing to click on links if I want.

    I agree that Trump won’t be around long, though I’m glad he has joined the circus. I think he’ll back out when the questions get too tough. Besides, his act will wear thin soon, I think.

    In general I agree with a conservative friend who asked me, “How is it that your side has only one choice, but no real choice, while my side has too many choices, with no good choice?” I’m not a Hillary supporter by the way — it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I favor Bernie Sanders.

    I’ve been following the Rachel Dolezal case more than most things, since she is in Spokane. This morning I posted the following on Facebook and Twitter: “Tall tales, white skin & fake hair: 3 things Rachel Dolezal and Donald Trump have in common.”

  19. Eric Voc said

    PROF:

    Linked your post, which I enjoyed, to G+

    Also Linked your Twittter Feed which is on my List, and via G+ recommended to others:

    And, Linked your Tweet on the Confederate Flag:

  20. Thanks, Eric. Best to you; I’ll check out your site.

  21. Eric Voc said

    PROF:

    Thanks for the Tweet on your Feed by Juliet Eilperin concerning Obama’s digital platform and his strategies for social media engagement.

    https://ericvoc.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/obamas-strategy-for-social-media-engagement/

    We were delighted to check the status of our post on Google Search, and it landed No. 2 under an earlier post several months ago by the WSJ on a similar topic. The Page showed 1.8M Results.

    You will note that we sourced your Blog, Twitter Feed and profile in the post.

    Feel free to offer any suggestions for improvement.

    We also embedded your Blog via an RSS Feed in the right column of our Blog.

    Any time you would like to get a check report regarding our use of your content, we will be happy to prepare a TPM explaining in detail why we used the material, and the process for getting it posted which you or your readers are free to use.

    The Post will be routed to our G+ account, and if we get comments we’ll send a note.

    Take care.

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