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?

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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