One month. That was about how long I toyed around with Twitter in the mid-aughts before I realized I’m not a celebrity with 100K followers and that no one cares what I think. Oddly but not surprisingly miffed at the lack of love to come my way after I busted out the gate tweeting gold, pure gold, and intrigued by that other burgeoning social network, I bailed on the dumb blue bird. In early 2017, I picked it back up, motivated by the once distant but now clear and present prospect of another civil war. I wanted to know what was going on now and what I could do to fight back or help. Most of that thumb-work has amounted to retweet, donate, heart, heart, retweet, donate, retweet …
The other day, for the first time (that I’m aware of), I retweeted some misinformation. It was a list of all the schools where AR-15s have been used to commit massacres –– with one exception. The last name was Santa Fe High School.
“Wrong,” a pseudonymous user pointed out. The Texas murderer did not have an AR-15 but a “shotgun and a revolver,” which, as I would later discover, was true.
But I was consumed with fire and fury. You’re missing the point, I clapped back. No one needs an AR-15. They’re for one thing and one thing only: snuffing lots of lives fast. “End of discussion,” I boomed, hanging onto the moral high ground by my fingertips. To me, the context was more important than the pesky details. Besides, who was this Trumpster –– and to take issue with such trivia, he could only be a card-carrying Deplorable –– latching onto what could have been merely a typo when every other word out of his dear leader’s toxic Big Mac-hole is untrue?
Plus, I have only about 1,800 followers. Most of my tweets are met with crickets. For the past 20 years, though, I have been making my living as a journalist. I cannot perpetuate a falsehood even while reinforcing the irrefutable truth that civilians do not need AR-15s. I might be hurting the mission that I freely admit I now support 100 percent: sensible gun control. I have now armed that pseudonymous user and every person like him/her with ammunition: “Anthony Mariani is FAKE NEWS.”
This is kind of a big deal. Unlike me. I’m no Paul Krugman, Rebecca Solnit, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or some other legacy writer at some other legacy publication. I’m just the editor of a hyper-local 24-year-old paper in Fort Worth, Texas, with a print circulation of 75,000 and around 17,000 Facebook and Twitter followers apiece. Our readers have come to expect accurate, fact-based, occasionally even entertaining journalism from us. During my 13 years as associate editor and now three as editor, we have built up a lot of goodwill in our little slice of North Texas one solid, non-libelous, possibly entertaining story at a time. Recently we exposed a racist nightclub (with a thing for shoes), broke the news of a local woman’s post-court battle with filmmaker Tyler Perry over plagiarism allegations, and detailed a Catholic adoption agency’s rejection of a local lesbian couple on shaky Constitutional grounds. I have strongly considered that by letting that bad retweet hang out there I may be tainting all of the awesome work that my coworkers and I have done since last month or even since I became editor in 2015, which is a couple of years before I returned to Twitter and started hearting and retweeting lefty (read: righteous, necessary) posts and donating to lefty (read: good) causes like The Brady Campaign. I am still strongly considering my options.
Well-sourced, balanced news stories are under attack every day by a White House whose unspoken mission is to cast doubt on the truth to obfuscate the chief occupant’s traitorous, self-enriching, and lie-littered anti-American escapades. My immense dislike for Donald Trump is personal. I am the father of a black 6-year-old from West Africa, and every time DT lets another “very fine” Nazi off the hook or refers to immigrants as “animals” or as hailing from “shithole countries,” I have to stop myself from wishing death or worse upon him. There, I have come clean. I am biased against Donald Trump and his administration and the Republican-controlled universe that not only propelled him to power but that allows him to continue scoffing at both the rule of law and basic human decency without retribution or any fear thereof. Guess I’ll pack up my stuff and show myself out.
I understand that skewing liberal professionally does not permit me to lie in public to advance an argument. Lying to advance an argument – who would do such a thing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Certainly, I can’t. Unlike, say, the leader of the free world and his cronies, we professional purveyors of information are beholden to our fellow citizens, who are both our de facto bosses and our compatriots, tacitly imbued with the high power to simply tune us out. As the electoral college will always ensure their voices at the ballot box remain only semi-valid, American-style capitalism will continue protecting their real and perhaps only voice: as consumers. Picking up a copy of the Fort Worth Weekly or logging onto Fwweekly.com will cost you nothing, but our advertisers would really prefer you did pick us up. They essentially pay my wages and those of my nearly two-dozen coworkers – and keep the lights on. Hopefully, none of our advertisers is reading this. Or following me on Twitter.
I think most of our readers know we lean left, which I would translate as “leaning toward the truth.” Pretty much every public-policy problem in Fort Worth and Texas in general –– gerrymandering, sweetheart development deals (and political arrangements), heavy-handed immigration enforcement – is fueled by warped right-wing ideology. It’s all based on conservatives’ relentless quest for power by any means necessary. Old white guys with more money than they know what to do with can’t turn back the clock to 1950 otherwise. As there may be two (or more) sides to every story, the two sides to public policy in Texas are: 1.) fact-based and empathetic and 2.) grossly misinformed and cruel. I’ll let you guess which side is which.
My lefty bias might simply be part of my professional DNA. Most newsrooms, even in Flyover Country, are liberal. The biggest reason appears to be that most (most) writers/editors are well-educated, and when you’re well-educated, you’re civilized, and when you’re civilized, you’re empathetic. It may also be that, inspired by All the President’s Men and Spotlight, we value fairness above all else. Or maybe we’re just cursed with an excess of empathy. I would say that until I backed into journalism –– I fancied myself a visual artist before that and, before that, a pro football player (in Europe!) –– I could have been described as conservative. Raised in a Catholic household and taught in Catholic schools, I was told that might is right. Now that I realize the world is weighted down by needless suffering and that the old, rich white guys in charge have the ability to usher in relief but simply choose not to, no doubt because it would cost them some of their precious foldin’ money, I feel as if the fight has come to me. I’m a journalist, yes, but I’m a human being first.
And as a human being, I am imperfect. No one needs to know, but there’s a part of me that hopes my micro misinformation campaign is working. Fort Worth is lousy with real Heartland types: Christian, white, definitely not poor, well-educated Republican voters. A few of them are my friends. A couple of them are family. A few dozen Heartlanders even follow @Anthony_Mariani. I see their shiny, well-coiffed heads bragging about another amazing experience at megachurch or thanking Him for another day in paradise. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed knowing that, for all we have in common, and it is much, we will never come truly together as friends as long as Big Christianity is between us. Maybe one of my #blessed followers never stopped to think that newspaperman Anthony Mariani would perpetuate misinformation when retweeting about something as serious as AR-15s and school shootings. Maybe through my bad retweet I’ve changed one mind, brought one person closer to my elevated path. You may only think I’m joking. There’s right and just, and then there’s the average conservative’s version of right and just: old, rich white men calling the shots while minorities and poor whites scrap over scraps.
A decade ago, not long after Twitter became the globe’s dominant news source, the Columbia Journalism Review said that liberal journalists should embrace their “outlook,” a euphemism for “political bias.” “A reporter fully aware of his or her own relevant political and moral beliefs, and conscious of how those views influence what and how he or she reports, is likely to produce better journalism, in which both left and right get their due, without resorting to the bland, forced neutrality found in many publications seeking to conceal the beliefs of their staffs,” wrote Thomas Edsall, the political editor of the Huffington Post. “The liberal tilt of the mainstream media is, in this view, a strength, but one that in recent years, amid liberal-bias controversies, has been mismanaged.”
In the Twitterverse, bias is rampant, including from otherwise straight-news reporters. Many of them often tease their political stories with anti-Trump language. Some even appear to derive a perverse species of joy by calling Tiny Hands on his abundant nonsense. (@jaketapper is the king of this.) They could be doing it merely to titillate. They could be doing it to drive the knife deeper. As long as the truth is on their side –– and, perhaps even more importantly, as long as their inside sources aren’t too offended –– straight-news reporters can really tweet anything they want. At least they should be allowed to do that. They are at war with the most powerful man on Earth for their right and responsibility to convey factual information accurately and even with some flair to the general public. Of course, a little bit of vitriol might bleed through their tweets. I don’t blame them. At all.
I’ve always been a sort of angry type, liable to start frothing at the mouth over any little thing. (I’m in treatment now and am fine. OK, fine-ish.) A lesser version of myself would be content to blame the small but loud and clanging right-wing media apparatus for creating a cultural environment where a relatively normal Joe like me has no effective recourse but to sink to retweeting misinformation for the greater good, the greater good here being sensible gun control. Sitting in one of the reddest counties in the union, our newspaper is constantly under fire from right-wing trolls. It’s only gotten worse since I became editor. Our former editor, a wonderful, smart, strong Pulitzer Prize winner, was adamant about remaining unbiased at all costs. She believed sources would not come to us with juicy ledes knowing we leaned one political way or the other. I relaxed that rule. We still corral all of our (mostly lefty) political screeds into an anonymous column every week – for the most part. We just focus more on storytelling than merely relaying information in a monotone, in our shorter news stories in addition to longer features. We will connect the dots for you the way an above-the-fold story in The New York Times or Washington Post won’t. The Times’ Maggie Haberman will say Trump “steps back” from a position or is oozing out a “falsehood” – to the great dismay of actor John Cusack and model Chrissy Teigen. We will say the U.S. president or some other malevolent actor “was caught in another lie” or “lied.” Same message but easier to follow. Our trolls haven’t even noticed. That’s how smooth we are.
At work, I’m all business. I will stake out a source’s office or workplace until I nail him or her on the truth. In life, I’m a little more freewheeling, my eyes on the big picture rather than the endless stream of minutiae that constitutes living in the Western hemisphere in the 21st century. I have lied to my darling wife and my darling child, and I will continue lying to them to keep the big picture – a happy, healthy, productive family – firmly in focus. I’m a postmodernist, and my domestic life is my canvas. In relationship to my Twitter persona, the truth, both in the postmodern sense and literally, is most useful to me when weaponized, especially against foot soldiers on the move from Trump Tower, and there are millions of them (though, never forget, three million more voted for the other person). I’m also not afraid to level my truth against fellow travelers who would question my perhaps less-than-upfront tactics. In the sprawling cosmos of the Twitterverse, perhaps my tiny pride and my tiny proselytizing endeavors are more important to me than your expansive truth. Maybe folks like me can’t be expected to win any battles when we’re sent off to the front with only the truth at our disposal against armies of “alternative facts”-wielding orcs.
The profiles of a lot of reporters on Twitter include disclaimers to attempt to separate the personal from the political. Most of them say something like, “Views my own,” meaning “not my employer’s,” but the essence of Twitter and social media in general is a politicization of the personal. Even the user who retweets as many Krugman columns as ones from InfoWars is broadcasting a bias, a deeply confused bias but a bias nonetheless. I briefly thought about adding a disclaimer to my profile but ruled against it only because I don’t want to shorten my illustrious bio. It’s the only thing that legitimizes me, to my meager following and, more importantly, to potential employers.
I’m not talking only about possible freelance gigs, either. Being a good little worker bee since the age of 13 has taught me a lot. The No. 1 thing I’ve learned: always have a backup plan. I’m definitely not worried about what our publisher thinks of my tweets/retweets or even the lefty columns that regularly appear under my byline. He and the owner maintain a solid wall between editorial and advertising. I’m thinking about 10 or 20 years from now, when the whole world goes digital. Newspapers without a print component don’t require as much manpower as digital operations. If I’m not doing what I do now for income, which is blow hot air all over the place in between assembling facts like so many two-by-fours into neat little narrative shapes, I don’t think I’m doing a great job of preparing myself for non-journalism work. All a potential employer at some PR firm or dive bar has to do is scroll through my timeline to see that I’m effectively unfit for putting my head down and keeping my mouth shut for eight hours straight. I can’t even play by the rules of my current job. Clearly, I’m worried enough about all this to put it in writing. Views my own.
I had a bully in grade school, and once I hit adolescence, I swore never to suffer another bully again. Thousands of workouts in the gym and the ring later, and I haven’t. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that pseudonymous user (probably a dude) get away with calling me out. After going back and forth for a couple of days, we eventually scrolled our separate ways. I suppose I could have emailed Twitter customer service to ask how to delete a retweet, but the user, who if not a Trumpster is probably the kind of overachiever who shows up to work early every morning with an apple for his boss, was a total dick, threatening to take screenshots of our conversation and make them public, claiming he reported me to the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and saying that I was no better than a “high school newspaper student.” I kind of like letting that bad retweet hang out there just to spite him. Immature? Definitely, but I don’t know how much more I could have taken. Not counting other, non-school mass shootings, including the one in June at the Capital Gazette that claimed five lives, Santa Fe was the 22nd of 23 school shootings this year, an average of one a week, and the reactions from the right –– “no God in schools,” “violent video games,” “mental illness,” “thoughts and prayers!” –– were pushing down on me like a giant iron fist. My first response is always to initiate thumbs: “Canada also doesn’t have ‘God’ in schools, and they also do have violent video games, and you don’t see them shooting themselves up every week! And most mass murderers here don’t even pass as mentally ill!” But even after replying once, just once, I run out of gas. Trying to combat the willful ignorance is like looking up one day and seeing an entire ocean between all of us Americans on one side and peace and prosperity on the other. It’s defeating. I guess I had had enough, and this isn’t even counting my personal problems. My kid kept getting in trouble at summer camp, my mom wasn’t talking to me for some reason, and I still don’t have any backup plan. I’m pretty sure I had had enough of all that noise, too. I’m not making excuses, just plumbing the rationale behind lying for pleasure and profit, however fleeting, however insignificant.
Part of what I love about being a journalist, especially a columnist, is being able to steer the cultural conversation. It’s sometimes the only bit of joy that I can wrap my arms around problem-plagued week after problem-plagued week. Every time I write a particularly lefty screed, I imagine that I’m speaking directly to my conservative loved ones, friends, and Twitter followers. I want to reach out to them, grab them by the lapels, and shake some sense into them. I know now that I can’t do that with misinformation on my hands. Consider this my retraction.