By DAVID CARR
Especially for companies that encourage its use, Twitter creates an ongoing tension between boss and employee as Roland Martin of CNN recently discovered.
I was going to tweet about Roland Martin’s suspension from CNN, but I decided to write a column about it instead. It’s safer this way.
Let me explain.
Big media companies love when their employees hit Twitter. After all, the short-form social media platform gives consumers direct access to media personalities, and along with it, an intimate connection that large media organizations, and the public, revel in.
Until something goes wrong. Roland Martin, who is paid to spout opinions on CNN, posted a controversial one on Twitter and now he is on suspension.
Like a lot of us, Mr. Martin watched the Super Bowl last Sunday and like many of us, he frolicked on Twitter as one more way of “watching” the big game, including commercials.
Mr. Martin, a syndicated newspaper columnist and a political analyst for CNN, got in trouble for writing, “If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl.”
Many, including gay advocacy groups, felt that the post advocated violence against homosexuals. Mr. Martin, a longtime hater of soccer, saw the immediate blowback on Twitter and said he was just mocking that sport, and nothing more. CNN also saw the outcry and suspended Mr. Martin indefinitely, saying in a news release that his post was “regrettable and offensive.”
This is not the first time someone who makes a living on one platform has been clobbered for making remarks on another. Octavia Nasr, senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs at CNN, was fired in 2010 for praising on Twitter Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Shiite cleric and inspirational figure for Hezbollah, after he died. That same year, an Arizona Daily Star reporter was fired for writing posts critical of colleagues and of the city of Tucson. The National Labor Relations Board said his dismissal was legal, in part because he had been warned by his employers not to post about work-related issues. Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos, was temporarily barred from MSNBC after getting in a Twitter dispute with Joe Scarborough on his show “Morning Joe.”
The list goes on, but you get the idea. The great thing about Twitter is it offers a friction-free route to an audience — if it can be thought, it can be posted. That’s also the bad thing about Twitter. For employees of almost any company, but especially media companies, it creates an ongoing tension: Yes, build your personal brand and, by proxy, bring social media luster to your employer, but do it in ways that are consumer-friendly and taste-appropriate. That kind of contemplativeness is not generally a Twitter impulse, as Mr. Martin found out.
Maybe he had too many nachos as he watched the game, or a few too many adult beverages, but when you are using Twitter as companion media to big events, be it the Oscars or the Super Bowl, it’s hard to resist the urge to say something sassy, transgressive or inappropriate.
It’s been a busy week for the intersection of Twitter and mainstream media. The BBC instructed its reporters to make sure they were breaking news on the BBC and not only on Twitter. Chris Hamilton, the BBC’s social media editor, said in a blog post, “We’ve been clear that our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible — and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”
Sky News took an even more aggressive Twitter stance in an e-mail to its staff last Tuesday: it banned the posting of stories from other media outlets, saying, “don’t tweet when it is not a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work.”
That is a sure-fire way for the Twitter accounts of Sky News employees to get little traction going forward.
In the current paradigm of media organizations and Twitter personalities, good reporters are expected to serve as a kind of wire service for information, and that includes providing links to important stories that they themselves may not have written. There is an expectation that good journalistic posters will be agnostic and even gracious about where information comes from. (Rupert Murdoch, a prolific Twitter user himself and someone who links to media whether he owns it or not, took to Twitter to say: “I have nothing to do with Sky News.” Well, other than owning a chunk of it, but why split digital hairs?)
Twitter’s speed and ease make it the world headquarters of snap judgments. From reading Mr. Martin’s post about Mr. Beckham and another one about a Patriots fan dressed all in pink, I saw little evidence per se that what he said was homophobic. So I could have joined the digital debate with something like: “Hey haters, cool it, let Martin be Martin. Let’s move on, people.”
But I didn’t, even though I am something of a free speech absolutist, partly because my Twitter bio identifies me as someone who writes about media for The New York Times. When I do post on Twitter, I often look at it through the eyes of my boss and his bosses and ask, is this congruent with the journalistic values of the institution — or, more succinctly, will it create a headache for my employer?
In the 15,000 or so tweets and retweets I have written, there are a few I’d like back and a few that probably made my betters uncomfortable, but mostly I’ve stayed out of the ditch. The rule at The Times is that there is no rule, but there is an expectation, as Philip B. Corbett, the standards editor for the paper, told me in an e-mail: “We expect Times journalists to behave like Times journalists, and they generally do.”
A Twitter post is not a small news story or a column. It is a thought burped up, generally without consideration. Most big media organizations mediate the discourse of their employees because that’s the business they are in. More and more, media outlets may be seen as a federation of voices, but there has to be a there there, a single unifying principle or value.
And even though I write a column, it has to be based on reporting. A funny thing happens when you report — things get more complicated, and less tweetable.
When I thought of writing about Mr. Martin’s suspension, I was inclined to believe it was a bone-headed move by a company drunk on correctness. I found some agreement from James Poniewozik at Time, who said, “Denounce the remarks, but as I’ve said before, I’d rather journalistic outlets, which are in the business of expression and ideas, err on the side of letting people screw up.” (He also said that Mr. Martin, who is fond of wearing ascots, should probably not point a crooked finger at the fashion choices of anyone else.)
But I also asked around among my friends — something I would never do as a precursor to tweeting — and got this response from Simon Dumenco, a longtime media observer and a Twitter savant.
He wrote in an e-mail: “The idea of joking that a ‘dude’ expressing a positive opinion about a David Beckham ad — which was really not about David Beckham the soccer star, but David Beckham the half-naked sex god — merits a smack-down? That’s actually not hilarious to me. It’s actually scary to me because it reminds me of social situations in my life where I’ve felt like it would be literally unsafe for people to learn I’m gay.”
Obviously, what seemed like harmless knuckleheaded banter to me landed very differently with people who generally share my values about free and unfettered discourse. I heard the same thing from other smart people who spend a lot of time on both reporting and Twitter.
So while I’m all for letting the tweets fall where they may, I’ve come to understand that just because a thought is tapped out on Twitter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. Complicated, I know, and just the kind of nuanced conclusion that would never fit into 140 characters.