The famous philosopher Daffy Duck had a saying: "Consequences, schmonsequences..." In recent weeks we’ve seen quintessential examples of both. They show the perils of assuming free speech means you can say anything you want in various media platforms without risking global opinion reaction -- and how it could hurt your career, or possibly enrich you.
Consequence: The instructive case of Justine Sacco, formerly a PR executive for Barry Diller’s Internet giant InterActive Corp., which owns popular websites like Match.com, Dictionary.com, Vimeo, and The Daily Beast. As she prepared to board a plane for South Africa to visit her parents, Sacco put this on Twitter: "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!" A global Twitter firestorm was born.
The tweet was picked up and re-tweeted and a cyberspace flash-mob denounced her. Reporters waited for her to land. Diller’s company was in a bind: they had a public relations official -- a face of the company who is supposed to safeguard and enhance company branding -- who used AIDS as a joke and made what only people doing spin will deny was a racist joke. Diller’s company distanced itself faster from her than a teenager from after-dinner dishes.
IAC issued a statement to The Hollywood Reporter saying the "outrageous, offensive comment...does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter, and we are taking appropriate action."
She was still on the loooooooong flight to South Africa as parody Facebook sites and parody Twitter accounts were set up in her name with fake posts and Tweets making her (and by association her company) look worse. A satire tweet by Top Conservative Cat was nearly psychic: "Justine Sacco tweeted: ‘Going to get fired. Hope I don’t catch poverty. Just kidding. I’m white!’"
Shortly after she landed, IAC announced that it had indeed "parted " with her and hoped despite the Tweet it would "not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core."
Sacco then issued an anguished apology that read, in part: "Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet." She expressed sorrow for the pain she caused her family and others and for her comment on AIDS: "For being insensitive to this crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed."
NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen summed up today’s reality in a tweet: "You take your life -- well, your work life -- in your hands every time you tweet."
Schmonsequence: The equally instructive case of Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E’s reality show "Duck Dynasty," one of the most successful shows in cable history. In an interview with GQ, he quoted the Bible and likened homosexuality to bestiality. The result: a firestorm, demands he apologize, and a boycott of Duck Dynasty products.
But then, as the New York Daily News put it, the Duck Dynasty flap "managed to goose ideologues across the political spectrum..." as "a show once considered escapist entertainment has become another beachhead in the ongoing ideological war in the United States." Conservatives such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, definitively destroying Republican rebranding, insisted it was a free speech issue. The Washington Post noted that prospective 2016 Republican Presidential hopefuls were quick to defend Robertson in an effort to woo Evangelicals.
Duck Dynasty merchandise sold out at Wal-Mart, partially as conservatives reportedly bought it to show solidarity. Furious customers forced Cracker Barrel to resume selling it. Robertson was suspended but reports indicate he’ll be back. And Duck Dynasty will grow now that watching it and buying its merchandise has become a conservative political statement.
Excuse the puns (and pun spelling): but although only Sacco got the sack and suffered a career quack-up, both statements were fowl.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates.