Newsweek's Romano: Twitter Made Me Sound Like a Michelle Bachmann Hater

Newsweek's Andrew Romano isn't really anti-Michelle Bachmann, he argues that he just sounds like one on Twitter.

In a May 17 "Web Exclusive," entitled "Tweet the Press," the Newsweek staffer explained to readers how an editor assigned him to write a "Twitter profile" of the Minnesota Republican:

My editor had just stepped into my office to discuss a new assignment. The NEWSWEEK brass is interested in Twitter, he told me, but they're looking for an original way to cover it—which is where you come in.... "I'm thinking you should write a 'Twitter profile' of Michele Bachmann," he said, referring to the outspoken, ultraconservative Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who has accused Barack Obama of being "anti-American" and asked her supporters to "slit their wrists" and be "blood brothers" to defeat health-care reform. "Fly up there, follow her around, tweet as you go. Then we'll publish an annotated version of your Twitter feed in the magazine. Could be kind of fun."

Later in his piece, Romano noted the drawbacks and advantages of live-tweeting a politician's stump speeches, concluding that the format made him sound like "knee jerk Bachmann hater." He denied that, of course, arguing that Twitter made him more of a "color commentator" that was looking for "bite-sized" vignettes that could go "viral" (emphasis mine):

The medium obviously required a less cumbersome mode of composition: something bite-sized, discrete, self-contained; a single observation that was entertaining or insightful enough, in and of itself, to inspire replies and retweets—the whole viral shebang. So from then on, that's mostly what I tried to deliver. When Bachmann asked "Why did the government bail out GM but not Ford?" at the first jobs forum in St. Cloud, I posted her question alongside my own know-it-all answer: "Well, because Ford didn't need—or want—A bailout." When she told local jobseekers in Monticello that there's "nothing like being armed with knowledge so we can make the best possible decisions," I attached a snarky hashtag: "#irony?" When she suggested a constitutional amendment that would require aspiring politicians to run a profitable business for three years before running for office, I asked whether her only previous job—"nabbing tax cheats 4 the IRS"—counted. And when she claimed that Obama planned to take over 74 percent of the U.S. economy, I linked to a fact check with a single syllable of commentary: "Um."

I sounded, in other words, like a kneejerk Bachmann hater. But that wasn't really the case; I hadn't spent enough time with her to decide if she was unserious, or crazy, or whatever. Instead, I was simply doing what Twitter demanded: being pithy and provocative. Straightforward narration would go unnoticed. Quotes from Bachmann's old friends would seem un-newsy. Nuance would cost too many characters. So I became a color commentator, casting off the reporter's traditional cloak of detachment and publicly weighing in on the proceedings at regular intervals. And because observation and publication were now compressed into a single act, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to phrase my tweets that I otherwise would've spent absorbing a scene or speaking to locals. I don't remember much about the crowd in Monticello, the businessmen in Blaine, or Bachmann's larger themes. I do remember what I wound up tweeting, and that's about it. Real magazine profiles require more.

Still, Twitter has its reportorial advantages. The very instant, very condensed, very public medium forced me to focus much more intensely than I usually do out in the field. Now I HAD to find the next misstatement, the next money quote, the next telling detail, or else I wouldn't have anything to tweet about. People would stop paying attention; the profile would peter out. So I counted how many times Bachmann referred to God or Jesus during a speech at a secular public school in Ramsey (16). I noted that she described the Heritage Foundation as "independent" even though the foundation bills itself as "conservative." And I concluded after a guy yelled out at the final forum—"This isn't a town hall! You aren't listening to us! We're sick of this! And it's not just the Dems. It's the Repubs too."—that "The Tea Party is mad as hell and not even Bachmann can tame it." This stuff would've been less urgent on a normal, low-tech reporting trip, and I may not have noticed it.

In the end, the original dead-tree profile was scrapped, but it still begs the question of whether Newsweek or reporters like Romano would be willing to repeat such an experiment targeting a notorious gadfly of congressional Democrats, like say "progressive" hero Rep. Alan Grayson (D).

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters