December 15, 2022 07:00 AM
Twitter owner Elon Musk’s decision to share internal records with a trio of independent journalists spawned stories about how Twitter executives worked to invent justifications for content decisions they’d already made on ideological grounds.
But it also feeds into a story about how Twitter itself, and other platforms, like the subscription service Substack, have decentralized the media so effectively that individual voices can drive the news in ways once reserved for legacy outlets.
Journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger each combed through reams of Twitter emails, message chains from the workplace communication tool Slack, and screenshots to publish five sets of analyses on Twitter. Their final products took the form of lengthy Twitter threads about how Twitter suppressed stories on Hunter Biden’s business dealings during the 2020 election and how the company ultimately decided to ban former President Donald Trump permanently.
The journalists all had several things in common: They all run popular Substack pages, they have all written pieces in the past for legacy media outlets like the New York Times, and they all have large Twitter followings.
The least-followed of the three, Shellenberger, still had more than 357,000 Twitter followers before he posted his batch of the so-called Twitter Files; he now has more than 480,000. Taibbi started December with less than 750,000 Twitter followers and now boasts more than 1.5 million.
And perhaps most importantly, all three have been outspoken about what they see as the excesses of the Left on cultural issues such as speech and corporate influence.
“To me, the media’s response to the Twitter Files is itself a scandal,” Charles Lipson, political science professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, told the Washington Examiner.
“First, they are covering up their own failure to report the story in the past,” Lipson said, referring to the story about Hunter Biden’s business dealings. “And they are undoubtedly disturbed by Twitter choosing journalists not associated with their papers or TV networks to cover the story now — and in the case of Bari Weiss, someone who famously departed from the New York Times over, essentially, political censorship.”
Some prominent commentators and news outlets moved quickly to characterize the recipients of the records as right-wing ideologues — despite each of their affiliations with liberal ideas and publications.
The Washington Post labeled Taibbi and Weiss as “conservative journalists” in a report on Monday about the publication of the Twitter Files. Commentators across the ideological spectrum slammed the Washington Post for the label, which inaccurately describes both writers.
Taibbi has described himself as a “run-of-the-mill, old-school ACLU liberal” who for years championed ideas on the Left as a celebrated writer for Rolling Stone.
Weiss quit her opinion editor post at the New York Times in 2020 after encountering what she said was a culture of censorship and socially enforced ideological conformity that had devolved into bullying from her colleagues.
“I’m called alt-right. I’m called an apologist for rape culture. I’ve been called everything,” Weiss said in 2019 in an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I’m a centrist. I’m a Jewish, center-left-on-most-things person who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, you know, is super socially liberal on pretty much any issue you want to choose.”
The Washington Post later removed the conservative label for Taibbi and Weiss from its Monday story without adding an editor’s note, according to Fox News, in a process known as stealth editing.
“Anybody who falls afoul of the left-wing orthodoxy immediately gets called a conservative,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s very funny because the Left thinks it’s an insult. It’s not an insult. It’s just inaccurate.”
Musk’s choice of the independent, but like-minded, journalists as the recipients of key records represented a departure from years of powerful people choosing to leak their stories to legacy news outlets first.
Even distinctly right-wing figures, from members of the select committee empaneled to investigate Benghazi years ago to aides in the Trump White House, have placed records and information they want to disseminate in the hands of legacy media reporters at papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Doing so often conferred legitimacy on storylines that may not have reached as wide an audience had they debuted in conservative media first. It also reflected the market domination of outlets that no longer necessarily have exclusive rights to the most talented and high-profile reporters in political media.
“I have to say, there are no more legacy independent journalists than Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi. These guys are at the top of their field and decided to go independent, but they took their legacy-ness with them,” Ungar-Sargon said. “In a way, I don’t think this really represents a break.”
Taibbi said he had to follow two conditions to gain access to the Twitter records: He had to use the requested attribution “sources at Twitter,” and he had to publish the information first on Twitter itself.
“I was actually hesitant about the Twitter aspect of it because I’m a writer. I like doing long-form and explaining things,” Taibbi said during an appearance this week on Glenn Greenwald’s Rumble program, System Update. “But I actually think it wouldn’t work otherwise. There’s also a sort of delicious irony to using Twitter to basically defenestrate Twitter and also to sort of drop this enormous, fetid stink bomb in the middle of what used to be the private garden of mainstream journalists.”
The Twitter revelations generated intense interest in conservative media but stirred far less coverage at legacy outlets and networks.
A number of prominent journalists either ignored the story or argued its insights about Twitter’s decision-making did not reveal anything the public didn’t already know.
“It’s hard to think that those are legitimate news judgments as opposed to political judgments by the editors, publishers, and reporters,” Lipson said.
Still, the news brought significant attention to the reporters who broke the news.
Weiss, who started a Substack newsletter after leaving the New York Times, used the attention as an early launching pad for a media outlet, the Free Press, that will roll her existing subscribers into a new product with a larger staff and broader mission.
“I think there’s a lot of people in this country who are politically homeless, who feel like the old labels — Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal — no longer fit them or no longer mean what they used to,” Weiss told Axios this week in an interview about her startup.
Ungar-Sargon said she believes there’s a market for hard reporting from independent journalists either self-publishing or building up from small teams on platforms like Substack.
“Elites on the Right are interested in this,” she said.
“There’s a lot of money for reporting on the Left, but the Right was a lot more opinion-focused,” she added. “So, I think that for elites on the Right, there’s a lot of excitement to fund this kind of reporting.”