Twitter Trouble: Rashard Mendenhall, Nir Rosen, and Keith Olbermann's difficulties with the new medium.

Media criticism.
May 10 2011 6:33 PM

Twitter in a Wringer

What is it about Twitter that gets people into trouble?

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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall lost his endorsement deal from Champion sports apparel last week for tweeting his doubts that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by hijacked jetliners and for expressing his sentiments that we had "only heard one side" of the Osama Bin Laden story.

Mendenhall quickly backed off from the pair of tweets. He deleted the 9/11 remark and published a blog post explaining that he wasn't a Bin Laden supporter. But it was too late. He had already joined the ranks of high-profile users who've been burned by microblogging.

Keith Olbermann previously stepped in it with a tweet stating that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp was "a perfect demonstration of the necessity of the work Planned Parenthood does." This was interpreted by some as a wish that Cupp had been aborted, which Olbermann denied. Journalist Nir Rosen suffered almost universal condemnation when he joked about Lara Logan's sexual assault on Twitter.

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Comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his Aflac gig when he directed his dark humor at the Japanese tsunami. More than a year ago, Washington Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti gave himself a Twitter timeout after tweeting this view: "We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad."

Others tripped up by Twitter's spontaneity include Octavia Nasr, who got fired by CNN for praising Hezbollah's spiritual leader upon his death, and New York Times reporter David Carr, who untweeted something he quickly decided was in poor taste. Tucker Carlson got in trouble for tweeting, "[Sarah] Palin's popularity falling in Iowa, but maintains lead to become supreme commander of Milfistan." He formally apologized and deleted the tweet.

Perhaps because my mouth already yawns larger than anybody else's in the room, none of these tweets upsets me, so I never thought any of these folks should have been sacked, sullied, suspended, shamed, or chagrined for their 140-character testimonials. (Maybe that's why I'm not in management.)

Yet, none of these tweeters should have been surprised that their tweets got them in trouble. They know the boundaries, right? So why did they take the risk, or in the case of Gottfried, take the same risk over and over again? And given my propensities, why haven't I suffered Twitter remorse yet?

I reject the idea that Twitter trips up naïve users such as Mendenhall and other athletes who don't fully understand how social media works, as Washington Post sports columnist Jason Reid recently wrote. If that were the case, why did Olbermann and Carlson get into Twitter trouble? As TV talk-show hosts, they're experts in maintaining second-by-second media discipline. I also don't think the 140-character count of Twitter is much of an excuse, either. I doubt if any of the controversial tweets in question could have been avoided had the writers used more space. It appears all of them wanted to provoke or stimulate their readers from the get-go. Nor do I think that Twitter turns the meek into blowhards, a proposition I'm willing to test with a scientific experiment. And don't even try the "open microphone" excuse on me.

What's more likely is that most of us say five or six provocative things a day about our friends, co-workers, the baristas at our coffee shop, ethnic groups, athletes, celebrities, politicians, other public figures, and anybody else who falls into our sightlines. Depending on the subject, we either mutter the comments so nobody can be outraged, or we pick an audience sympathetic to our views, thereby staying out of trouble.

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