Mistweeted and misunderstood
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: September 3 2010 19:42 | Last updated: September 3 2010 19:42
So much for press solidarity. “Here’s your moron of the week” is the way The Daily Beast website described Washington Post journalist Mike Wise after he played a practical joke that blew up in his face. Mr Wise has built a reputation as one of America’s top basketball reporters. He has a radio show. He does interviews. And – fatefully – he stays in contact with his readers through Twitter. On Monday, Mr Wise “tweeted” three fake news stories. One concerned how long a suspension Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would receive for alleged off-field misconduct. Mr Wise wrote: “Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told.” The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun and NBC’s Pro Football Talk blog all cited the tweet.
Mr Wise then revealed that the story was a hoax – or, to put it charitably, a piece of freelance sociological fieldwork. Mr Wise had been critical of online “aggregators” who do not source their own stories or check facts independently. He explained, in an apology posted on Twitter, that he had been trying to “test the accuracy of social media reporting”. The Post, having suffered enough from his mistweetment, suspended him for a month.
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Mr Wise made two mistakes. First, his line of inquiry is logically unsound. It “begs the question”, as Aristotle would say. Mr Wise purported to test whether social-media journalism is real journalism, but he had already answered that question to his own satisfaction – with a “no”. Not even his harshest detractors have suggested that Mr Wise would ever publish similar false statements in what he considers his “real” journalism. Second, he forgot that what makes his journalism worth trusting is only partly his own credibility – it is also that of The Washington Post. Aggregators who take note of something vouched for by a senior reporter at one of the world’s leading newspapers do not thereby show themselves willing to publish anything.
The real stakes of Mr Wise’s prank do not concern social journalism. They concern the broader matter of what belongs to institutions and what belongs to their members (or employees), and what each is entitled to demand of the other. Politics is always reminding us that this line is very hard to draw. When Newt Gingrich signed a multimillion-dollar book contract after the Republicans won the midterm elections of 1994, attention focused on Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of the publishing company that was paying him. An equally pertinent question, though, was whether Mr Gingrich was worth all that money because he was Newt Gingrich or because he was the presumptive Speaker of the House. If the latter, then he was arguably selling something that did not belong to him. The same goes for Barack Obama’s signing a multi-book contract after his election as Illinois senator in 2004.
Mr Wise appears to understand what he did wrong in just these terms. “I made a horrendous mistake,” he wrote, “using my Twitter account that identifies me as a Washington Post columnist.” Since it was a personal account, some might say that he hurt no one but himself. This is a line of thinking that the Post rightly moved to squelch. Mr Wise is thought of as a Washington Post columnist whether he identifies himself that way or not. This entitles the paper to make certain demands. The sports editor, Matthew Vita, circulated a copy of the Post’s new-media guidelines, which read, in part: “When you use social media, remember that you are representing The Washington Post, even if you are using your own account ... All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognise that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.”
Mr Vita’s demands sound reasonable, at first blush. The Post cannot have reporters with a reputation for making stuff up, even as an avocation. A reporter uncomfortable with such strictures can either quit the paper or stay off of social media. A problem arises, however, when we consider the question of whether social media are primarily social or primarily media. Yes, blogs, Facebook and Twitter enable everyone to “publish” their thoughts, and to that extent they are media. For a reporter such as Mr Wise a Twitter account can provide the equivalent of freelance work.
But social media are also described – and not just by marketers and lobbyists for cyber business – as the main arena of social life as it will be lived in the future. They can be the equivalent of hanging around in a pub, or going to a party. The “social” part of social media is far more important than the media part. For an employer to lay down rules about, and monitor, an employee’s online conduct is to lay claim to his private hours in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago. Anyone confident that news agencies will exercise this prerogative with discretion should be reminded that CNN was one of the first companies in the US to announce that it would not hire people who smoked, even if they did so outside of work.
The internet and the new media are commonly described as a liberating, individualising force. In many respects, though, they are replacing informal relationships with surveilled ones. Mr Wise was wrong to put up his phoney tweets. The Post was within its rights to discipline him. But it is hard not to worry about the principles laid down in the process of doing so. The net result of the internet may be to invite the boss into what used to be the stronghold of one’s private life.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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