Musk, Twitter, NPR
When the Twitter owner and Tesla CEO wrongly labeled NPR as “state-affiliated media,” NPR fought back in a powerful way, but it’s only a start. What needs to happen next?
By Brad Berens
Money has no morals. Money erodes morals because it washes away context and specificity in favor of interchangeability. Think about the differences among giving a friend a birthday gift that is…
1. An exchangeable thing from a local store
2. A gift card from a local store
3. Something from Amazon with a gift receipt
4. An Amazon gift card
5. Cash, a check, a gift card from VISA or MasterCard.
The first two options pull double duty: they convey to your friend that you remembered the birthday and also invest in your community because they support a local store. You’re also saying to your friend, “hey, if you don’t already know this local store you should wander in because there’s a lot of cool stuff in there, and I know you well enough to think that you’ll dig it.”
In contrast, while the last three options are still kind, they lack the additional dimensions of investing in your community and testing your knowledge of your friend’s taste in a way that says, “I see you.” These options neither create nor exploit context. Instead, they put a small, generalized burst of economic power into the world: “go buy yourself something special.” The paradox of that gesture is that specialness comes from the intimacy of the gift from a friend—the context that cash lacks.
(I’m getting to Elon Musk, Twitter, and NPR… stay with me. It won’t be long.)
The difference between the words moral and immoral are contextual, geographic: they depend on where you stand.
Generally, you only accuse other people of immorality. You would only call yourself immoral if you broke your own code. “I’m a vegetarian who just ate a steak: that was immoral.” Even then, you’d probably only call that particular act immoral rather than condemn your entire being because, as Stephen Covey observed, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”
If you have typical, mid-twentieth century values around gender roles and relationships, then you might think that sex before marriage is immoral. On the other hand, if you have feminist views about those typical gender roles, then you might think the roles themselves are immoral. Context matters with morality.
Amorality is different. If you are amoral, then you are not interested in context. Everything is the same to an amoral person except what makes them feel good in the moment or advantages them in the near term.
It is therefore no surprise that one of the richest individuals on the planet, Twitter-owner Elon Musk, is amoral. Having that much money has pulled him away from any grounding context.
This is the only way that I can understand Musk’s characteristically abrupt decision last week to label National Public Radio (NPR) “state-affiliated media” (later changed to “government-funded media,” which isn’t any better). This relabeling conflated NPR with state propaganda machines like Russia’s TASS or most media in Myanmar.
NPR, TASS, and media in Myanmar are not the same. The Kremlin controls TASS. The government that took over Myanmar in a 2021 coup controls the media there. The U.S. government does not control NPR. If it did, then some government officials wouldn’t complain about NPR as much as they do.
For example, if you look at the Ad Fontes Media rating for the “NPR News Now” five-minute podcast that gives a quick summary of the day’s news, then you’ll see it has a high accuracy/low bias score—a far cry from government propaganda. (Disclosure, I’m an advisor/investor at Ad Fontes.)
Most of the time, when folks complain about social media, they do so on social media, which reinforces the power of those platforms at the same time that the complainers think they’re doing something productive. They aren’t. The only way to drain social media’s power is to starve it of our attention, which is what NPR and PBS did by pulling back.
However, unless individual journalists also quit Twitter, then those gestures by the organizations will have little impact. In the days that followed, Scott Detrow, Leila Fadel, Domenico Montanaro, and Ari Shapiro also left Twitter, but that is a small number of NPR’s many journalists.
If you are amoral, then you are not interested in context. Everything is the same to an amoral person except what makes them feel good in the moment or advantages them in the near term.
It is no surprise that one of the richest individuals on the planet, Twitter-owner Elon Musk, is amoral. Having that much money has pulled him away from any grounding context. This is the only way that I can understand Musk’s characteristically abrupt decision last week to label National Public Radio “state-affiliated media” (later changed to “government-funded media,” which isn’t any better). This relabeling conflated NPR with state propaganda machines like Russia’s TASS or most media in Myanmar.
Still, I have hope because…
Even Twitter will never be another Twitter.
It’s hard for any journalist to leave Twitter, which, as Molly Wood has observed, has been the media’s global assignment desk for the last 15 years. But with a reduced staff and weaker tech stack, the Twitter user experience has already declined. Being on Twitter is less alluring now because it’s hard to see the relevant stuff that is drowned out by repetitive nonsense and low-rent ads.
Twitter is never coming back, and there will be no heir. Just as there will never be another final episode of M*A*S*H (the most-watched scripted episode in TV history), there will never be another one-stop shop for what’s happening out there, like Twitter used to be. Media and technology are too fragmented.
On the downside, this means that viewers and journalists alike will need to work harder to find information, evaluate context, and decide what’s important. On the plus side, an amoral, impulsive individual will no longer control the crossroads of global information.
The more journalists who pull back, the weaker Twitter will become. That will be a good thing.
It’s a small gesture, but I’m not going to tweet about this column, future columns, or much at all. You can find me on Post.News, Substack Notes, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram, or in your inbox on Sundays if you subscribe to my newsletter. That’s enough.
I encourage you all to do the same because context matters. It’s a moral issue.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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April 20, 2023