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The Washington Post Slaps the Twitter Handcuffs on Its Staff

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Here’s something everybody should understand about journalism. The reporters, columnists and news anchors you follow almost all have opinions about the subjects they cover. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is a good thing, because any person who immersed him or herself in a vital, contentious subject all day and formed no opinion about it whatsoever would be an idiot, and you do not want to get your news from idiots.

Some journalists (like me) are paid to express opinions. Others are paid to report news without regard to their opinions–and many, though not all, do an excellent job of this. And many more are required to hide their opinions by their bosses, in the belief that it builds reader confidence to maintain the illusion that the news is produced by people without opinions, i.e., idiots.

That is the spirit behind a new policy at the Washington Post about staffers using Twitter, which manages to get both social media and journalism wrong at the same time, and suggests that the newspaper is working hard to make itself as irrelevant as possible.

The Post drew up its policy after one of its managing editors, Raju Narisetti, posted tweets to his Twitter account that touched on a couple of political issues:

We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.

and

Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from “standing up too quickly.” How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.

There you have it: a man whose sole job is to focus on news and issues has opinions on health care, deficits and term limits. Shocking.

It was shocking to Narisetti’s bosses, anyway, who quickly instituted rules for staff Twitter and other social-networking activity that included the following: “When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment … Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

See, obviously you and I know a guy like Narisetti, not being an idiot, has opinions. That’s fine. As long as he treats them like a shameful secret and hides them from us like a fat kid reinventing himself on a piece of awful home exercise equipment. Then we can all have trust in the media!

Sigh. I’ve expounded before on why it’s a bogus idea that repressing opinions makes journalists fairer or more trustworthy. In short: by having policies like these, newspapers only reinforce an inaccurate idea of their own profession. Objectivity does not mean having no opinions. (Having no opinions more likely is a sign of apathy or stupidity.) Nor does it mean having opinions but hiding them. It means having opinions—as intelligent, informed people do—but not subordinating your work to them. It means being truthful and fair about your area of coverage, even if doing so hurts the causes you support.

If you slant your coverage, hiding your beliefs does not make your work better. If your work is fair, sharing your beliefs does not make it less so (on the contrary, it provides your reader more information to keep you honest). But by perpetuating a fiction no one believes anyway, newspapers don’t make themselves trustworthy; they just seem phony.

What’s more, as I wrote when the Wall Street Journal adopted a similarly hamhanded policy earlier this year, this kind of policy sabotages the kind of intimate connection with readers that Twitter and other services make possible, and that newspapers desperately need. (As do their writers, for the day that newspaper lays them off and they’re on their own; the Post’s policy should make any journo with options think twice about taking a job there.)

I get why: to successfully use Twitter et al., you have to give up control, and that scraes scares the hell out of institutions like the Post. Their old way of doing business is to make sure that (except for a few stars like Bob Woodward) their staff remain anonymous drones who subordinate themselves to the paper’s brand.

But that day is over, and the Post only hurts its brand by handcuffing its writers on Twitter. Its policy amounts to: just don’t say anything interesting, and things will be fine.

Now, there actually is some common sense in the Post’s new dictates. For instance, the reminder that you should treat anything you post to Twitter, Facebook, etc., as if it can and will be widely read. But these common-sense guidelines should be left to just that: common sense (without which, why would you have a job at the Post in the first place?). There are plenty of reasons to avoid oversharing online—for instance, not antagonizing a source you might need information from. But that decision should be left to the writers, and the writers judged on their work.

As for Narisetti’s tweets, restricting them has nothing to do with serving the reader better; it’s all about avoiding embarrassment for the Post. And needlessly. I don’t agree with all that he posted. (For what it’s worth, I’m glad to raise deficits for healthcare reform if it drives down costs in the long term, but I think all term limits are antidemocratic.) But I don’t think any less of him for posting them.

Thanks to its new policy, though, I do think less of the Post. Or rather—because it believes that we have to be protected from information about its staff’s opinions—I now know how much less it thinks of us.

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