‘Tristram Shandy’ is the press’s handbook for whipping words to obey a narrative.

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

Nov. 28, 2023 at 6:20 pm ET  WALL STREET JOURNAL


Tesla and SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, looks on at event in London, Nov. 2. PHOTO: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Major papers like the Journal,

and Washington Post report that advertisers are again fleeing the service previously known as Twitter because, these papers explain, owner Elon Musk endorsed “an antisemitic post.” But try confirming for yourself that the post was intelligibly antisemitic or intelligibly anything else for that matter. 

The perplexing issue is the noun. A user @breakingbaht expressed a lack of sympathy for “Jewish communities” (emphasis added) that allegedly encouraged “the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them” while supporting immigration of “hordes of minorities.”

After Mr. Musk responded “You have said the actual truth,” the New York Times cited equally undefined “Jewish groups” as detecting in the original tweet a common antisemitic trope. In one Times account, the phrase “Jewish communities” was transmuted into “Jewish people.” By the end of the week, without any new information being added, the Washington Post was reporting with unqualified confidence that Mr. Musk had given his “endorsement of comments alluding to the great replacement theory—a conspiracy theory espoused by neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017 and the gunmen who killed people inside synagogues in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Poway, Calif., in 2019.”

That’s 37 words of interpolation for a six-word tweet. Mr. Musk and the original tweeter heatedly denied antisemitic intent. The Journal examined the contextand suggested Mr. Musk was really exercised about a specific Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League, which has largely adopted the identitarian and censorship agendas of the progressive left.

Here’s where we might divert to 18th-century novel “Tristram Shandy” and the Lockean “problem of language.” By Laurence Sterne, the book deals humorously with the human reality that the words coming out of a speaker’s mouth often mean different things to the speaker and listener.

Or we might segue to the folly of Mr. Musk buying Twitter, which he now calls X, in the first place. Protecting free speech was his claimed intent but he also made himself the protector of every malignant, stupid, repugnant thing millions say on X. This damages his other businesses. It’s demonstratively incompatible with X’s own reliance on name-brand advertising for revenue.


Another CEO might stay off X while claiming to superintend its existence as a public service, or at least have a team vetting the background of any tweet he was considering retweeting (by then a week or two later).

It should make us in the mainstream press sheepish that, by not doing this, Mr. Musk is telling us how little our criticism matters these days. He may be right. While declaring him a promoter of antisemitic tropes, the New York Times was still expecting to hosthim at a Wednesday event for paying customers.

I have my own continuing dialogue with several readers about Mr. Musk’s many inaccurate, misleading, hyperbolic words about

. My answer has tended to be, “Yes . . . but”: The market hears Mr. Musk but also hears his critics, etc. When the Securities and Exchange Commission slapped his wrist in 2018 for a disclosure violation that might have gotten another CEO banned for life, it seemed to consider the market sufficiently informed about the risks of following Mr. Musk. 

With the birth of behavioral economics, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemangave us a new way to talk about an old truth: People, and this includes the press, largely believe and say what they hear others believing and saying.

An important twist was then supplied by Duke University Prof. Timur Kuran’s book on preference falsification, aka the incentive to exhibit opinions we don’t actually hold. It raises a difficulty: In what sense are our preferences even stable? Witness the ease with which yesterday’s liberal Democrats become today’s left-wing authoritarians, or some on the left and right who once espoused universal ideals now embrace identity politics. Conventional claims are often absurdly wrong. Ronald Reagan is solemnified as a free trader to criticize Donald Trumpwhen, in fact, Reagan was the most protectionist president in memory. Climate change is routinely cited as an “existential risk” when that’s not what the science says.

The language problem makes human life interesting. No matter how carefully I choose my words, I can’t make you know all or exactly what I mean. Yet the language problem was also once a market opportunity for the news media, which sold itself as exercising exceptional discipline in the use of words and evidence. It is sad but true that nowadays a reader thinks twice or perhaps three times before investing five minutes to read and trust something in a major newspaper. But technology also offers a solution. Used intelligently, X, Substack, and various podcast aggregators make it easy to keep track of writers and thinkers who have a history of not abusing your trust.