Living on Twitter Time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009 9:48 AM

Is Twitter no longer an ultra-hip refuge for the perpetually plugged-in?

Now that Time's cover has certified it as part of mass culture, the quirky little Web site can hardly be dismissed as a mere oddity. And the masses who have jumped from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter might at any moment decamp for some hot new hangout.

But the site is less important than the way its users are changing the media culture. They are exchanging more than just 140-character bursts of blather about their daily lives: They are guiding their friends and followers to the latest news, information, gossip, snark and a pulsating, real-time debate. Old-style news outlets would kill for that sense of belonging.

When I mentioned on my Twitter page that I would be talking on the air about Conan O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show," I got a flood of messages. Some called him a genius, others think he's a goofball. What I quickly learned is that O'Brien is a polarizing figure in the late-night world, loved and loathed with equal fervor.

The speed is often blinding as people tap updates from their phones. "If you're looking for interesting articles or sites devoted to Kobe Bryant, you search Google," Time's Steven Johnson wrote. "If you're looking for interesting comments from your extended social network about the three-pointer Kobe just made 30 seconds ago, you go to Twitter."

Twitter's 17 million monthly visitors -- up from just over 1 million a year ago -- are shaping their environment, such as making discussions easily searchable by including the hashtag or pound (#) symbol. They create an echo-chamber effect by "re-tweeting" -- that is, repeating -- noteworthy observations or links. But as with Facebook, whose redesigned news feed now resembles Twitter, the ultimate appeal is forging connections. USA Today last week lamented the sheer banality of most status updates, but even these provide a sense of someone's routine, interests and sense of humor.

The guilty pleasure of peeking into another person's life is heightened when said person is prominent, whether it's a network anchor, a politician or the likes of Shaq, Oprah or Ashton Kutcher. Oh look, Chris Cuomo's daughter is sick. Hey, Bonnie Fuller got drenched while lugging bags around Central Park and her hair got mega-frizzy.

Not everyone buys the notion that this is a step forward for mankind. "For celebrities, Twitter is a gigantic ego stroke," writes CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel. "It's a game of narcissist strip poker, and you're the thong."

Sure, the boldfaced names may provide carefully calibrated glimpses, but some actively engage with their fan base.

I became friendly with Mariel Hemingway when the actress began following me on Twitter. When I began checking out her page, I was struck by how often she shared the details of her life, from her hiking to her bedtime. Without any handlers or publicists, we agreed to meet for a CNN interview when I was in Los Angeles.

"I'm a very private person," Hemingway told me. "But I find it wonderfully comforting to know that there's just people out there to connect with that -- yes, they don't know me, but . . . I think you feel a closeness with people, and it's a great way to kind of get what your message is out there." In her case, that includes promoting her new cookbook.

The instant feedback is also having an impact on reporting. I asked my Twitter followers last week what they valued about the site, and was deluged with responses that would have taken days of calling to collect:

Amy Salit: "Twitter is a great newsfeed; a blog that you can fashion to fit your own interests, with the potential to be much more."

Mary Dellaporta: "Twtr certainly offers insight into the exponential lack of substance that IS the banal journalism of neo TV anchors & pundits."

Jon Braunstein: "Twitter feeds our desire for real-time play-by-play of the world. Instant, impressionistic news."

Joan Stephens: "A lot of interesting links to stories the MSM doesn't cover."

Newsjunkie365: "Since Twitter my web surfing for news has greatly decreased. Now the news comes to me."

D Tollison: "I like it because I feel like I'm 'in the room,' like when I read your tweets."

Jamie White: "In many ways it is replacing 'over the fence' and chatty phone calls."

Such comments capture the digital ethos: news hand-delivered and informally rendered by people you like (or like to argue with). The New York Times, which has hired a social media editor, recently launched Times People, which allows readers to follow Times reporters, click on articles they recommend and respond to other commenters.

A number of operations are exploiting the phenomenon known as crowdsourcing. Take the consumer review site Yelp, where legions of ordinary folks in metropolitan areas evaluate restaurants, shopping and nightlife.

On his Recovering Journalist blog, former Washington Post reporter Mark Potts calls Yelp "a very powerful tool. . . . Why grapple with clumsy newspaper entertainment-guide and calendar interfaces, and take the word of a single, over-stretched reviewer, when you can quickly see what the crowd is saying on Yelp about the place you want to go?" Of course, the wisdom of the crowds is not always infallible, and reviewers often bring experience and discernment to the table.

The connective tissue here is a network of strangers whose opinions you come to value. On Twitter, I follow people as varied as ABC's Jake Tapper, AOL founder Steve Case, cultural critic Touré and comedian Sarah Silverman. But I also hear from all manner of partisans, bloggers, publicists, politicos, students and stay-at-home moms.

Twitter has its tedious side. I don't have something fascinating to say every few minutes, and neither does anyone else. But in this era of corporate downsizing, journalists had better get good at making friends.

Not Safe for Work

The Huffington Post, a strikingly successful site with all manner of news, blogs and video, has been playing up photos of exposed female flesh.

When Natalie Portman, Beyoncé and Pamela Anderson have wardrobe malfunctions, Arianna Huffington's site provides the evidence. There has been a spate of pictures and slideshows with such headlines as "Guess the Celebrity Breast Implants."

Washington City Paper's Amanda Hess finds this jarring for a liberal site. Readers, she writes, "care so much about nipples that the Huffington Post devotes pages and pages of photographs to them when women accidentally (or, you know, against their will) reveal them to the public. In that way, there's no difference between the religious conservative who is scandalized by a bare breast popping up in the middle of his football game and a liberal Web site which devotes its resources to naked chicks. A woman's body part is a priority. Real women's issues, not so much."

Huffington dismisses this argument by e-mail, calling it "silly and highly limiting to assume that all progressives can't wait to get to the orgy and all conservatives have a chastity belt in their drawer. . . . As the Washington City Paper's blogger herself points out, we have a wide range of news and opinion on all our sections -- including our Entertainment section.

"Looking for hidden political agendas in every article and every photo on HuffPost will lead to some very convoluted conclusions. As Freud said, 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar' -- and a nipple slip is just a nipple slip."

Liberal Comeback

Progressive radio returns to Washington this month as Air America takes over 1050 AM, which had been Federal News Radio, under a deal with Bonneville International. The station, which plans to add local programming, launches months after Redskins owner Dan Snyder pulled the plug on ratings-challenged OBAMA 1260.

Walsh vs. O'Reilly

Bill O'Reilly got into quite a shouting match with Salon Editor Joan Walsh on Friday over her charges that his attacks had made George Tiller a target before the abortion doctor was murdered. Here's her post-game report:

"I was surprised when so many people I respect told me not to appear on 'The O'Reilly Factor.' I'd attacked Bill O'Reilly for his jihad against Dr. George Tiller, and he asked me on to discuss my 'accusations.' I thought that was fair. I could explain my point of view to his face; to say no felt like being a punk. But smart and supportive friends, family, co-workers, Twitterers and media stars all over the country reached out and suggested I skip it.

"I thought about it, but not for long. I like doing TV. I'm not terrible at it. I criticized him, I should have the guts to repeat it to his face . . .

"I think the high or low point was when he shrieked at me, 'You have blood on your hands!' At one point he also either told me to 'Shut up' or 'Be quiet,' I can't remember . . . UPDATE: Actually, he shouted 'Stop talking!') He called me 'vile.' I think I said he was vile, too. There were a couple of 'I know you are but what am I?' moments that I'm not totally proud of. It was a kaleidoscopic nightmare, a TV acid trip, and I don't do acid. It almost seems like O'Reilly does, but I don't think so. The man is driven by demons. God bless him and save him."

Which provides the perfect setup for this Peggy Noonan column:

"The Democratic message on the Republicans has gone from 'the party of no' to 'the party of angry white men.' If they get away with it, it will be in part because angry talkers in the conservative media infrastructure too often leave themselves open to the charge.

"Both conservative media and liberal media are alike in that they have to keep the ratings up, or the numbers up, or the hits. If they lose audience, they can lose everything from clout to ad revenue. Because they have to keep the numbers up, they have to keep it hot, which actually has some effect on the national conversation. The mainstream media is only too happy to headline it when a radio talker says Sonia Sotomayor is a dope. The radio talker may be doing it to play to his base, but the mainstream media does it to show that Republicans are mean, thick and angry.

"On left and right, on cable and radio, political hosts see gain in hyping the story, agitating and exciting their listeners. All of this creates a circular, self-enclosed world in which it gets hotter and hotter and tighter and tighter."

Media Crackdown

"Iranian authorities criticized international media reports and took steps to control the flow of information from independent news sources as anti-government protests raged in the country for a second day Sunday.

"The British Broadcasting Co. said that electronic jamming of its news report, which it said began on election day Friday, had worsened by Sunday, causing service disruptions for BBC viewers and listeners in Iran, the Middle East and Europe . . .

"On Saturday, Iranian officials contacted television journalists for The Associated Press in Iran and warned that the government would enforce an existing law banning provision of news video to the Farsi-language services of the BBC and the Voice of America."

Dave's Slutty Jokes

The Letterman debate continues, hot and heavy. Michelle Malkin lets him have it:

"Will late-night clown David Letterman teach his son to talk about women and girls the way he talks about Sarah Palin and her daughters?

"He called the married 45-year-old grandmother and Alaska governor a 'slutty flight attendant' on his national TV show because she happens to be a tall, beautiful and dynamic public figure who doesn't look, walk or talk the way you think she should.

"He joked about Palin's teenage daughter 'getting knocked up' by Yankee Alex Rodriguez or solicited by prostitute-addicted ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer -- because it's acceptable in his social and professional circles to sneer at the children of politicians you despise . . .

"Letterman reminds me of the lecher at the school bus stop. Or the aging creep lurking in the dirty magazine section at the 7-Eleven.

"Attention, CBS: Get him help now."

But not that much sympathy for Dave at left-leaning magazines. "God help me, I'm feeling a bit of solidarity with Sarah Palin," Michelle Cottle says.

"OK. Not exactly. I, for instance, do find it plausible that David Letterman was referring to 18-year-old Bristol with his knocked-up crack. And even if he didn't, all Palin's blather about statutory-rape jokes contributing to the cultural assault on young girls seems more than a little overwrought. Nor do I think Letterman owes anyone an apology: not young women in general, not Willow in particular, most definitely not Governor Exploit-My-Family-For-Political-Gain Palin, and not even Bristol.

"That said, Dave's was a gross joke, even if it was about the daughter old enough to have sex legally. Bristol was a reckless high-school kid with too many hormones who did something hideously stupid with her equally reckless, hormone-addled high-school boyfriend. But that doesn't necessarily make the girl a tramp who runs around getting knocked up at the drop of a hat.

"Yeah, I get it: The Palins have an image as slightly backwoods white-trashy, so it's all in good fun to snicker about Bristol being a bitch in perpetual heat. But we are still talking about a very young woman who made the very same mistake thousands (if not millions) of Americans teens make every year -- and who will be raising the results of that mistake for at least the next 18 years with God only knows how much or little help from the baby's doofus father."

Her New Republic colleague, Jason Zengerle, kinda defends Dave and puts the onus on Palin:

"Letterman has said that he wasn't joking about Palin's 14-year-old daughter, Willow, but her 18-year-old daughter, Bristol; and, frankly, I believe him. Why? Because the jokes make no sense if they're not about Bristol. First, Bristol is far and away the most famous of the Palin children; late night comics generally don't tell jokes about people who are obscure, for the simple reason that their audience won't get the jokes. Second, Bristol is famous for her sex life, having had an out-of-wedlock child and now, more recently, becoming a spokesperson for teen abstinence -- which is why, for better or worse, any joke about her is likely to be one laced with sexual innuendo.

"Yes, it's true . . . that it was Willow, not Bristol, who attended the Yankees game with her mom. But my guess is Letterman was simply confused about which daughter was in attendance. More importantly, I can't imagine many people watching Letterman even knew which Palin daughter was at the Yankee game (it wasn't exactly national news), and, therefore, when they heard the joke, they just assumed the unnamed Palin daughter whom Letterman was joking about was Bristol -- since Bristol is the Palin daughter who's not only famous but is famous for the very thing Letterman was joking about."

As for the governor going on "Today" Friday: "I once wondered how Palin, as a mother, could have accepted McCain's offer to be his running mate when she knew that, by doing so, she would subject her pregnant teenage daughter to national attention (and, with that attention, criticism and ridicule). But I'm even more baffled by her behavior here. Even if she does think Letterman was making inappropriate jokes about her 14-year-old daughter, how does it help her 14-year-old daughter to continue to fan the flames this controversy and just call more attention to the jokes? If I was a 14-year-old girl, I sure as hell wouldn't want my mother going on national TV to keep on talking about my hypothetical statutory rape."

On the other hand, writes Andrea Peyser in the New York Post, Conan O'Brien last week "was having a blast slurring women and Jews -- two groups that may constitute the last permissible sick-comedy staples.

"Here's Conan: 'Political experts say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to endorse what he calls a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side but have no contact,' he said. Ba-dump. 'Netanyahu said it will be exactly like being married to a Jewish woman.' Ba-dump-bump."

Who writes this stuff, anyway?

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