How not to do social media (or, why Stephen A. Smith is not a role model)

A brief history of U.S. media: 

1950s: Calm, maybe a bit boring. Newspapers and TV news don’t have much competition, and they usually don’t want to rock the boat. 

1980: CNN launches. They strive to be taken seriously as a news-gathering organization to this day — a 2016 report shows they had a whopping 31 international bureaus. 

1996: Rupert Murdoch’s global empire, which loves to do things on the cheap and tawdry (I actually did a grad-school paper on this in the late 90s), launched Fox News Channel. They take the worst aspect of CNN — talking heads yelling at each other — and go all-in with that. In that same 2016 report, they have only three foreign bureaus. It’s just easier to prop up someone in front of a camera to yell a one-sided take on things for an hour before handing off to the next person who does the same thing.

2001-02: ESPN launches Pardon the Interruption, turning the newsroom conversations of Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon into a rigidly formatted show, and Around the Horn, a panel discussion of “competitive banter.”

2006: Twitter is launched. 

2012: ESPN goes all-in on “debate” by re-hiring Stephen A. Smith, who had gained fame and infamy in his previous work. 

Today: LEBRON JAMES IS THE NO SHUT UP BERNIE BROS SOCCER STINKS EXCEPT RAPINOE AMERICAN FLAG LIBTARD! 

Or something like that. 

Over the past few weeks, Stephen A. Smith has been facing some of the worst backlash of his career. It’s generally not a great idea for anyone to claim a beloved hard-working fighter quit in a fight, especially when you haven’t established any credentials for knowing what you’re talking about, but that’s exactly what Stephen A. did in talking about Cowboy Cerrone after Conor McGregor smashed him in the first and only minute of their recent UFC fight. 

To get some sense of how this commentary has been received in the circles of people who know the sport and followed Cerrone’s career, including his five absurdly difficult fights compressed into one year, check this podcast excerpt from Luke Thomas’ SiriusXM show. (Start at 37-minute mark for the Smith content.)

To an extent, Thomas is also in the “hot takes” business (he used to do a segment called “Hot Takes Tuesday,” challenging listeners to come up with occasionally outlandish opinions), but he does his research and listens. So when Smith’s ever-shifting defense of his ignorant Cerrone turned to “I’m just trying to start a conversation,” Thomas correctly paraphrased that as “I’m going to fart in a room and then leave.” 

It’s easy to get suckered into the “hot takes” frenzy. I know this because … I’ve done it. 

I was a relatively early Twitter adopter because I was USA TODAY’s new media guinea pig for a while. When I went to the 2008 Olympics, I was asked to join Twitter and share observations as I ran around China. I got maybe 4,000 followers, a pretty good number in those days. 

Over the years, I’ve shared my candid thoughts, especially on soccer. Sometimes people like that, and it’s easy to get a big head when a lot of people agree. 

It’s also easy to piss off a lot of people.

The sport I’ve covered the most in the decade since I left USA TODAY for the novel concept of “seeing my family on weekends” is women’s soccer. Even before leaving, I did a lot in the sport. I did feature stories on women continuing to play without a pro league in the doldrums of the mid-2000s, then covered the sport in the 2008 Olympics, site of the U.S. women’s least-expected win. Then I spent a year freelancing for ESPN, covering the early rounds of the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer. 

My WoSo cred started to go downhill in 2013 when I wrote a book following the Washington Spirit through their first year of existence. Over the course of a woeful season, a vocal group of women’s soccer fans and media (at the time, the fan media was gaining a much louder voice than in any other sport I can think of) grew angry and angrier with the team’s management. Some were certainly hoping for some great investigation of how management ruined everything, but I simply didn’t have anything along those lines, and I defended them against some of the less substantial criticism. 

Over the years, I’ve staked out some unpopular positions. I questioned whether Megan Rapinoe’s kneeling during the national anthem was the most effective political protest, pointing out that she wasn’t having much success articulating a message behind the protest. (She has since grown into that role, much to her credit.) I called out Marta for diving. And at some point, I surely offered a mild criticism of someone’s favorite player. 

Case in point — a former women’s national team player was so angered by my take that Crystal Dunn had some shaky moments defensively for the U.S. women’s team that she said I should count her “the long list of people that don’t respect you and have cut you off.” That was after I pointed out that I respect Dunn so much that I told my soccer-playing son to watch her specifically when we went to Washington Spirit games.

And over the next few years, I’ve learned a lot about how NOT to engage on social media. Not many people can say they argued about the works of Ayn Rand with longtime U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, and a lot of the discussions I’ve had over the years have been enlightening. 

But some of my interactions have given me some hard lessons. 

Such as … 

Don’t be too flippant 

Even if you intend to be on someone’s side, it’s far too easy for a Tweet to be misinterpreted. 

And that’s why Landon Donovan, a soccer player with whom I’ve spoken frequently and of whom I’ve written glowing tributes, blocked me. 

I meant it as satire of the current discourse. And I tried to make sure Donovan took it as satire with a follow-up tweet. 

That didn’t do it. I’m blocked to this day.

But that was one person. When I was watching and tweeting about an NWSL playoff game, I said the following about Alex Morgan, who was out injured in that game: 

And Morgan did the equivalent of releasing the hounds:

I watched Twitter responses spin through so fast I thought my computer would explode. One person offered to buy my Spirit book and smack me in the face with it. One person offered to kill me twice. No, not two messages saying he would kill me. This would apparently be a double murder, with me as the victim each time. Not sure how that works. 

How did I get in this mess? With another mistake …

Don’t assume people know the context 

The Morgan tweet came in the midst of a discussion about national team players getting a lot of breaks from referees in the then-new NWSL. Out of context, it looks worse than it was, but that’s my fault. 

The Donovan tweet was similar. If he could’ve read my mind, he wouldn’t have been offended. 

Twitter is not a medium for telepathy.

You’d think these lessons would sink in, but oops, I did it again, and it brings up another thing not to do …

Don’t give a gut reaction 

In covering women’s soccer and U.S. soccer politics as long as I have, I’ve found a couple of things … 

1. The “equal pay” dispute is far more complicated than people think. Australia and Norway have alleged “equal pay” deals that would not satisfy the U.S. women’s team because the sticking point is World Cup bonuses, which are drawn from international prize money that is heavily weighted toward men.

2. The marketing around the U.S. women’s team is that they inspire little girls to be what they want to be. Some people take it literally and think every youth soccer player is on the field hoping to go pro, and I can tell you from a decade of coaching that they’re wrong. But some believe images of powerful women are helpful, and I can’t argue with that. 

3. U.S. Soccer is a deeply flawed federation. But its mandate is clear. It’s supposed to grow the game for all — both genders, able-bodied and Paralympian, youth and adult, etc. It’s a nonprofit organization that has planned to spend a big pile of assets, gathered up through a decade of improved sponsorship deals and hosting the wildly successful Copa America Centenario in 2016, for the betterment of soccer as a whole. 

So when the U.S. women file a motion for summary judgment in their 3½-year legal wrangling that tosses around a number of $66 million, a good bit more than the $42 million U.S. Soccer plans to have after its five-year plan, I see alarm bells. 

I start to question whether the women (and men, who recently presented a suggestion that the women’s pay should be tripled, surely with a corresponding raise for themselves) are trying to take away money earmarked for future generations.   

I got the notice about that court filing late at night. Here’s my response … 

Then I brought up some context from my reporting … 

But then came the tweet that drew the backlash … 

And the people who responded didn’t know what I meant. 

The biggest issue: People thought I was telling the U.S. women their role is to “inspire little girls.” I thought people would understand that I was referring to their public perception, not some mansplained assertion of what they should be doing. I was clearly wrong.

If I had stopped to think about it a little more, maybe I would’ve realized I wasn’t completely clear. Maybe I should’ve waited until the next morning and wrote a blog post so I could establish the context. 

In the frenzy that followed, I forgot another lesson.

Don’t engage with everyone

Some people, you just can’t reach. 

I tried to be selective in my responses, picking out people who had a significant number of followers. Two people who attacked me were journalists who followed me at USA TODAY, and I tried to contact them off Twitter. To my dismay, neither one has responded. 

It’s a natural instinct to defend yourself when you’re misunderstood, and every once in a while, you’ll have a productive conversation. But you can’t appear to have a thin skin. 

Flame ways generally have no winners, with the exception of the rare occasions in which truly horrible people try to engage with people who have an audience and a brain: 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you commit to remorseless unexamined shouting, as Stephen A. Smith has done, you can make a career out of being a bad guy to many and a truth-speaker to a small cult. That just seems like a terrible way to live. 

So I’m giving up Twitter discussion for Lent. When I come back, maybe these lessons will finally take hold.

Or I can just take Smith’s job. 

For the latest medical poop, please don’t check with anything Goop

It’s heartbreaking to see Gwyneth Paltrow peddling crap.

She’s such a wonderful presence on screen, equally adept at comedy and drama. She’s the daughter of Blythe Danner, always a welcome sight in any TV or film role.

But she’s also the head of what we can reasonably describe as a cult.

Yes, we’re talking Goop, the alternative-medicine brand best known for the practice of putting things up the part of the female anatomy that Georgia O’Keeffe painted.

Goop also advises people to put stickers on their bodies, originally touted as a NASA product until NASA complained. They’ve also sold something called Psychic Vampire Repellent. Basically, their stock and trade is expensive stuff (want a $249 blow dryer?) with unsubstantiated or flat-out refuted scientific claims.

Now that Paltrow has a Netflix show on Goop-ness, we’re seeing a few alarm bells in the media. Mic referred to the show as “a dangerous and unregulated energy healing endeavor.” A Slate piece ridicules excerpts from the episodes.

The Washington Post had the most interesting take, equating Goop with a quest for purity. It’s almost a more transparent form of Scientology — spend tons of money on our products and reject the unnatural ways of the rest of the world, and you too can bask in natural health. Maybe you’ll even look like Paltrow.

All of this reminded me of a story I’ve saved for a while. It’s from Dr. Jen Gunter, one of Goop’s loudest critics, who responded to an attempt to engage with the wonderfully snarky “No GOOP, we are most definitely not on the same side.” Gunter calls out some of Goop’s social consciousness pretenses, turning its arguments of empowering women around and pointing out how much of this vagina-obsessed practice (her word: “vagiceuticals”) is “a literal tool of the patriarchy.”

The narrative on Goop is that is gains strength from its critics (NYT Mag: “How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Worth $250 Million”), like a New Age Trump. But it surely has a good foothold in part because it overlaps with more legitimate spiritual/physical wellness trends. It’s not too far of a leap from yoga and Tai Chi to whatever weird exercises Goop suggests. And the detox mantras feed nicely into our obsession with all things organic, a trend that makes some sense but veers into absurdity, as comedian Matt Kirshen points out here (jump to 1:45):

Go to the 1:45 mark for a discussion of what’s “organic”

So congratulations, Gwyneth. You’ve made me feel guilty about doing Tai Chi.

On M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Animal House and smart humor

Juxtaposed in my daily newsletter from The Guardian yesterday:

  1. Monty Python’s Terry Jones has passed away.
  2. Now that the movie M*A*S*H is 50 years old, can we talk about what a misogynist piece of crap it was?

M*A*S*H and Monty Python were both products of the turn of the decade into the 70s. Conventional wisdom would say M*A*S*H is the More Serious Work of Meaningful Art. It was released during the Vietnam War, and it had an irreverent attitude toward war. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the people who deem things as such. So it must be brilliant, right?

In snippets, it was. Robert Duvall’s Maj. Frank Burns is a prototypical hypocritical Christian soldier who snaps when confronted about his dalliance with Maj. Houlihan, leading to one of the better lines in the film — “Now, Colonel, fair’s fair — if I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?” The best remark on the military was one of those moments that goes quickly, and it’s delivered by another person who left us recently — René Auberjonois, whose harried Father Mulcahy provided, as William Christopher’s version did in the TV series, a much-needed dose of kindness:

But too much of it is, well, crap. Yes, it’s sexist crap. Nurses, including Sally Kellerman’s Major Houlihan, are objects. This was Kellerman’s only Oscar nomination, which may be as powerful a statement on the rampant sexism in the Academy than the inability to nominate a female director. Kellerman’s is too good a comic actress to be totally lost here, and she rescues an otherwise cringe-worthy football scene with a perfectly delivered line, but this character’s one-dimensional sex-object status is confirmed when she’s later found sleeping with Duke, one of her tormenters. (All that said, I frequently quote “Yay, we got a flag!” when I see a penalty in a football game.)

It’s also selfish crap. In a rather pointless digression from the activity at camp, the doctors are called to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son. They take full advantage of their status as hotshots, demanding steak and demeaning nurses.

The Guardian piece above blames M*A*S*H for sexist films to follow, such as Animal House, Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s no defending Revenge of the Nerds and its mistaken-identity sex scene, and I can’t speak to Porky’s. But let’s talk about Animal House, coincidentally featuring M*A*S*H star and ubiquitous actor Donald Sutherland …

The case against, as laid out in a USA TODAY story that gives the film a thumbs-up with a few caveats: Bluto is a Peeping Tom, Larry sleeps with a 13-year-old, and the end credits have a joke about Greg being raped in prison. The story doesn’t mention Neidermayer being killed in Vietnam by his own troops, which was actually so serious a problem that Colin Powell felt threatened while he was there.

The case for: First of all, it has so many indelible lines and scenes. Bluto’s “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” motivational speech is a staple of sports fandom. I frequently use Kevin Bacon’s “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!” GIF in response to people who think there’s nothing wrong with the current sociopolitical state. “Seven years of college down the drain” is something I hope not to be hearing. The rigged trial. The parade, from the marbles to Stork redirecting the band.

So Animal House, like M*A*S*H has been deemed culturally significant. So was Amadeus, giving Tom Hulce at least two films on the list. And NYT columnist Elvis Mitchell said Animal House followed the M*A*S*H legacy not in sexism but in bringing us the “arrogance of the counterculture.”

Animal House borrows more good than bad from M*A*S*H. And the women aren’t as one-dimensional as in previous films. Mandy is in full control of her sex life — “agency,” we’d call it today. Katy is justifiably frustrated with Boon. I’d love to see an edit, but I’m not going to dismiss it. It punctures the hypocrisy of authority — to me, more effectively than M*A*S*H. (Of course, the M*A*S*H TV series did a bit better than the Animal House series. A bit.)

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Monty Python may not seem to be such a powerful comedic voice. The troupe dwelled in the absurd — an incongruous argument about the air speed of a swallow, a cheese shop with no cheese, a soccer match between philosophers (for the record, Marx was right — Socrates was offside), etc.

But Python was driven by legitimate intellectual heavyweights, which certainly explains its appeal to nerds like me. The importance of philosophy is evident today only in The Good Place, which I’ll have to binge-watch at some point. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was inspired by a solid grounding in medieval life.

And that’s where we’ll start with Terry Jones.

Jones was, as many obituaries have noted, a Renaissance man. His work on Holy Grail was intertwined with his research on Geoffrey Chaucer, about whom he wrote two books. He produced documentary series on the Crusades (a must-watch) and other medieval phenomena, bringing the sins of the past into a modern context with strong commentary leavened with outrageous humor.

Much of Jones’ commentary was direct. He wrote frequently against the burgeoning war industry. But he also was a master of satire, most obviously as the director of Life of Brian, which satirized Christianity and cult behavior but not Christ. The people who complain about the film never realized they, not Jesus, were the ones we were laughing at.

I’ve often lamented the decline in comedy in an era in which humor in film seems consigned to quips from Marvel characters as they dispatch the bad guys. The 2015 Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical went to The Martian, which I’m guessing is funny in places but isn’t exactly Caddyshack, a glorious anti-authoritarian mess of a movie. The last comedy to have any sort of pop-culture impact was probably The Hangover — a decade ago.

The idea that political correctness is to blame is simply ridiculous. Listen to any Pandora comedy station, and you’ll hear the same misogynist crap we heard from bad standups in decades past.

We do have a lot of great comedies on TV, at least, and Saturday Night Live is in a golden era. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ushered in a new era of sharp satire just when we needed it most.

But wouldn’t we love to see another Terry Jones?

No, what happened in Iran is not a Good Thing

The number of Americans mourning the death of Qasem Soleimani might be in the dozens. I’m related to some Iranian-Americans, and they’ve never been apologists for the post-1979 regime. (Let’s not get into the 1953-1979 regime that we installed in yet another failed act of nation-building.)

But the condescending crew on Twitter trying to explain to people that Iranian ex-pats are happy to see this guy meet a violent end is missing the point.

Will Soleimani’s assassination make things better or worse?

The answer is easy. No.

Consider North Korea for a minute. If Kim Jong-un was suddenly removed, would anyone in the USA other than Dennis Rodman (and perhaps Donald Trump, depending on his current mood) be upset? Of course not. Would his death, presuming it wasn’t natural causes, bring stability to the world? Absolutely not.

In North Korea, another Kim would immediately pop up. And in Iran, we’ll soon see a new general emboldened by nationalist passion that we helped reinvigorate by violating their sovereignty and, you know, killing people.

So what has changed in this post-Soleimani world?

And for what?

Remember libertarianism?

Atlas Shrugged poster: Who is John Galt?
Film date: 2014

Remember the 1980s, when the Tea Party was all the rage and obnoxious people were putting “Who is John Galt?” bumper stickers on their cars?

What? It was last decade?!

And now the libertarian-Republican alliance is dead.

I never thought I’d shed a tear for libertarians, whom Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed memorably described as “a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners.” I’d add that the libertarians I knew in college basically had a “I’ve got mine, up yours” attitude.

I do feel a little sad for the folks at Reason magazine, who are trying to stay relevant even though the Libertarian Party couldn’t make any inroads in a presidential election featuring two staggeringly unpopular candidates and the Republican Party has abandoned all pretense of support free trade, open borders, freedom of choice, military restraint, etc.

But should we be surprised by the ideological incoherence of Republicans? These people just move from one cult to another. The only constants are that they hate “liberals” and they’re empathy-impaired.

Sure, CDs are toast, but DVDs?

Came across an interesting (though old) Facebook meme today that listed all the things people supposedly don’t keep around today:

I have all five, and I can make a case for all of them …

DVDs: Look, Netflix doesn’t have everything. Maybe you can just rent from Redbox, but why throw something out if you’re just going to want to rent it again? I just re-watched This Is Spinal Tap with the band doing commentary in character. Not sure you can even find that anywhere today.

CDs: OK, this is the least essential today, but there are still a handful of songs you can’t find anywhere online.

File cabinets: Where else would you keep owner’s manuals and tax documents?

Wall calendars: It’s just art today. No, you don’t really need it to know what day it is. (Unless the power goes out.)

Take Out Menus: We have some, but we could probably do without them. The apps and sites are more likely to be up to date. But print menus are easier to browse.

So I have all five. And I’m not that old.