Spin Cycle

02.14.12

Why Do Journalists Keep Self Destructing on Twitter

Roland Martin’s hardly the only one to tweet his way into trouble.

In case you haven’t noticed, Twitter can be dangerous to your professional health.

As someone who spends a lot of time trying to inform and entertain my followers, I’m well aware that there’s a line that professional journalists shouldn’t cross. The problem is it often seems invisible.

Roland Martin, as you probably know, got zapped for a couple of errant tweets during the Super Bowl. CNN suspended the liberal radio talker as a contributor for “regrettable and offensive” remarks after gay groups complained that his jokes were homophobic. (He declared, for instance, that any man pumped up about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad should be smacked.) Martin has apologized, saying he meant no offense, and met with the GLAAD organization on Tuesday.

But what should the standard be? Another CNN contributor, Dana Loesch, recently said that she too would have urinated on those dead Taliban soldiers. There was a bit of an outcry, but nothing happened to her.

By contrast, Rick Sanchez lost his CNN show for saying on a satellite radio program that Jon Stewart (who had mocked him) was a bigot, and for satirically suggesting that Jews run the media.

Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz on the perils of being 140-characters away from a career-ending Tweet.

MSNBC, for its part, has a Pat Buchanan problem. The veteran conservative and former presidential candidate has been off the air for months. He says it’s for health reasons, but MSNBC President Phil Griffin has said that Buchanan’s statements about race and immigration in a recent book should not be part of the national conversation. And Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel (now with Slate) resigned in 2010 after the leak of disparaging comments he made about Republicans and conservatives in an off-the-record e-mail group.

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Here’s the thing: News organizations hire these fiery commentators to get ratings, then act surprised when they get singed. They are hired for their opinions, then sometimes told their opinions go too far.

Now I’m not of the view that media outlets in the digital age can ignore what their people are tweeting or blabbing about elsewhere. There’s no constitutional right to appear on television. If you’ve embarrassed your employer, there are going to be consequences.

Twitter is a particular vulnerability because it’s so easy to bang out a message, at home or on your phone, and hit send. Some outlets are trying to deal with this by tightening the screws. Sky News, for instance, has asked its reporters not to tweet on anything unrelated to their beat. Zzzzz. Too heavy a hand, of course, destroys the fun and spontaneity of Twitter.

So there you have it: Be opinionated, but not too opinionated. Be provocative, but don’t piss anyone off. Create buzz, but not the wrong kind of buzz. Piece o’ cake, right?