How ‘Real’ Media Misses the Point In Social Media

by on 07/09/2010 • 26 Comments | Social Media

While I was getting my tan on in Key West, Dave Weigel, the snappy voice behind the Washington Post’s conservative Right Now blog, “resigned”. Dave had been brought in three months ago to mix news and opinion and offer the Post some edge. And from April through June, he did that remarkably well. Trouble came when messages were leaked from a private, supposedly off-the-record listserv that showed Dave once disparaging prominent members of the Conservative party, the same folks he was now tasked with covering. Dave immediately resigned and The Post accepted, citing that though his work was excellent, they couldn’t “have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work”.’ A ‘bias’ that never revealed itself in the three months Dave blogged for the Post.

Yesterday, Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior Middle East editor who had been with the company for twenty years, was fired after she tweeted in praise of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. Her controversial tweet read:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”

Octavia later clarified that she didn’t support him as a terrorist, but for his views on women’s right. Despite her apology, CNN fired her citing they believed “her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.”

In each case mainstream media had a choice: Stand by the person they hired or disassociate so the mess doesn’t get on the brand. The Washington Post and CNN both chose the latter. And their decisions showed once again that Big Media is stuck straddling two worlds.

  • They want the attention and excitement of a hired gun blogger…but not the backlash.
  • They want readers to connect with talent….but not get too personal.
  • They want to take advantage of social media… but turn on employees who fall off the edge.
  • They want to share opinion… but only corporate opinion.

But you can’t have it both ways, and that’s the disconnect mainstream media is continually forced to face. The opinion revolution is great, until the exact moment it turns on you.

One thing has been evident: Mainstream media is in a scramble to add voice to its content. They’re struggling to maintain (not even grow) audience and they know in order to compete in the new world of blogs, tweets and status updates, they need that added appeal. The result has been Big Media bringing in hired guns – people specifically added to the roster to foster attention and general excitement. David Weigers was a good example of that. But what we’re seeing is that mainstream media continually shoots itself in the foot when these hired guns are fired at the very first sign of trouble.

A few things have to happen here:

Mainstream Media Needs To Get Over Itself

If you want the attention, you have to be strong enough to ride the backlash. Because as any experienced on-the-edge blogger will tell you, the lows are just as extreme as the highs. As strongly as you are promoted up the ladder for being “different” and “edgy”, you will be kicked in the face down it when you share an opinion not universally accepted. You need to be able to handle both sides. You’re going to experience your Lindsay Lohan moment.

As an employer of a hired gun how do you deal with that?

You read Tim Ferriss’ post on practical tips for dealing with haters and get over it. The seven items Tim discusses become your new corporate culture.

  1. It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matter is how many people do.
  2. 10 percent of people will find a way to take anything personally. Expect it.
  3. “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity” – Colin Powel
  4. “If you are really effective at what you do, 95 percent of the things said about you will be negative” – Scott Boras
  5. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
  6. “Living well is the best revenge” – George Herbert
  7. Keep calm and carry on

If you can’t incorporate this into your lifestyle, then you don’t get the right to share an opinion. You get to stay boring and watch your audience be stolen by those that can.

Dissent != Bias, Lack Of Credibility

Dave and Octavia were both fired (yes, even Dave) for sharing opinions their readers/employers didn’t agree with. This difference of opinion was then claimed to represent a “bias” or a “lack in credibility”. What really happened was that CNN and The Washington Post didn’t know how to embrace public criticism. And so when they were forced to, they performed a classic Big Brand play and disassociated themselves with the troublemakers. Smooth.
But you can’t have it both ways.

If you’re going to be a big boy and swim, and benefit from, these waters you have to be able to take it. The firings of Dave and Octavia proved that mainstream media isn’t yet able to take it. They’re still hiding behind their boring corporate shield and fired two extremely talented folks in hopes that some of their mess wouldn’t land on the brand. It’s well known that CNN’s ratings are dropping and its irrational fear of social media isn’t helping.

Get Comfortable Being Exposed

The risks to exposing yourself to your customers and community aren’t nearly as severe as you may think; and the rewards are huge. I’m often hired because of my ‘outspokenness’. Whether it’s in SEO or out of it, what separates my voice from other bloggers is that I’m willing to lay it all out and expose myself. That means sometimes I get kicked in the face for talking about things I’m passionate about, but it also means that people relate to me. That’s where my audience comes from and what makes me valuable. And it’s the same for any other blogger or media outlet. The more you expose yourself and your staff, the more you draw people into you, even if they don’t like what they’re reading. They’re still drawn in and engaging with the content.  It’s the “real” stuff that gives you texture.

The recent firings of two people skilled at their craft should be a wake up sign that mainstream media still has a long way to go. Big media won’t be ready for on-the-edge blogging until they get over their God complex, support dissent and get comfortable showing who they are. It’s okay to get called out in social media and to support the members of your team who routinely are. Putting that under a corporate umbrella doesn’t dilute the brand. In the end, it strengthens it.

One last question. Dave and Octavia will both go on to have strong careers using their voice for attention. The Washington Post and CNN have now scared current employees back into their quiet cages. Who really got the axe?

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

26 thoughts on “How ‘Real’ Media Misses the Point In Social Media

  1. CNN has fired other journalists for making mistakes recently. Thought is that management is thinning the herd of expensive senior employees this way. Horrid and is causing the entire organization to become risk-adverse.

    • Yikes. If this is their way of thinning costs, that’s certainly an awful way to do it, both internally AND publicly. Very much agreed that by engaging in this kind of behavior you discourage ANYONE from doing ANYTHING remotely interesting. Why put yourself out there and connect with people if it’s going to cost a 20-year veteran their job?

  2. This (and the fact that they’re old revenue model is dead) is the reason why mainstream media will continue dying a slow death.

    FYI – there’s an underlying reason why mainstream media outlets are the way they are in this respect; it’s because they are owned by large multi-national corporate conglumerates, and so they are their to serve those corp interests as opposed to the public interest.

    Which is why the independent blogger will always win out (9 times out of 10, they don’t have any such hidden agenda).

  3. If you want the attention, you have to be strong enough to ride the backlash.

    Spot on Lisa. Another superb article with insight that seems obvious once you write it but escapes me until that point.

    I am not sure that mainstream media will *ever* get it. Darwin told us that only the fittest survive. At the moment, mainstream media is fighting just to hold on to life, let alone be fit, trim and moving forward.

    • If the mainstream media doesn’t start trimming its fat pretty soon, they’re going to wake up to find their audience gone. Voice is what’s separating the outlets that are read and that grow from the ones surviving solely on legacy. CNN is down. So are the other networks. Firing employees for daring to use voice isn’t the way to fix that.

  4. Great post! Although, I was under the impression that the conservative readership of Dave didn’t really like him and already had an understanding that he was left leaning…

    All matters aside, at what point do professional and personal become separated in terms of opinion? Had Octavia posted on her personal twitter and not her brand one, would she still have been let go? Does the fact that her Twitter was co-branded as CNN “change” the delivery of the message (i.e. making it more of a CNN approved journalist statement than personal statement)?

    I haven’t decided on these matters yet (i tend to be on your side), but I just wanted to throw those thoughts out there.

    • If CNN fired her for the tweet, I have a feeling they would have fired her regardless if she used her personal or corporate account. The backlash, in my opinion, wouldn’t have been any different and CNN (it seems) has decided how it’s going to handle those matters.

      Obviously the line is a tough one when deciding where personal meets professional. I think it’s in a company’s best interest to let their employees have opinions, even if they differ from corporate. It doesn’t dilute the brand, I’d argue it makes it stronger and more interesting. The public knows that everyone at CNN does not hold exactly the same beliefs. Is it really so out of line to let that be expressed?

  5. Really solid take on the topic.

    Is the issue here that mainstream media is afraid of showing any bias? They’re afraid to take a stance on one side or the other. That’s the biggest difference between blogs, and mainstream media.

    But then again, you see a site like Mashable, which very rarely creates opinion based content, but is still growing. Is Mashable considered mainstream media? They certainly seem to be straddling the divide.

    News isn’t supposed to have a bias. That’s why a good traditional journalist is one that is able to take their personal biases out of their content. Every person has their own biases, but news being read by the masses should be free of bias as much as possible no? Unfortunately for news, bias/opinion makes it more interesting and bloggers aren’t afraid to use that to their advantage.

    If mainstream media starts to inject opinion and bias into everything they write, how will that affect news? How will that affect public opinion? Most people believe everything they read, even if it’s based on opinion.

    I understand that in order to compete, mainstream media has to start lowering their guard, and accept criticism from readers, but at what point do we need to secure the integrity of news, at the expense of ratings?

    Sorry if that didn’t make sense. Just rambling.

    David, Scribnia.com

    • As someone with a journalism degree, I’ll certainly agree that news should be unbiased. However, Dave was hired for his edge and to be the exact persona he was. And he wasn’t fired because of his writing, he was fired because of statements he made in the past that were brought into daylight. Octavia wasn’t fired because her reporting was biased, she was fired because she aired a personal statement on her Twitter account. I don’t know that I’d put unbiased news reporting in the same basket here.

      I don’t think they have to inject voice and opinion into everything, but if you’re going to put a blog on your site, then you have to loosen the ropes a bit. A blog is not a front page news story. It’s a place for voice. To lose sight of that or punish people for using it, seems misguided, if not altogether backwards.

      IMO, Mashable is growing because of how we’ll they’ve engaged with their audience. The content itself may not be opinionated, but they allow dissent and discussion in the comments. They’ve very good at housing conversations so they get their “edge” that way.

      Thanks for the comment. :)

  6. Media outlets of all sizes need to distinguish between reporters and op-ed contributors. Bloggers can fall into a sort of middle ground: sometimes reporting factually, sometimes offering their own opinions.

    Of necessity, those doing true reporting have to be seen by the public as fairly neutral; if not, their contributions will be suspect. Could a writer who stated often and publicly that global warming is hogwash be considered a reliable reporter at an environmental conference? It fact, even if that writer DID do a great job of neutral, factual reporting, environmentalist readers would likely seize on anything that didn’t fit their own beliefs as evidence of bias. Ditto for an atheist covering religion, a deeply religious person covering an atheist convention, a liberal covering a Tea Party event, and so on. Reporters may have opinions and strong beliefs, but making them too public destroys their credibility as neutral observers.

    • What about Octavia then? She does true reporting. I’m not familiar with her work for CNN, but does her tweeting that she respected Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah’s views on women make her incapable of being objective about that region? I’d argue it doesn’t. I don’t think having convictions should be a sign of weakness. Just because I don’t agree with something, doesn’t mean I can’t write or report on it as objectively as anyone else.

      • I think a reporter’s public opinions DO matter, as there will be a perception of bias by readers even if the reporter does a commendably neutral job.

        And I think that some bias will inevitably creep in. If I was reporting on a convention of psychic readers , for example, I doubt if I would produce the same article as a reporter who believed in such things, even if we both did our best to be neutral.

        IMO, the covert bias comes not from misrepresentation of facts, but rather more subtle factors: which facts make it into the story, how is the headline worded, which items deserve comments from a dissenting voice, and so on. I wouldn’t write the psychic story without including commentary from skeptics and scientists. (I would argue that any story about psychics should point out to readers that no scientific proof for such phenomena exists, and I was merely producing a balanced story.) If the psychics knew of my disbelief (and, being psychic, surely they would!), they would cry foul and claim I wrote the story merely to discredit them with third party comments. One person’s balance is another person’s bias.

        That’s kind of a silly example, but assign an overt liberal to write a story about a conservative issue (or vice-versa) and the same thing would likely occur.

  7. If the mainstream media was smart, they’d make a clear dividing between their ‘bland’ news and what they want to have an edge. Fox News (which I hate, but that’s not important) has been doing this very well, and they’ve been growing as a result of that. The MSM is OK with having personalities with opinions and bias on television, so why not in print / blog format? Why the difference?

  8. It’s a little laughable that Dave would be fired based on his statements from the past. Surely they would have researched before hiring him? Yes? No? Guess not. I’m bothered by the fact that it seems more like journalists are not allowed to have their own opinions. I was always taught that a good journalist has their own opinions but can report the news.

    Journalists aren’t robots (not yet!) and should be allowed to have their own opinions. Saying that, I also think that journalists should be careful about what they are saying. I’m bothered by all media outlets that seem to have a particular side they lean on and don’t appear to be objective at all. It’s a very fine line.

    • Maranda,

      My sentiments exactly. A journalist has to adopt the views of the media organization they are working for? The news is suppose to be unbiased, but I’ve yet to find one that is. There are two sides to every story, but the majority of the time, all we hear is one.

  9. I love this post and comments. :) Just my 2 cents: OF course everyone has an opinion, so maybe it’s me being naive, but I like my news with objectivity (even if only the appearance thereof). To Randy’s question, I think it would have made a difference if Octavia had tweeted from a personal account rather than her CNN branded one. But I totally agree that freaking out and disavowing all connection with a talented and proven journalist with an opinion is an unsophisticated knee-jerk reaction.

  10. Excellent post (as always), Lisa. The discussion under it is also turning out into an interesting conversation. Lots of good food for thought, and not only for those in the mainstream media, but also the corporate bloggers among us.

  11. I agree with Geno – great post and interesting mix of commentary.

    In regards to why mainstream media has such fear paranoia for controversy is the possibility of lost advertisers. Considering their business models are already on shaky ground, they are forced to try and keep any and all revenue they can get. And although they ARE media, I’m sure their executives have all the same misconceptions and disillusions about “new media” that 95% of brands currently have. *thank you Fast Company*

    Although I fully disagree with mainstream media using the authentic voices and individuals as front-and-center guinea pigs, the thing I find most interesting is how they are still testing new media theories, but almost in ‘stealth mode’. By repurposing ‘fellow journalists’ content in areas that have less visibility and risk, they are able to get away with not putting their name on it – which isn’t right, but makes all the difference.

    The most recent example I have seen was just yesterday by guess who — CNN.com. I posted my quick thoughts on my Posterous page. Although it was a small feature and I shouldn’t be surprised, it still pisses me off to see the so-called industry leaders talking from both sides of their mouth. What’s that saying I always hate to hear when it’s directed towards me? Oh yeah.. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  12. Lisa,
    I stopped by here today because Chris Brogan tweeted about your post, and since his Saturday post had to do with the efficacy of learning to type when you are in 8th grade (something I know a lot about), I decided that your headline sounded more challenging. I was right.

    I have watched CNN since its debut in 1980. From 1983-1997 I lived in remote areas of the US (Anchorage, AK and North Conway, NH). Yes, I said remote. The only live television in Anchorage in the early 80s was the news and let’s just say when I moved to NH in late 1985 there was limited cable TV in northern NH, so we relied on CNN. My guess is that somewhere along the line I “enjoyed” Octavia Nasr’s work. I couldn’t tell you when or what story, so to me that means that she did her job well. Dave Weigel I have only come to recognize because of the story about his leaving the Washington Post. I am sure I must have seen him on MSNBC. It is interesting that he is younger than CNN and he has already had to leave a position at the Washington Post, a paper that most came to know and respect because of two young determined journalists back in 1972.

    Lisa, I don’t know what the “right” thing to do is in these circumstances. I know that I wish we could all feel free to share our backgrounds, beliefs, heritage without risking our lives and livelihoods; but that would be a perfect world. Many journalists/writers were targets of the McCarthy hearings, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the FBI, and who knows what goes on today.

    Just recently I read an article about Ted Kopple. Back in early 1980 we welcomed him into our homes each evening with Nightline. He kept us up to date on the Iran Hostage Crisis. But even though I watched him for the next 25 years, I never knew that he was of Jewish heritage nor did I remember that Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) investigated his reporting bias. Go figure! To this I will add, that while I watched Mike Wallace (born the same year as my parents-1918) for almost 40 years on 60 Minutes, I never knew about his heritage…I just felt he always tried to do in depth provocative investigative reporting.

    My best anecdote about not knowing of someone’s heritage and potential bias has to do with Ralph Nader. Growing up I think most of us appreciated Mr. Nader’s willingness to speak out about issues, he was and probably still is one of the best consumer advocates. But it was not until the 2008 election that I learned of his Lebanese heritage and that Arabic was his first language. He ran for president four times, and it was not until the last election that I have any recollection of someone “discussing” his heritage. Suddenly it became important?

    Maybe gone are the times when journalists keep their ethnic heritage, religious affiliation, marital status, and political party memberships undercover. If someone blows their cover or gently lifts the veil with a tweet, blog, or old emails, should it be grounds for firing or pressuring one to resign? My guess is that in the news business employment contracts cover this topic thoroughly. I think this debate is going to continue. You and Roger Dooley went back and forth about reporting and offering an OP-ED. I think back to Eric Sevareid . We eagerly listened to his two minute opinion segments on the CBS Evening News, but even he was investigated by the FBI.

    Could it be that the media outlets have become totally controlled by their bottom-line and viewer/reader and employee be damned? Or has it always been this way and social media is just allowing all of us to easily easvesdrop on the newsroom?

  13. Very very interesting article

    In terms of the Tweet, I think that just as users of Twitter have to be careful what we say (everyone is always listening), companies have to avoid the temptation of reacting from the gut based on a Tweet or an isolated post. In the case of Twitter, it’s impossible to know a lot of the time what the full context is for any given comment. Maybe someone is participating in “Sarcasm Day” on Twitter. We have to make sure that before we infringe on someone’s job status or freedom of speech, we understand the full and exact ramifications of what *actually* was being said.

  14. This topic goes way beyond ‘real’ media and even corporate blogging. I’ve seen this type of thing happen in small businesses as well, and more than once it was brought on by a call from a large client!

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