April 4, 2013

It may have been the the oddest 90 minutes of my media-watching life courtesy of Twitter, where hot-button issues such as race, prejudice and media can quickly turn toxic in 140-character bursts.

The first real sign of trouble came on Tuesday evening from Tim Graham, an official at the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center and Newsbusters.org. Though we don’t agree on much politically, he is one of the few conservatives willing to have regular conversations with me about media, so I was a little surprised to see this note from him on news that former Democratic political operative Karen Finney would host a weekend show for MSNBC.:

Leave aside the notion of whether mentioning deep in a press release that Finney was the first black communications director for the Democratic National Committee is “touting” her ethnicity. The comment itself seemed rooted in an old school notion of what diversity looks like on camera and whether a media outlet will “get credit” for a person of color who doesn’t resemble what some expect black and brown people to look like.

Graham later sent me a message expressing regret for the tone of his tweet. But this is what happens, I think, when you get too cavalier in talking about a subject as important as diversity and media. Especially in the world of sharp elbows, tart comments and brief commentary created by Twitter.

Consider this tweet I saw, minutes later, from country music artist Charlie Daniels:

Daniels, who is known for posting pugnaciously conservative views on Twitter, floored me with this one. Cain, who has never been elected to any political office, ended his presidential campaign amid allegations of sexual harassment in a previous job and accusations he had maintained a long term affair outside his marriage.

Herman Cain in 2011 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

During the campaign, Cain joked about not needing to know who leads countries such as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” Back then, I’d wager if you said something against Herman Cain, you were just being perceptive.

Worse, Daniels’ comment seemed to suggest one black political figure is the equivalent of another, regardless of his achievements, history or expertise. And it neatly sidesteps criticism of Obama that actually may be racist, including a refusal to believe he was born in this country, despite voluminous proof.

I expressed some of these ideas to Daniels on Twitter, which won me a deluge of hysterical responses from his followers insisting the President hasn’t been fully vetted by the media, despite participating in two national elections.

Just before fielding these exchanges, I had retweeted a link and snarky comment regarding a column on Mediaite by self-described “conservative Latina” A.J. Delgado titled “Sean Hannity is right: Black conservatives have no ‘freedom of speech.’”

This was centered on the backlash against Dr. Ben Carson, a well-known black neurosurgeon who has made regular appearances on Fox News Channel since giving a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast criticizing some of President Obama’s policies. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, Carson has appeared on Fox News at least 20 times in the past two months.

That sounds like plenty of free speech to me.

I have always wondered about the proportion of black conservatives presented on cable television, anyway. According to the Pew Research Center, just 5 percent of black people identified as Republican in August 2012; Fox News exit polling said Republican Mitt Romney earned just 6 percent of the black vote in November.

But black conservatives are mightily represented as pundits on cable news: folks like Carson, Cain, Amy Holmes, Niger Innis, Alveda C. King, J.C. Watts and Michael Steele. Casual viewers might think Republicans have made greater inroads with black voters than they really have, because they are shown so much more often.

I suspect Delgado was equating freedom of speech with freedom from criticism; a privilege even the president doesn’t enjoy.

But the real lesson here was how quickly Twitter brought a succession of bruising conversations about race and media to my virtual doorstep, evidence of just how limited the platform can be when emotion rise and details grow complicated.

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