Update: Bill Keller has responded. Please read his response at the end of this post.
I don’t care that Bill Keller
hates doesn’t like social media. What annoys me is that his lazy reporting is making him a bad example of old-school journalism.
I am of Keller’s generation, less than six years his junior. I understand about shoe-leather reporting. Like him, I’ve been doing it for decades. You do a lot of phone interviews, sure, but you also get off your ass and see things firsthand, so you can write with authority.
When I covered agriculture for the Kansas City Star, I walked wheat fields with Kansas farmers, trying to learn their business so I could report it accurately. When I covered religion for the Des Moines Register, I accompanied missionaries to Venezuela so I could understand firsthand their mission work, their Pentecostal fervor and the disaster for which they offered relief. As a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, when I told the story of twin girls being rescued from near-death, I walked the alley where they were found nearly frozen and I asked medical workers to re-create the scene in the emergency room, so I could tell the story accurately. I’ve gone to prisons, Indian reservations and devastated communities because it was important to understand the topics I covered.
Keller knows, I am sure, that you need to get firsthand knowledge to report authoritatively. He could top my stories of firsthand reporting many times over. I don’t think he won his Pulitzer Prize for coverage of turmoil in the Soviet Union by sitting in the Moscow Bureau of the New York Times. Oddly, you don’t even have to get off your ass to gain some firsthand knowledge of Facebook. But for some reason Keller thinks it’s good journalism to write about Facebook without bothering to use it or learn its culture.
He wrote a column about Facebook Sunday, but the most recent entry on his Facebook page is from last Oct. 13, when he changed his job in his profile from Times editor to columnist. In eight months, he hasn’t posted a link or a photo or status update. His other October update generated 51 comments, none of them from Keller. If he’s not even joining the Facebook conversation, it’s clear his understanding of Facebook is based on reading and interviewing other critics, rather than firsthand experience and exploration. But you know what he did Sunday? He wrote about Facebook.
Keller drew a lot of attention with an anti-social-media rant last year (I didn’t weigh in, except on social media, but my wife, Mimi Johnson, criticized Keller in a guest post here). The post revealed his ignorance of Facebook and Twitter, with sweeping statements that were shallow at best and inaccurate at worst. He actually did a much better job this year, quoting a few knowledgeable people from interviews and research and making some valid points about Facebook’s recent business problems.
This column was better-sourced and less personal than last year’s. He relied mostly on the expertise of people more knowledgeable than him, an honorable journalism practice we’ve all used frequently. But still he reveals his own willful ignorance.
He quoted from a TV show and a researcher about young people’s devotion to Facebook supposedly starting to wane. But he didn’t actually talk to any young people. John Robinson did. He heard something different.
Last year Keller was more comfortable with his ignorance of social media, dropping this gem into the column:
I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter.
Actually, if you join the discussions or talk to some people who really use social media, you will find that they are intensely social. When my niece was hospitalized for three months last year, and quarantined at home after her release, Facebook was a genuine and emotional connection to her friends and family. (Kat’s doing great, by the way.) After reconnecting digitally on Facebook, I have reconnected in person with two high school classmates, a college classmate and a cousin that I hadn’t seen in decades. Our renewed camaraderie was decidedly genuine. Again and again, when I meet tweeps IRL (that’s “in real life,” Mr. Keller), we already have a friendship that is not at all illusory. I hear similar stories from dozens of friends and colleagues ranging widely in age. I am certain that if Keller had done some minimal research, he would have seen and heard quickly that his statement was simply false.
Keller focuses so intensely on his hatred of social media that he loses any sense of self-awareness. Note the sinister tone of this passage from Sunday’s column:
Public companies have an imperative to grow profits, which Facebook will do by monetizing you and me — serving us up as the targets for precision-guided advertising.
Glass House, meet Stone. If Keller’s New York Times is not yet as precise in guiding its ads as Facebook, it is working to improve its precision. And the Times, unlike Facebook, charges its customers for the privilege of being served up as targets.
Facebook has plenty of critics (many of us who use it regularly have a love-hate relationship) and Keller had no trouble finding a few to cite for deeper expertise than he could provide. He cited a Stephen Marche Atlantic essay, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?, that echoed his own views, without noticing that it was also echoing generations of earlier anti-change laments about computers in general, TV, radio and probably, if you go back far enough, newspapers and books. Because the research cited by Marche supported Keller’s viewpoint, it was “resounding.” So apparently he didn’t feel the need to do any firsthand research himself.
A column gives you plenty of latitude to spout opinions, and I have no problem with Keller voicing opinions I disagree with. What bothers me is when journalists, regardless of their views, write inaccurately in support of their opinions.
Keller doesn’t even write accurately about a topic he does know intimately: his own writing and the reaction to it. Here’s what Keller said Sunday about last year’s column:
It wasn’t an entirely new thought a year ago when I fretted in this paper that the faux friendships of Facebook and the ephemeral connectedness of Twitter were displacing real rapport, real intimacy. The response at the time — “Luddite!” “Sacrilege!” — suggested that a fair number of people had elevated a very useful tool into an object of mindless worship.
He doesn’t include any links to reaction, which might help us see whether he was characterizing the reaction honestly. Let’s grant that he’s using a hyperbolic tone that’s appropriate for a column. I’m not innocent of hyperbole in commentary myself. I don’t think for a minute that he really means people were using exclamation marks in calling him a Luddite or accusing him of sacrilege, and I get that “sacrilege” is his interpretation of their response, not an actual word that his critics used.
But here’s a fact: The first person to use the word “Luddite” in last year’s conversation was Keller himself, perhaps protesting too much in the column that started the discussion: “I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite.”
Here’s how I used the term in my response (maybe he’s so ignorant of social media he confuses the hashtag with the exclamation mark):
#youmightbealudditeif you write, “I don’t think I’m a Luddite.”
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) May 18, 2011
Keller’s shot about “mindless worship” of Facebook goes beyond hyperbole. It’s so blatantly inaccurate that the Times should correct it, even though it’s couched in opinion phrasing. I read a fair amount of the criticism last year, and a lot of it came from people who are pretty critical of Facebook and Twitter ourselves. Keller couldn’t possibly
hate dislike Facebook and Twitter as much as their regular users do. He doesn’t use it enough to know how often Facebook’s iPad app closes on you or how ineffective Facebook search is.
Keller writes about privacy issues as though they were a big secret from Facebook users, rather than a frequent topic of Facebook conversation and a subject of annoyance with those he thinks are worshiping. Spend some time on Facebook and Twitter, Mr. Keller. You’ll see that criticism of them is a common topic. Only we criticize knowledgeably.
I’ll close with two suggestions for Bill Keller:
- Never ever write about Facebook again unless you’re willing to invest some time to learn about it firsthand, not from secondhand articles and interviews with cherry-picked experts.
- If you insist on writing about Facebook again, look up Daniel Victor when he starts work at the Times later this month and ask him to teach you. He knows as much about Facebook as you used to know about the Soviet Union. Dan can help you reclaim some of the authority and respect you are losing by writing in ignorance.
Update: Here is the response that Keller emailed to me, at my request:
Your critique stands — or wobbles — on its own prejudices, and you are entitled to them. I’d like to make one point. You assert repeatedly that I “hate” social media. For the record, and it is a very public record, I spent much of my eight years as executive editor presiding over and aggressively promoting the embrace of digital in our newsroom (and, at the invitation of the publisher, in the rethinking of the business model.) On my watch, and with my strong encouragement, The Times, supposedly the inert Gray Lady, became a new-media laboratory, including a lively social media unit. We forged productive relationships with a variety of companies in that space, including Facebook. This is hardly the labor of a guy who “hates” social media. In the piece that so offends you, I described social media as “an innovation with a wonderful menu of practical uses.” My point is that Facebook is a tool — a utility — not a religion. It should not be immune from scrutiny for its affect on the culture or for its behavior as a business. I think it’s healthy that social media is coming under more aggressive scrutiny. You are free to disagree, but to represent my view as “hatred” and “ignorance” is not journalism. It’s caricature.
Thanks for your response, Bill. I agree that the Times made some significant strides in social media on your watch. I have changed the references to you hating social media. But I stand by my statements about your ignorance. As you noted about my writing, your writing speaks for itself.