I was not excited.
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. OK, I thought. Fine. For a youngish reporter like me, this is standard operating procedure. We are expected to understand things like technology, the Internet, and Justin Bieber’s hairstyle. But as my boss got more specific about the sort of story he wanted, I began to worry. “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.”
It didn’t sound that way to me. In part I was reluctant because I wasn’t much of a Twitterer at that point, and despite my relatively recent vintage, I didn’t think I could learn the language—ALL those RTs! @s! #s! bit.lys!—in time to pass as a native. Also, I happen to like the old-fashioned way of reporting—with a pen, a pad, and an imaginary fedora perched atop my head. But what really frightened me about the concept of a “NEWSWEEK Twitter profile” was the very real risk of personal and institutional embarrassment that went along with it. Believe it or not, we NEWSWEEKers know what you’re saying about us out there. That we’re obsolete. That all of our remaining subscribers are dentists. That we lose $28 million a year and are about to be sold to an Israeli billionaire who will inevitably replace the entire staff with IDF robots. To me, it seemed like the wrong time to launch an experiment designed to make us look “with it.” “Breaking! From Deathbed, NEWSWEEK Discovers Twitter. Next Up: Bel Biv Devoe.” I was not eager to be eviscerated by the Awl.
Of course, I didn’t say any of this stuff out loud. “Yeah, sure,” I muttered, trying to play it cool. “Bachmann. Twitter profile. I could do that.” A few seconds later, I was alone with my new assignment, and my existential dread.
But then I did what any reporter in my shoes would do: I got to work. I made some calls. I read some clips. I sketched out an itinerary: a day or two following Bachmann to a series of “jobs forums” in her district, a day shadowing and interviewing her back in Washington, D.C. By the time I booked my flight to Minneapolis, the Bachmann assignment was seeming less like an albatross than an interesting challenge—A rabbit waiting to be pulled from its hat. Despite the social-media network’s reputation in some quarters as little more than a superficial distraction for basement-dwelling narcissists, Twitter is, in fact, very useful. You can track the zeitgeist. You can crowdsource information. You can promote your work. You can follow breaking news. You can even find out what Samantha Micelli is up to these days. With my Bachmann profile, I told myself, I’d be attempting to add a new application to the list. The questions at hand: Can the site that gave Ashton Kutcher a reason to exist actually serve as the sole vehicle for a real piece of journalism? Can Twitter be a reporter’s main tool for reporting?
I arrived in Minneapolis on Monday morning, and the minuses of committing journalism via Twitter—of forcing yourself to publish your notebook on the fly, 140 characters at a time—were immediately apparent. I started off all highfalutin. Bachmann is “the emblematic pol for our niche-media age, when success is measured by the intensity of yr [sic] following as opposed to its size,” I wrote. “See Palin: fewer supporters than ever before, but b/c her remaining fans are so impassioned, she’s more ‘famous.’ Niche media like Twitter, Facebook or FOX let these pols easily reach their most intense audiences w/ soundbites, and keep intensity high. So they [wind up] serv[ing] more as conduits for a message than as actual legislators or executives.” This was to be the thesis of my piece, or at least the justification for constructing it tweet-by-tweet: the argument that Bachmann herself is a Twitteresque communications mechanism. It was also four full tweets long.
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.
I also appreciated the immediate interaction with readers. I usually respond to a few e-mails after a story is published and that’s the extent of it. But with Twitter I was able to gather background information (readers sent in their favorite Bachmann quotes); solicit expert perspective (D.C. think-tankers explained why the U.S. wouldn’t wind up like Greece in 10 years, as Bachmann claimed); and converse with Bachmann’s opponents and supporters (both sides predicted how she would fare in November). These contributions not only became a part of my profile via replies and retweets—they actually shaped my thinking on Bachmann in real time. As the project wore on, the local press took notice, and my list of followers grew to include much of Minnesota’s political class. I didn’t have to reach out to either of Bachmann’s potential Democratic opponents; they got in touch with me. It would’ve taken dozens of phone calls to make the contacts and uncover the information that Twitter just deposited in my lap.
But ultimately, the most important aspect of this experiment wasn’t what I wrote or discovered on Twitter. It was how Bachmann behaved because of it. In physics there’s something called the observer effect, which refers “to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed.” Typically, reporters keep their observations to themselves until the profile is published. With Twitter, I was publishing every observation as I made it. This had an effect. Around 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon—an hour or two before I was scheduled to fly from Minneapolis to Washington, where Bachmann had agreed to sit for an interview the following morning—I received an e-mail from the congresswoman’s office saying that she no longer had any time for me. I offered to come by Wednesday afternoon, or Thursday, or to speak by phone. Sorry, her people said. She’s just too busy.
Call me a cynic, but I’m not buying it. I’ve yet to meet a legislator who’s so burdened by the demands of a normal workweek that he or she is forced to renege on a 20-minute interview with a national magazine at the last minute. Politicians tend to find time for publicity—especially Bachmann, who by one estimate appears on national cable every nine days. My guess is that her staff read my tweets and decided that it wasn’t in Bachmann’s best interest to talk to me. And that says as much about Bachmann as anything I observed on the road. Given her mastery of the provocative soundbite and her recent ranking as the most influential Twitterer in the House, I’d initially believed that Bachmann, love her or hate her, was emblematic of a new, niche-media breed of politician. But it turns out that she’s just a louder-mouthed version of the old model: happy to attack her opponents from afar, happy to play the victim, but unwilling to engage, mano a mano, with anyone she deems insufficiently friendly. What Twitter revealed about Bachmann is that she’s not democratic enough for Twitter—or the new era it embodies.
Without the interview, my editors killed the print piece. Which is fine with me. For my next Twitter project, I’d prefer to profile someone who doesn’t prescreen her town-hall questions or try to prevent me from attending all but the most scripted of events. In other words, someone who’s comfortable with the new medium, not suspicious of it.
Now that would be exciting.