To Tweet or Not to Tweet

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009 10:03 AM

I have all kinds of things to say on Twitter, which I consider to be a cool and compelling form of communication with the wider world.

Even before The Washington Post put out guidelines for its staff on using social media, I followed some rough rules of my own. These would include:

a) Don't say something that makes you look like a blithering idiot.

b) Don't appear to be in the pocket of Democrats or Republicans (or birthers or truthers).

c) Stick to subjects on which you actually have a clue.

d) Refrain from boring people with the minutiae of your daily life.

e) Don't say anything you couldn't defend as fair analysis in print or on the air.

Now the blabosphere is in a bit of a tizzy over The Post's guidelines. (I responded by saying that henceforth I would tweet only about the weather and dessert recipes. That was a bit of attempted humor.)

Some excerpts: "When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism. . . .

"Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything -- including photographs or video -- that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

Not to put a damper on a great fuss, but I think this is entirely reasonable. I don't see it as a corporate attempt to crush creativity and sap the soul. People follow journalists on Twitter and Facebook because they're interested in what the person writes, blogs or says on television. We can't pretend we're random people who can just pop off at will.

No one is saying we can't engage on these sites, or that some Post editor has to provide tweet-by-tweet approval.

I think there's plenty of running room to be insightful and entertaining -- within the confines of 140 characters -- and engage in dialogue with people who care about politics and journalism. You can spout off about the Redskins (if you're not a sportswriter) but need to tread more carefully on Afghanistan and health care (unless you're a commentator). That doesn't mean you can't point out absurdities and outrages or plug into what folks on the left and right are saying. It all comes down to using a bit of common sense.

A different view from Stephen Baker, whose magazine, Business Week, is up for sale and may or may not survive:

"Lots of the points the Post editors make are on target. Journalists do represent their publication in their private lives. If a Post reporter were heard delivering a hateful tirade in a restaurant or screaming obscenities at a ball park, it would injure the reputation of the newspaper. The same holds true for journalists' behavior on Facebook or Twitter.

"Usually, however, it's not so hard to represent both the company and personal brand, because they're closely aligned. Most journalists at the Post, I have no doubt, want to be perceived as intelligent, open-minded, and fair. That's in the paper's interest, too. But the Post attempts to keep them from expressing opinions. . . .

"In today's political environment, expressing concern about global warming, Stowe Boyd notes, could be used to show bias. Voicing any opinion about Israel or the Palestinians, sex scandals in the Senate, health insurers, you name it, would appear to be verboten.

"It seems that the Post wants all the good stuff from blogs and social networks -- extension of their brand, traffic to their site -- but without any of the problems that come from losing control."

David Carr blogs for the NYT:

"We've all written tweets that we either regretted or wish we could take back, but the ease of use lends itself to impulse speech -- which is part of what makes Twitter interesting in the first place no matter who is at the keyboard. The Wall Street Journal set the bar pretty high for its gang, suggesting: 'Don't discuss articles that haven't been published, meetings you've attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you've conducted.' The New York Times has had a few brushes with Twitter's asymmetries, but made it through by appealing to common courtesy and common sense, with no edicts attached.

"Which makes sense, when you think about. Mainstream outlets who gag social media efforts are unilaterally disarming in the ongoing war for reader attention. Reporters and editors would all like to mouth off at will and transgress as we wish, but our online identities are inexorably wrapped up with our professional ones. Every time a reporter hits send, he or she might do the following exercise: How would I feel if my mother and/or my boss read this? Because they well might, along with the legions of folks who sit, like crows on a wire, looking for any wiggle or wobble from media outlets they regard with suspicion in the first place.

"There will be stumbles and missteps on the way to a hybrid future, but if you can't trust the women and men who put out your newspaper to use their keyboards wisely regardless of platform, what are they doing working for you?"

That's the salient point. But I don't think the guidelines reflect a lack of trust. There's no czar in charge. Management is just asking folks to think twice before sharing something with the world.

Time's James Poniewozik delivers a harsher verdict, saying "the newspaper is working hard to make itself as irrelevant as possible:"

"The reporters, columnists and news anchors you follow almost all have opinions about the subjects they cover. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is a good thing, because any person who immersed him or herself in a vital, contentious subject all day and formed no opinion about it whatsoever would be an idiot, and you do not want to get your news from idiots. . . .

"By having policies like these, newspapers only reinforce an inaccurate idea of their own profession. Objectivity does not mean having no opinions. (Having no opinions more likely is a sign of apathy or stupidity.) Nor does it mean having opinions but hiding them. It means having opinions -- as intelligent, informed people do -- but not subordinating your work to them. It means being truthful and fair about your area of coverage, even if doing so hurts the causes you support.

"If you slant your coverage, hiding your beliefs does not make your work better. If your work is fair, sharing your beliefs does not make it less so (on the contrary, it provides your reader more information to keep you honest). But by perpetuating a fiction no one believes anyway, newspapers don't make themselves trustworthy; they just seem phony."

I predict this will sort itself out. There was a time when newspapers were reluctant to have their reporters go on TV for fear they would say something compromising. Now they have PR departments trying to help the bookers. A year from now, this flap will seem quaint.

Military Alert

The following would be amusing if it weren't so disturbing. As Crooks and Liars (among many others) reports, John L. Perry says in his Newsmax column:

"There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the Obama problem. Don't dismiss it as unrealistic.

"America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it won't. Describing what may be afoot is not to advocate it . . . :

"Did you get that? Perry doesn't advocate a military overthrow of the Obama administration, he's . . . just sayin'. Does anyone doubt that we'll see 'military coup' signs at the next tea party? Mr. Perry believes he has the pulse of our military, but his assumptions go beyond the pale, straining the limits of credulity:

"Top military officers can see the Constitution they are sworn to defend being trampled as American institutions and enterprises are nationalized.

"They can see that Americans are increasingly alarmed that this nation, under President Barack Obama, may not even be recognizable as America by the 2012 election, in which he will surely seek continuation in office.

"They can see that the economy ravaged by deficits, taxes, unemployment, and impending inflation is financially reliant on foreign lender governments.

"There are so many flaws in this clown's logic, I don't know where to begin."

Neither do I. All the links just take you to the main Newsmax page, so I don't know whether the conservative Web site has taken down the column. And by the way, there is a constitutional remedy for a rogue president. It's called impeachment.

Death Rhetoric

And there is inflammatory rhetoric on the other side as well:

"Republicans got an apology of sorts from Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson Wednesday -- it just wasn't the one they wanted," Politico reports.

"Instead of saying he was sorry about accusing Republicans of wanting people to 'die quickly,' he gave an apology 'to the dead.'

" 'I would like to apologize,' he said. 'I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America.' "

The Holocaust? A disagreement over health policy is likened to the extermination of millions of Jews?

Grayson isn't backing off. The Florida congressman told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Wednesday night that the Republicans are "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals."

Obama Falling Short?

A more reasoned dissection of Obama comes from the Weekly Standard's Noemie Emery, who argues that "his demeanor and his agenda don't fit. Obama's demeanor is calm, cool, and rational. It reassures, and it soothes. It is essentially conservative in its implications, in that it seems to move calmly, and in predictable ways. In the campaign, it was no less than pure magic: It set him apart from the more intense John McCain and Hillary Clinton; it was the reason the associations with Bill Ayers and the Reverend Wright failed to gain traction; it was the reason an audience, wrung out by eight years of Clinton Fatigue topped by eight years of still more intense Bush Exhaustion, looked at its owner and swooned. . . .

"Obama won because, while his agenda appealed to the far-left and activist base of his party that wanted sweeping and radical action, his temperament drew in the moderate middle, which wanted a rest, and a rather more modest change in direction. The good thing from his point of view is that his smoothness helped him put together a really big coalition. The bad thing is that the two wings of the coalition now want two quite different things.

"This is the reason Obama's battles are being waged inside his party, as his two different classes of backers collide. The 'temperament' voters want the 'small c' conservatism that is incremental and patient, and never moves terribly far from the center, while the 'agenda' supporters want the 'big l' liberalism that means sweeping and radical change. The temperament voters are unnerved by the bailouts, by Government Motors, by deficits in the trillions, and by public control of the health care professions; the agenda voters want even more of all of the above. The temperament voters want to tamp down the partisan warfare, the agenda voters want to ramp it up further; the temperament voters want a do-over on health care that is at once incremental and bipartisan; the agenda voters want to force radical fantasies down the throats of dissenters."

I hardly think health-care reform, even with the dreaded public option, is a "radical fantasy." Meanwhile, in the New Republic, Tom Edsall sees a different kind of split

"The health care debate has exposed the ideological tension in Barack Obama's political coalition between moderates and liberals. . . . In 2008, the Democratic Party blossomed into a successful alliance of the upscale and the downscale -- wealthy and needy marching hand in hand, sharing animosity to George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. . . .

"The Democrats' class problem goes beyond the Obama presidency. Looking down the road, the party needs to think about whether a long-term coalition so disproportionately reliant on the far reaches of the income spectrum is sustainable. And if it isn't? That leaves only one thing for Democrats to do: redouble their efforts to once again become the party of the middle class."

NBC in Play?

Comcast is in talks to buy NBC-Universal from General Electric. If a deal is struck, it would have a profound impact on the network news wars, with the cable giant taking over NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC.

Pounding Polanski

The debate seems to be coalescing into Most People vs. Hollywood People, as Nina Burleigh notes in the HuffPost:

"Supporters of the brilliant director are many, and they generally come from the intellectual, artistic world. Their cries of outrage are on this website, including a petition from that great French feminist, Bernard Henri Levy, signed by equally well-known advocates of women as Salman Rushdie, Mike Nichols, Claude Lanzmann, Diane von Furstenburg. . . .

"To these artists and other supporters of the arrested director, the incarceration of the director is the end of a witch-hunt, the persecution of a genius by low-level, un-imaginative legal drones, who wear un-cool suits and wouldn't know a semiotic deconstruction if it smacked them in the face. If Polanski did anything wrong, and some, I think, would even say he did not, he should be forgiven for a single folly, committed way back in the 'lude and hot-tub heyday of 1970s Hollywood debauchery. The rape of a 13-year old was hardly the worst offense committed at Jack Nicholson's pad.

"By this way of thinking, to arrest Polanski now is like arresting a woman for riding a bicycle in public because it was illegal in the 19th century. But, to arrest Polanski now is also like apprehending a war criminal many years after the fact. The war criminal may be living in South America, tending his garden and making sheep's cheese, and his victims blissfully reaching the age of non compos mentis, but it means something to the world that justice be served.

"Comparing a Hollywood child rape to war criminal behavior will inspire outrage, guffaws, ridicule. Bring it on."

The debate seems to be growing stronger rather than fading.

Not in My Dictionary

The late language maven William Safire didn't know everything; Maureen Dowd had to tell him, in the Monica days, what a thong was.

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