The Embarrassing Media Response to Rashard Mendenhall’s Tweets

Americans sure know how to get riled up. Every week we find some new, mundane thing to get upset about. This week it was Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Mendenhall tweeted his concern about celebrating death and alluded to his disbelief that planes alone took down the World Trade Center on 9/11. He later clarified his tweets with this blog post. As a professional speechwriter and media coach, I wouldn’t have advised him to clarify in long form, in particular, after looking at his tweets which were pretty benign. However, his clarification was thoughtful and pretty touching even if you disagree.

Unfortunately, a very bored sports media got hold of the story and with the help of the mainstream media they proceeded to squeeze every drop of relevancy they could out of it—which is quite a feat since there wasn’t much to begin with. First of all, Mendenhall is not an elected official nor is he a pundit or other expert whose opinions influence domestic or international thought or policy. Secondly, in the scheme of “popular” National Football League players, Mendenhall is far from top tier.

The media’s, and subsequently the public’s, reaction to Mendenhall’s tweets is an embarrassing display of how “outrage-driven” today’s media is as well as how aggressively it seeks search engine optimization. Web content managers know that the NFL is in the midst of the a lockout, twitter is a popular social media network, and Osama Bin Laden was the most searched term of the week. NFL + Twitter + Osama Bin Laden = high search engine results for articles on Mendenhall’s tweets.

ESPN took things a step further and held a special “twitter edition” of “Outside the Lines” in which they discussed athletes on twitter. No surprise that there was nary a mention of the network’s incessant promotion of the story for the sake of clicks and ratings. The media sold this story under the umbrella of “yet another athlete says something really stupid.” But the reality is that Mendenhall’s tweets were not stupid, they simply reflected an unpopular opinion.

Actually, I’d correct that and say his opinion was unwanted more than it was unpopular. And reactions were based on the media’s narrative and not what Mendenhall actually tweeted. A perfect storm for a public full of lazy headline readers. The general consensus seemed to be “Why would he tweet his opinion when he knew the media would run with it and people would get upset?”  I always find positions like that to be odd, because it treats the media and the pubic (and the individual making the statement) as though they are not in control of their own emotions and reactions. It also lets the media off the hook for its blatant issue-baiting.

There was absolutely no reason for such a strong and negative reaction to one non-political man’s opinion. It’s almost as if people were outraged because they believed they were SUPPOSED to be. In searching most of the commentary on this—whether tweets or article comments, people mainly seemed to understand why “other” hypothetical people were upset but weren’t actually upset themselves.

Apparently, we’ve come to a point in the media cycle where we’re angry at people for the potential their comments have to offend rather than because their comments were actually offensive.  If that doesn’t tell you how far the media has fallen into the gutter, nothing will.

I have to point out that over the years many in the African American community have lamented the fact that black athletes aren’t politically active. The argument is that we need them to be given the fact that they hold such a large amount of the community’s wealth. The reaction to Mendenhall is a very good example of why many athletes choose to quietly support charities for children rather than taking a bigger risk and vocally attaching themselves to adult issues which tend to be more controversial.

Now that Mendenhall has been fired from his deal with Champion, which, in its statement made NO reference to what exactly Mendenhall said that prompted the firing, you can see that expressing any opinion can be detrimental to players’ livelihoods. And with football players having such short careers, they can’t risk that kind of financial harm just to exercise their first amendment right.

I believe that any one in the public eye should use care with their words; however, the fact is that in the current media environment it is very hard to tell what the media will take and turn into a story at any given time.  I keep hearing people say Mendenhall should have practiced better PR, but even public relations professionals are toughing out the new sillier media landscape when it comes to gauging the reaction of the media and public to any given item.

Plus a slow news day can produce any number of asinine stories that on a heavier day wouldn’t be a blip on the radar. And now that sports media has become just as 24/7 as the rest of the media, athletes are subject to much of the same “trolling” for comments by the journalists that other celebrities have long submitted to. Yes, sports reporters are TROLLS now, and although I’m sure some reporters love it, If sports journalism is reporting on Brett Favre’s penis and who tweeted what I’ll pass indefinitely.

Freedom of speech will always be accompanied by consequences, and Mendenhall must face that fact just like any other public figure.  However, we have to acknowledge that there is a concerted effort on the part of the media to create controversy where there is none. The only surefire way for public figures to avoid such a backlash at one point or another is to never become successful in the first place.

I’d like to believe that at some point the public will develop outrage fatigue and stop allowing the media to drum up faux controversy, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening any time soon.



Don’t Follow Jason Whitlock’s Example and Publicly Bash Your Old Bosses

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a fan of former Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. I think he’s popular not because he’s a good writer or because his analysis of sports is on point, but because he’s controversial. And in today’s environment, whatever gets page views, ad clicks, or attention wins the day. On Friday, Whitlock took to the airwaves to talk for over an hour about why he was leaving the Kansas City Star for the Fox network.

Whitlock accused the Kansas City Star of all sorts of improprieties, but what his problem boiled down to was that he asked for something from his bosses and didn’t get it.

Join the club.

Obviously, Whitlock didn’t just notice the ethical issues at the Star just prior to quitting his job. The reality is, he was more than happy to overlook those flaws as long as he was getting what he wanted. But when he went to his bosses and asked for them to “maximize” their use of him (he wasn’t specific during the portion of the interview I heard, but I take that to mean giving him a lot more attention and money) suddenly everything he’d witnessed at the paper became an issue of concern.

Much like Lebron James’ silly “Decision” special, Whitlocks “Explanation” episode was just as lengthy, tired and narcissistic. And while such a stunt may go over fine in the world of entertainment (notice, I didn’t say journalism), for the rest of you 9 to 5ers and freelancers and other people who care about whether or not you ever work again, making a point of publicly dissing your former employer isn’t the right call.

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When It Comes to Dr. Laura, Why Are We Upset?

By now you’ve heard that Dr. Laura was heavily criticized for saying nigger 11 times on air. You probably also know that she announced she was ending her long standing radio show and found a convenient excuse to do so. An excuse that will only lead her to more money and glory among her audience.

What I wonder about this “controversy” is what really upsets us when these things happen and whether there is a point (i.e. positive result) to the outrage. When Mel Gibson threatens that his girlfriend’s provocative wardrobe will get her raped by a “pack of niggers” or when Imus calls a group of young female basketball players “nappy headed hoes,” we go through the same dramatic steps: outrage, minor consequence, and rebirth or redemption.

Imus, who I was fan of (and remain a fan of), was back on the air the following year. Gibson’s most recent outburst wasn’t his first. Since we enter this rinse, wash and repeat cycle ever so often, I have to ask, what matters more, the words or the point of view? And what is it we want from these language-offenders?

Clearly, Dr. Laura has said any number of racist and homophobic things over the last 20 years without uttering slurs in the public sphere. There’s also any number of people expressing racist, homophobic, and sexist perspctives that take to the airwaves every day. Is it okay for them to spew their hate as long a they use accepted language?

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Web Site Comment Moderation is a Must!

A few weeks ago I took a break from most of social media,  blogging, and reading most blogs. I think this is something all heavy users of the web should do from time to time. The best thing about the internet is that it puts you in touch with various opinions and a wide variety of information. But the downside of the internet is that it puts you in touch with various opinions and a wide variety of information. Sometimes it’s all too much. And as a voracious reader, I was consuming a high volume of information that was affecting me.

During my week and a half break, I mainly read the Washington Post and NY Times, the Daily Caller (don’t ask), and The Atlantic. I stayed away from all of the comment sections except for the ones at The Atlantic, in particular the blog maintained by Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-nehisi Coates. Well, actually, I strayed into the Daily Caller comment section ONCE and quickly learned my lesson.

Within about two days, I realized that The Atlantic is probably my favorite place to hang out on the web. But it’s not just because of the great writing,  it’s because they do a really good job of cutting down on the filth people log online to spew and the Atlantic writers play a role in that. It makes for a greater web experience for all involved.

For that reason, I think more web sites should look at ways to implement some sort of comment moderation. I know that to some this may seem like censorship, but in going through comments on even higher brow sites like the Times, it’s amazing what people create accounts to say. I think a lot of those people probably aren’t even regular readers of the site content but log in to be mean about a particular subject. I think censorship of deliberate meanness is okay. Seems like papers are realizing how uncomfortable the lack of moderation makes some of us, CNN reports that more papers are are reigning in this atrocious behavior.

Some companies are even beginning to outsource their comment moderation and I’m seeing a growing use of Disqus which allows commenters to flag inappropriate comments and “like” substantial ones. I hope this is a sign that there is a growing desire among web users to monitor what’s said–the same way content that is uploaded is monitored on many sites. Without web content monitoring we’d be subjected to a lot of very bad images and comments. The NY Times tackled the subject of the psychological consequences for people who monitor web content. What an obscure but interesting topic!

Anyway, web owners know that without censoring some content, their web site will become a haven for unseemly people and behavior. I think this is a big part of why myspace fell off in popularity. They just didn’t do a good job separating PG-13 myspace from its XXX alter ego.

Overall, I feel more comfortable commenting on sites where there is some sort of commenter accountability. I’m not saying that every site should make visitors audition in order to comment, but comment moderation not only discourages ignorance and maliciousness, it also leaves room for the reasonable commenters to focus on elevating the discourse between each other rather than getting bogged down in the negativity others bring to a given site.

Although most small blogs tend to be comment hungry–comments are another way of proving readership–I delete any and all offensive comments. There’s simply no place for that here. I wouldn’t want anyone having to take a break from my site.

Update: Salon.com posted an article defending anonymous and vile commenting. I responded here. The crux of the writer’s point is that if we censor these people we lose touch with real America and that vile comments prove that racism still exists and that the education system fails some people. While I think that’s an interesting and entertaining point, if people need to read filth to know that these are still social issues, we’ve already lost the battle. Long before the internet existed we were able to identify and correct social ills. Fancy that.

Update: One last point about comments. Many bloggers try to appeal to EVERYONE, a general audience. That’s not my goal on this blog. I am looking for a SPECIFIC type of reader. In order to reach that type of reader I take lots of measures: 1. I focus my posts 2. I monitor the length of posts 3. I try to insert discussion points into my posts as much as possible, and 4. I moderate the comments. Comment moderation is not a stand alone strategy.

Finally, another tip to bloggers, as @Huny pointed out on twitter, advertisers do look at your comment section. So for those bloggers looking to grow, comment moderation is something you must think about unless you are a gossip blogger where it seems anything goes.



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