For a long time now, and this has little to do with political ideologies, I’ve wanted cabinet level secretaries to the president of the United States to pass a small test of practical skills, just to see how much real world experience they have. Can they change a flat tire without using some misandristly promoted Geico app? Can they solder two copper wires together? I’m not asking about welding, mind you, that’s a fairly technical skill, just if they can do some basic soldering. For the matter, could they connect two wires using a wire nut? Do they even know what a wire nut is? If you gave them just some long two-by-fours, a saw, a hammer, some nails, and a tape measure, could they frame a square wall, even if you spotted them the tip that it has something to do with diagonals? Do they know how to hammer a nail?
I’m also old enough to remember when hardly any newspaper reporters called themselves journalists, or graduated from J-schools. They weren’t about afflicting the comfortable, they were about the five Ws, and getting scoops. They didn’t look down on working class folks because they regarded themselves as working class folks. I’d be willing to bet $100 that the vast majority of self-identified “journalists” today, though, can’t do any of the skills in my Cabinet Level test. I’d be willing to bet $500 that most think they’re too smart to do stuff like welding or carpentry.
Thus it did not surprise me, when in the wake of massive layoffs in the online “news” and opinion industry, blue-checked journalists on Twitter ascended the heights of dudgeon because some snarky folks told them to “learn to code”.
Talia Lavin, who proved that incompetency as a fact-checker and defaming an American hero as a neo-Nazi is no impediment to getting another gig when you’re a narrative-carrying lefty, decided that “learn to code” was an alt-right plot against the good and righteous scribes busy comforting the afflicted. Her piece at The New Republic was titled, “The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”.
Not wanting to be hoist on the same petard that their journalist colleagues have been jabbing at unemployed folks in America’s formerly great industrial heartland whose jobs “weren’t coming back”, some still-employed journos used the fact that favoring blue-check journalists is part of Twitter’s business model of getting folks to create content for the site for free — so they got Twitter to suspend the “learn to code” tweeters.
Ben Popken now covers business for NBC. His Twitter bio, if I recall correctly, brags about being a founder of consumerist.com and that the site was bought by Consumer Reports. It doesn’t say that CR fired him in 2011 and shuttered the site in 2017. Popken apparently felt that telling a journalist, unemployed or not, that learning a marketable skill was beyond the pale of civil discourse. He posted, bragging:
“”Learn to code” was tweeted at me by a sketchy account. I reported it as abusive behavior as part of targeted harassment. Twitter suspended the account within 20 minutes. Journalists if they tweet “learn to code” at you don’t stay silent, take a moment to report it…”
“Grandpa Ben, tell us again how bravely you fought in the Meme Wars.”
Now I’m not a big Twitter user. I’m not even sure how to use the site’s features, but now and then I’ll agree or take issue with something I’ll see that had been posted there. I wondered if Popken specifically thought that “learn to code” was abusive behavior or if he thought any kind of manual labor was beneath his social and intellectual station and thus suggesting he learn those trades would be an affront to his honor.
I sent him the following tweet. Note that it’s a question, not a directive.
@RonnieSchreiber@bpopken How about learn to weld?
I guess you need thick skin to learn to weld, as my Twitter account was suspended by that evening, presumably at the behest of Mr. Popken. I could get back on Twitter if I would delete the offending tweet, but instead I appealed the suspension, pointing out that Mr. Popken’s concerns were about “learn to code” and I never mentioned coding. If I wanted to be genuinely snarky, I would have pointed out to him that while his journo friends were getting pink-slipped and shit-canned, I was offered a pretty sweet regular freelance writing gig. I guess there is more of a market for folks who know how to do research and construct a sentence than there is for listicle and quiz compilers.
Twitter, or their algorithms, rejected my appeal. I’m not deleting the tweet, however, unless having a Twitter account becomes a condition of employment in a job that I really want. Oh well, I managed to survive more than six decades without a single tweet, I’ll survive without them.
To be clear, it wouldn’t be true to say that I know how “to code”. The last program I wrote was in Algol during college, over 40 years ago. The only coding that I do today is to modify a config file for something like one of my 3D printers, but I’m pretty sure that Ben Popken couldn’t do that either. See, the thing is, what journalists don’t seem to realize is that they don’t know how much they don’t know. Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann pointed out that if you’re knowledgeable about a topic you can quickly see how many mistakes journalists make on that subject. They may be writing about physics or computer science, but they went to journalism schools, they didn’t major in STEM.
If I make a mistake when writing about code, that article can still be published. If I make a mistake when writing code, the program won’t work. If I can’t make a living with the skills that I have, maybe I should learn new skills.