One lesson from the Guy Adams mess: Twitter needs clear rules

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Guy Adams has only been a First Amendment hero for a few days, and already he has a career highlight: A CNN producer cautioning him against comparing himself to Nelson Mandela when Twitter reinstated his account Tuesday. Adams lost his tweeting privileges after he broadcast the work email address of NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel Friday; NBC confirmed it had filed a complaint about the tweet after Twitter alerted the network to its existence, an action Twitter apologized for Tuesday.

Adams focuses less on Twitter’s complicity than on the inconsistency with which it applied its rules, repeating his contention that Zenkel’s email was easily found on the Internet. (That’s a stretch, Search Engine Land Editor-in-Chief Danny Sullivan wrote Tuesday.) He lists several times the microblogging service didn’t act: MIA tweeting Lynne Hirschberg’s phone number, Spike Lee tweeting the wrong address for George Zimmerman.

But as Matt Buchanan writes in BuzzFeed, Twitter acts only when it receives a complaint. Twitter General Counsel Alex McGillivray reiterated in an apology to Adams that the social network “should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is.” That’s why it apologized for narcing out Adams to NBC but not for suspending him.

It wants the precedent that this has set — monitoring a tweet and then acting upon a violation — to be erased, because it wants never to have that responsibility on its hands, no matter who asks, whether it’s a celebrity or corporate partner, or perhaps more crucially, the government.

The not-totally-clear question of whether Zenkel’s email was easily available, Buchanan writes, suggests Twitter should update its rules to “reflect whatever rules it will follow, even if it is, ‘We reserve the right to do whatever we want.’ ”

That last point is freakout-worthy for journalists, one of Twitter’s most devoted constituencies. “It’s a bit chilling to note that a vehicle used regularly by tens of thousands of journalists worldwide can be turned off at will,” First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson writes. “Twitter has every right to establish standards for its service, but it also needs to exercise restraint and common sense.”

The incident is even more freakout-worthy for Twitter because it’s been a reliable advocate for free speech, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York told Christine Haughney in The New York Times.

“Twitter has a pretty strong history in defending free speech. They’ve stood up for users in court. They’ve publicly written about their dedication to free expression,” said Ms. York. “Twitter needs to do more work this time around to make people trust them again.”

Lingering bad feelings aside, Adams told Haughney, he was happy to have the service back so he can work:

“Doing a journalist’s job without Twitter these days is nigh impossible. It is an essential tool of my trade,” said Mr. Adams.

And now we can get back to discussing NBC’s Olympics broadcasts, the activity that got Adams in hot water in the first place.

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism examined tweets during NBC’s broadcast of the games’ opening ceremony. Thirty-nine percent were positive reviews of Danny Boyle’s Britacular, 12 percent were negative, and only 7 percent were critical of NBC’s performance (that number would probably have been higher if my wife and her fellow expat friends had Twitter accounts).

Pew studied more than 2.5 million public tweets about the ceremony.

Lots of people, including NBC execs, have called viewer complaints “whining.” My coworker Jeff Sonderman wrote Tuesday that NBC Sports honcho Mark Lazarus strongly defended his network’s approach, saying “It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want.”

That approach extends to NBC’s much-vaunted streaming coverage, Salvador Rodriguez writes in the Los Angeles Times, noting that he got an alert from the network’s Olympics app about Michael Phelps’ silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly finals as he watched the race. So those “live” events aren’t, strictly speaking, live?

The network hasn’t told me exactly how long the delay is, but a member of its communications team did not deny there is a delay while speaking with me over the phone.

Get over it, advises Streaming Media’s Troy Dreier: “While we might wish it different, NBC doesn’t view covering the Olympics as a sacred trust. It views the games as a summer reality show.”

I know it’s galling for those who think of the Olympics as public property, but NBC is in the business of making money. This is the system we have. There are thousands of hours of live coverage online (for pay TV customers only, unfortunately). For all the rest — for Phelps and Lochte and Solo and Jones and Bolt and more — you’ll have to accept NBC’s delays and editing. These are NBC’s Olympics, after all. NBC paid for it.

Simon Dumenco echoes Dreier and also says it’s “idiotic” to compare NBC’s coverage to the BBC’s. The latter is actually run as a public trust, and Britons support it through mandatory license fees, which many resent. Also: “There’s something insanely white-collar elitist media circle-jerkish about all this whining about tape delays.” (Programming note: Dumenco will join Reuters’ Jack Shafer in a live chat about Olympics coverage today at 12:30 p.m. ET)

I’ve ended every post about the Olympics this week with a notice about how good NBC’s ratings have been despite all the carping. Peter Kafka listened to Wednesday morning’s Comcast earnings call, on which the NBC parent said ratings have been so good the network “now expects to break even on its coverage, instead of a projected loss of $100 million to $200 million.”

Great. It’s wonderful in these times of reduced media expectations to hear about a success. But one thing irks me about this news: If NBC is delighted to break even, why are its executives acting like such tools? Wouldn’t it make sense under those circumstances to experiment with considering some of the criticism?

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  • Anonymous

    Now, Mr. Beaujon, on to the business of the journalism of the Olympics.

    1a. You uncritically repeat “NBC Sports honcho Mark Lazarus strongly defended his network’s approach, saying “It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want.””
    1b. You uncritically repeat “Get over it, advises Streaming Media’s Troy Dreier: “While we might wish it different, NBC doesn’t view covering the Olympics as a sacred trust…I know it’s galling for those who think of the Olympics as public property, but NBC is in the business of making money…These are NBC’s Olympics, after all. NBC paid for it.””
    1c. You uncritically repeat “Simon Dumenco echoes Dreier and also says it’s “idiotic” to compare NBC’s coverage to the BBC’s. The latter is actually run as a public trust, and Britons support it through mandatory license fees, which many resent. Also: “There’s something insanely white-collar elitist media circle-jerkish about all this whining about tape delays.””

    The condescension to and dismissiveness of the audience (along with the corporatism implicit in all of the above statements) is astonishing. If anything is “insanely white-collar elitist media circle -jerkish”, THAT’S it.

    Not to mention that in the lead-up to the games, NBC has for months hawked exactly the opposite meme, something you choose fit not to think about.

    2. You applaud the media financial success of NBC expecting to break even on the games, and then end with what you can later say is criticism of NBC if someone says you were unduly receptive to their cause:
    “If NBC is delighted to break even, why are its executives acting like such tools? Wouldn’t it make sense under those circumstances to experiment with considering some of the criticism?”
    It would make sense if they cared about their audience except as vehicles to that bottom line. They don’t respect their wishes. And American audiences have been trained to accept insults like breaking away to commercials before each and every climactic moment. BBC, on the other hand, is a public trust and mandated to respect its audience. Any guess as to who produces the superior product? And whose audience is more satisfied (despite your need to include the jab about how “many resent” “the license fees” and the insults you thought news-worthy to include.
    BBC appreciation survey scores 82 out of 100 audience-wide
    http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/pdf/audience_0711.pdf
    NBC viewer satisfaction 53%
    http://www.tvsurveys.com/vwrtargt.htm

    3. As a side note, you have obviously consciously chosen to NOT hold the sports department of a major news outlet to the standards of journalism. As a matter of fact, you have chosen to uncritically state Mr. Dreier’s opinion that it is a reality show (which I guess means contestants can be vetted for audience appeal and results manipulated to increase audience interest). This is incredible in the face of the resources Poynter has expended vilifying performer Mike Daisey for stretching the truth when relating the conditions at factories manufacturing Apple products.

  • Anonymous

    1. Mr. Beaujon, you headline says:
    “One lesson from the Guy Adams mess: Twitter needs clear rules”
    a. Twitter had a very clear rule on this:
    “If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy.”
    In addition, all parties have admitted that Mr. Zenkel’s email was available on the internet. Your need to contest Mr. Adams’ purported claim that the email was “easily” available on the internet illustrates how far out of the way you are going to make Mr. Adams appear to have little legitimacy, since it is irrelevant to Twitters rules which include no such modifier. Not being satisfied, you come back to it later as if it is a legitimate issue.
    b. Twitter rules also say:
    “For a report of private information posted on Twitter to be processed, the report must be filed by the INDIVIDUAL whose information is posted or by their legally authorized representative”
    As Mr. Zenkel never complained, Mr. Adams’ account should never have been suspended.
    Twitter also violated its own rules by alerting NBC to the offending tweet.

    2. You go on to say:
    “Guy Adams has only been a First Amendment hero for a few days, and already he has a career highlight: A CNN producer cautioning him against comparing himself to Nelson Mandela when Twitter reinstated his account Tuesday. ”
    a. The story you link to with your “First Amendment hero” phrase, though it mentions censorship, never mentions the First Amendment, much less proclaim Mr. Adams a “First Amendment Hero”. In addition, since Twitter is a private company, Mr. Adams has not First Amendment rights there.
    b. In the article you link to about “A CNN producer cautioning him against comparing himself to Nelson Mandela” Mr. Adams specifically says he was joking to convey the absurdity of the situation. The way you present it, one could easily think Mr. Adams sincerely compared himself to Mr. Mandela and was thus egotistical, self-important or megalomaniacal. This is a perversion of reality.
    c. The Mandela “comparison” as a career highlight is something only you have deemed an apt interpretation of what Mr. Adams said. If anything was a highlight, it was Mr. Adams being wrongfully suspended (something NBC and Twitter have both agreed on).

    All of the above make me question your motivation in twisting a simple story around to again delegitimatize someone standing up to large corporations and excuse the behavior of the corporations.

    Especially since you never once feel fit to mention that NBC and Twitter have a partnership for the Olympics.
    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/technology/blog/os-twitter-olympics-nbc-partnership-20120723,0,5874163.post

    And before you try to disseminate the “non-financial” meme being espoused by USA Today, read this from the article linked above:
    “While NBCUniversal officials said money between the social media site and the programmer was not exchanged in the deal, Twitter stands to gain users and advertising revenue…General Electric Co.and Procter & Gamble Co. already  purchased ad space on Twitter, a report in the Wall Street Journal shows.”

  • Anonymous

    Twitter is a business. All the niceness will stop when money is the issue.

  • Anonymous

    Two very important points about this whole brouhaha:

    1. Guy Adams isn’t a First Amendment hero, because there is absolutely no First Amendment issue here. Free speech protection doesn’t even begin to apply.

    2. Twitter doesn’t owe any of us a damn thing.