The Internets got into a tizzy over the weekend over one NBC political director and White House correspondent Chuck Todd’s reaction to President Obama’s jokes about social media at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Here’s a sample one-liner of the presidential wit and wisdom: “I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m.”
Anyway, bloviating on Fox News about the jokes, Todd said: “I thought his potshots -- jokewise and then serious stuff -- about the Internet and the rise of social media. He hates it. He hates this part of the media, and he really thinks that this sort of buzzification -- this isn’t just about BuzzFeed or Politico -- but he thinks that this sort of coverage of political media has hurt the political discourse. And he hates it. And I just think he was trying to make that message clear.”
Of course this set off the Internets in that weird, multivalent way that almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot, using a verbal Venn diagram for lack of a better approach. People who are Obama fans who are also social media fans were shocked, and said Todd is stupid and misunderstood Obama, who after all used social media to good effect in both elections. People who are not Obama fans, but who are social media fans, nodded knowingly, opining that Obama hates social media because he is an elitist who knows it stands for transparency and democracy, or something. People who are Obama fans, but don’t like social media, were pleased that Obama understands that real political discourse happens in newspapers and NPR. And people who aren’t Obama fans or social media fans were in bed at 7 p.m., so they missed it.
To tell the truth, if you watch the video clip Todd’s statement sounds a little bit like psychological projection -- like maybe he was ascribing his own views to the president. Or maybe he was accurately summarizing Obama’s views; or maybe he got it wrong. But the real question, to my mind, is: why is it heretical to be critical of social media, or even joke about it? After all, it’s perfectly acceptable to “hate” the traditional media (and it has been forever) not because of any of its intrinsic qualities -- it’s a value-neutral technology -- but because it allows other people to communicate with us. And sometimes what other people have to say, or how they say it, makes us mad.
In other words, if social media stands accused of rendering political discourse superficial and meaningless, it is merely continuing a long-term trend by which media technology enables people to publicize their own stupidity, arrogance, or lack of seriousness. And inevitably some of the blame gets transferred to the medium itself: just think about the phrase “talking heads,” which encapsulates our contempt for television punditry in a fairly vivid, disturbing image, or the art of the “sound bite,” which reduces political discourse to almost sub-linguistic brevity for the sake of broadcast clarity, or the almost instinctive hatred in some parts of the political spectrum (hint: on the left) for “talk radio.” In the end, social media doesn’t make people dumb or offensive; it just lets them tell you so.