The Twitter Files and Writing for the Maw
I don’t give a shit about the Twitter files. I am, famously, not a fan of Twitter, as I see it as the virtual space in which conformity is rigidly enforced. I was guilty, notoriously, of very bad behavior on Twitter, which led to a public shunning of me that was predictable, understandable, and justified. For the five years since that happened, I have considered my Twitter privileges revoked, and I will go on feeling that way. I do check the service twice a week for a half-hour or hour or so, as I find it’s necessary to keep up with “the conversation,” given that I do a lot of media criticism. But I’m a proud Twitter hater, both because I’m a pretentious snowflake and because Twitter’s format genuinely is terrible for our discourse and our collective psyches and the whole thing should be nuked from orbit.
So I’d like to ignore “the Twitter files,” documents from Twitter that Elon Musk sent to Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, among others. They have been releasing information about how Twitter’s prior administration and its actions relating to moderation and censorship. It’s not that I don’t think there’s anything newsworthy there. I’m just not that interested. Frankly, I don’t believe that a big corporation like Twitter will ever maintain anything like just or equitable rules about what can and cannot be published on its platform. I didn’t trust Twitter’s old ownership; I don’t trust the new. Living under the directives of Vijaya Gaade is like being 40 and owning an expensive Manhattan walkup but still having an RA; living under the directives of Elon Musk is like being ruled by the guy at your gym who only shows up every two weeks but when he does performatively grunts and sweats and talks too loud to everyone in earshot. Musk has become right-coded, but while I’m sure he’s pretty good at running an electric car company, he’s mostly a sterling example of the casually-destructive American doofus, someone whose political views are totally subject to the point of view of whatever “funny” meme he last saw. Meanwhile it’s 2022 and Jack Dorsey still thinks cryptocurrency has a chance to liberate mankind. Twitter will always be led by a confederacy of dunces. Consistency and justice were never in the cards.
However. While I’m not really interested at all in the Twitter files as such, I am always interested in the meta-discursive details of how the media talks to itself. The large majority of our media that is not explicitly conservative seems to have fallen into almost total unanimity that the Twitter files are not worth paying attention to, that Musk’s leadership is bad, and that the people reporting on the Twitter files are bad as well. And I’m interested in how these orthodoxies develop within media. I’m interested, in other words, in the Maw.
The Maw is, broadly speaking, the expression of the culture war as operationalized by the consensus opinions of media. The Maw is the aggregate of opinions of paid-up journalists and writers and pundits and, specifically, the opinions they will allow. When a big story breaks, there’s an initial feeling-out period where the media talks to itself and decides what the consensus opinion will be. As time has gone on, this process has gotten faster and faster, so that now the media consensus and the expectation that all decent people will glom onto it develop in a matter of minutes. What’s interesting about the Twitter files is that both an inciting incident (the Hunter Biden laptop story and its censorship by Twitter) and an eventual consequence of it (the release of the Twitter files) fell into the Maw with incredible speed. Immediately, in 2020, the enforced consensus within media was that there was no story to speak of regarding the Hunter Biden laptop story; it was not only not worthy of influencing the election, it should not have been reported on at all, and Twitter’s decision to artificially limit its spread was justified. So too with the Twitter files: as soon as Matt Taibi started tweeting about them, it seems, most in newsmedia were convinced they were unimportant. This is the Maw at work - it’s the expression of culture war in what the media sees as a respectable position to hold. In the Maw, nothing independent survives.
To consider the Maw, I’ll look at this piece by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz.
As a preliminary - there is, of course, an immense hypocrisy at play with Twitter these days; for years, left-leaning people had justified all of Twitter’s moderation policies, such as their censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story and the lab leak Covid-19 hypothesis, by saying “Twitter is a private company, they can do what they want. Don’t complain.” Twitter is still a private company, and its owner is now doing what he wants. Those same people are complaining about it. This is one of those petty hypocrisies that you really can’t get out of. If you thought that saying Twitter is a private company was a legitimate response to criticism of its moderation practices under previous ownership (including, let us not forget, the rulers of a brutal theocratic dictatorship), then you must accept it as a legitimate response to criticism of the new regime. Gooses and ganders. But then, hypocrisy is only human.
Levitz goes through the Twitter files story, pulls the various strands apart, and in each instance arrives at an opinion that is sufficiently nuanced to save face but which will in every instance satisfy the Maw. Perhaps the Hunter Biden story should not have been censored - but there’s no evidence it was censored for political ends, and anyway, maybe censoring the story increased its reach. Perhaps there’s lots of corruption floating around Hunter Biden - but petty corruption is no big deal, and anyway there’s no way Joe Biden, the Senator from MasterCard, was complicit in anything untoward. Perhaps there were inequities in how accounts were “shadowbanned” and had their reach limited - but there’s no evidence that the Twitter team responsible for those actions, every member of which was left-leaning, did so along partisan lines. Perhaps an esteemed epidemiologist had his tweets artificially repressed by the algorithm at a time when there was public fervor to censor dissident perspectives on Covid - but hey, we can’t prove why they did it. Perhaps this room is filled with smoke - but we have no documentary evidence of fire. Again and again, there’s an issue that could appear to have obvious public interest, but again and again, there’s some piece of administrivia that excuses that issue. And since the highlighting of the initial issues is so reliably dismissed via the motivated reasoning, there’s little danger of Levitz falling on the wrong side of the Maw.
In other words, Levitz knows that he’s publishing a piece with some caveats and provisos for an audience that will not spend a single moment caring about the caveats and provisos. He’s conceding things that he knows his audience will never concede. He constructs the appearance of being evenhanded while keeping one hand in his pocket.
A good example of this is Levitz’s brief dismissal of the Hunter Biden laptop story. It’s true, as Levitz says, that the laptop contains little evidence of direct illegal influence on Joe Biden. But because Levitz has a culture war to get to, he hurries right past the bigger picture.
There is little question that Hunter Biden was an influence peddler who sought to monetize his access to the American vice-president. Burisma was not paying Hunter $50,000 a month for his expertise on the Eastern European natural-gas market. It was paying to be one degree of separation away from Hunter’s father.
This is sordid. But it’s also mundane.
This is a good example of a career political writer attempting to play the role of jaded veteran, which is a habit of people writing for the Maw. The very fact that the sordid is mundane is the scandal. Yes, Hunter Biden’s nepotism hires are business as usual for a certain type of person. But so what? Isn’t that scandal enough? Shouldn’t left-leaning people be disgusted by daily collusion between those in proximity with power and deep-pocketed interests? Even when it’s “their side” doing it?
I won't discuss the theory that the Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation, as that theory is not worthy of discussion.
More importantly, there’s the counterfactual: if this had been Eric Trump’s laptop, how would our media have responded? I will remind you that this was 2020, a year in which vast swaths of the journalist class declared explicitly that the era of journalistic objectivity was over. That’s not my supposition but the text of what many in media were saying. [Edit: see correction below.] Take, for example, Wesley Lowery’s viral “moral clarity” essay in The New York Times, which stated flatly that in a post-George Floyd world, journalists no longer had any duty to appear evenhanded and instead were compelled to speak from a position of moral certitude. The essay received a rapturous response from Lowery’s peers. It was a new day. Masha Gessen gave Lowery’s piece their blessing, saying we were experiencing “the emergence of a new political consensus,” ensuring that both the country’s most prestigious newspaper and its most prestigious magazine had endorsed the concept that media neutrality was a thing of the past. Quickly enough, many of the self-same people in media who had publicly embraced this new day promptly forgot about it, in order to again insist that there is no liberal bias in media. But that moment happened, that’s what 2020 was like, and I haven’t forgotten.
Does Levitz really think that an Eric Trump laptop would receive precisely the same treatment as Biden’s? Really? At the height of 2020 mania, when the country’s chattering class was convinced that they were living in an epochal moment? You think Occupy Democrats or whatever wouldn’t have taken an Eric Trump laptop with reference to foreign leaders and corporate connections and run wild with it? You think DailyKos would have pronounced an Eric Trump laptop to be a “nothingburger”? I don’t see how any minimally honest person could conclude that an Eric Trump laptop scandal would play out exactly the same as a Hunter Biden laptop scandal. And isn’t the difference between them profoundly relevant to the prosecution of democracy?
I don’t think there’s a lot there, with the Hunter Biden laptop. (I’m fully convinced that Hunter Biden is a scumbag, however.) I do think that there’s a lot there with how the media perceives and covers scandal. That’s inherently relevant. And if you think that Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss are the wrong people to cover that story, perhaps you should ask yourself about the social-professional conditions in media that have created a caste of outsiders who are the only reporters that many people trust. Perhaps you should think about cratering public trust in establishment media. Perhaps you should think about the Maw.
Levitz, like most people in the media who are not explicitly conservative, must play a delicate game. The game is to engage in enough nuance and care in your writing to still be able to look yourself in the mirror, to preserve some integrity, without getting right-coded in the culture war. Once a person finds himself on the wrong side of culture war debates enough times, they will be regarded as a reactionary no matter what their actual beliefs. They fall into the Maw. I am in almost every matter of substance you can think of a generic leftist. It’s difficult to name a single left-right issue on which I don’t land comfortably on the left. But I’m right-coded by the Maw. This has been financially remunerative for me but makes little sense as a matter of basic political intelligibility. The Maw shreds nuance and destroys complexity and, more than anything, forces everyone to constantly arrange their self-presentation in a way that ensures they don’t fall on the wrong side of the culture war faultline. I think there are a lot of interesting conversations to be had about the Twitter files and how they are being reported. The Maw insists that there’s nothing there at all.
Correction: It's been put to me that my references to Wesley Lowery's essay are exaggerated, to the point of out-and-out distortion. Rereading his piece, I have to conclude that this critique is correct. Lowery was engaging with the practice of objectivity more than attacking the concept entirely, and doing so with more nuance than I allowed. I suppose I was engaging more with my memory of the piece than with the piece itself, but it's of course my job to accurately summarize pieces I discuss. I regret the error.