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. 

Left Behind – way, way behind

I’ve always held a deep distrust of the Left Behind phenomenon. It seems to preach to the “I’m saved and you’re not” school of arrogant Christianity.

So I got a kick out of this review of the Nicolas Cage “reboot” of the series on film:

They want churches to book whole theaters and take their congregations, want it to be a Youth Group event, want magazines like this one to publish Discussion Questions at the end of their reviews—want the system to churn churn away, all the while netting them cash, without ever having to have cared a shred about actual Christian belief.

They want to trick you into caring about the movie. Don’t.

(We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.)

Yes, that review is from Christianity Today.

Also good, from Rotten Tomatoes (and I think I know the writer): “Yea verily, like unto a plague of locusts, Left Behind hath begat a further scourge of devastation upon Nicolas Cage’s once-proud filmography.”

A little knowledge on the USA TODAY layoffs

I’m trying to spend less time refuting people who are wrong on the Internet or elsewhere. It’s not productive.

Sure, they say all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing. But that doesn’t mean I need to gripe about every political thing that a lot of people are already challenging more effectively. If we all spent all our time confronting idiocy and evil, we wouldn’t get anything done.

But every once in a while, you may find yourself in the position of knowing parts of a story that someone else has attempted to tell with negligence or malice. And it’s time to step up and confront that person.

So today’s topic will be this piece: Why USA Today will be the first major web-only newspaper – MarketWatch.

It sounds like an interesting topic, and that’s surely how Tim Mullaney, who apparently worked at USA TODAY from 2011 until he was laid himself a few months ago, pitched it. Instead, it turns into a snarky rip on the paper’s latest layoffs. I have no idea what motivated Mullaney — perhaps an attempt to feel better about his own dismissal? Who knows?

Here we go:

Unlike The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, USA Today loses money. It was always subsidized by under-profitable community newspapers and local TV stations that print money when the economy is good.

USA TODAY made about $40 million in 1997. Big hotel circulation, small-ish staff. On the “dotcom” side, we were profitable for a while before the bubble burst and we all merged together.

(That said, sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if the print edition was de-emphasized down the road.)

The biggest reporting cuts came in Life, where the list reads like a guide to Things that Don’t Draw Many Hits Online. A books reporter in his 60s, music writers who apparently did one little-read story too many, a wellness and parenting writer. The exception was a film critic, but USA Today has a better-known one.

This is the most problematic paragraph. That’s a nice way of saying it’s ridiculous. Mullaney’s experience with USA TODAY was apparently too brief to realize that some of these “music writers” were also doing online content.

I worked there from to 1999 to 2010. (I was lucky enough to leave voluntarily, mostly to reclaim my weekends as family time.) I started doing online content. I wound up doing all sorts of crazy technical things — the resident guinea pig for new software, a coder for automated sports stats, a project manager for Olympic results, etc. And yet I gradually moved into writing more and more for print — soccer, Olympic sports, then mixed martial arts.

It gets worse ..

Brutal, but true: On the list of 20 people laid off that leaked late yesterday, I had to Google nearly 15 because they didn’t do anything distinctive enough, or vary from the formulaic enough, to make me know their names. And I worked there.

I didn’t know many of Money’s editors. It’s a big building.

That’s OK. What’s not OK is assuming you know what other people are doing. That was the problem with Gannett Blog — you had old-timers griping that the young online staffers were leaving at 4 p.m. They had no idea that the online staffers in question had been there since 6.

If you Googled me, you’d get the stories I wrote. Not everything else I did.

So I’ll flesh out some of the bios here. Among those laid off:

– A terrific boss who was among the first to realize the “dotcom” staff had some writing talent worth using.

– The first viral journalist at USA TODAY, someone who balanced production duties in Life with a nascent blog-and-chat presence and built a massive community online.

– A couple of editors who took it upon themselves to learn how they can better move their content online.

– Writers who always created good online content.

And those are just people I happened to know. Everyone who left has a story. Sure, every now and then, a layoff removes some dead weight. But I can tell you that’s not the case here.

So I say “a little knowledge” in the headline here because of the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Mullaney didn’t know what was behind the layoffs, particularly of those who didn’t fit the “old, overpaid, stubborn print-only” mold. He did a little Googling and assumed he knew enough to write something. And MarketWatch published it.

And THAT is a sad commentary on the state of American journalism.

Contrarian talk: The epic cease-and-desist response from West Orange, N.J.

The great law blog Above the Law has a funny exchange between a big bullying government employee and a private citizen’s pro bono attorney.

Or is the pro bono attorney the bully?

Here’s the original exchange, in which a town attorney asks a local citizen (and one-time town council candidate) Jake Freivald to stop using the domain name westorange.info because it could be confused with an official site. As blogger Staci Zaretsky points out, the attorney’s letter has the occasional typo and some mangled legalese.

So then one Stephen B. Kaplitt, a fancy New York lawyer, stepped up on behalf of Mr. Freivald with three pages of snark and ridicule. In the first two paragraphs alone, he faux-congratumalates the town rep on his “legal satire,” then immediately jumps into victim mode, dropping the words “bully” and “big meanie.”

Just when you start to think we don’t need to take Mr. Kaplitt seriously, he lists 14 sites that also use “westorange” in the domain name, of which maybe two sites (at most) could reasonably be confused with a government site. Reading comprehension may be a dying art, but I don’t think someone who goes to westorangemassagetherapy.com is expecting Town Council info.

Mr. Kaplitt continues with a remarkably weak First Amendment argument, begging the question of how Mr. Freivald’s constitutional rights would be trampled if he used the domain name westorangechat.com or westorangeantitaxers.org instead of westorange.info.

Then it’s typically snide stuff — a rip on the township lawyer’s choice of words, a reference to the bar exam, a shot at the ACLU, and a couple of off-topic jabs at the township government.

(Gee, you mean this guy is ultimately all about tax bleating? I’m shocked!)

I don’t mean to say the people involved have no sense of humor except at the expense of others. If you go to westorange.info now, you’ll see this:

  • No, this is not the official web site of West Orange, New Jersey.

  • Nor is it the official or unofficial web site of the West Oranges of FL, TX, or CA. Nothing against those guys — just not what I’m here for.

Good stuff. Then he starts whining that this issue was in the Huffington Post before it was in The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, a recent law grad has written the response letter that the township lawyer should have written but probably won’t. And he cites actual relevant case law instead of just smacking this poor dude around and beating his chest about the First Amendment.

So who’s the bully? I’m inclined to think it’s not Mr. Richard D. Trenk, who probably sent this out as a routine bit of legal business and had no idea he would end up as the legal equivalent of the news reporter who fell out off the platform while she was stomping grapes.

I for one salute Mr. Trenk, a guy just doing his job. And is probably right on the merits of the case. But he used the phrase “guided accordingly,” and for that, he must be punished. So sayeth the Web.

Why “Cars” is underrated

The June issue of Wired has a snarky take on Cars and its merchandising (p. 112 – doesn’t appear to be online).

The toys are hot sellers, of course. Of the film, writer Neal Pollack says:

Cars, which is essentially an animated automotive Doc Hollywood, doesn’t quite hold up against Pixar’s Oscar-winning blockbusters like Up and Wall-E, or even the Toy Story series.

For sheer artistic heft, sure, Wall-E is a grander achievement than Cars. But I’m drawing the line at the Toy Story series for a simple reason: Cars is less maudlin than most kids films.

We know the basic formula — the protagonists are separated from loved ones and either work their way back (2 1/2 of the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo) or complete the circle of life (Bambi, The Lion King). The films either pull successfully at your heartstrings, skate through the drama in lighthearted fashion (the equally underrated The Aristocats) or sink in a dreary mess (Dinosaur).

Cars is a welcome change. We aren’t driven to tears by Lightning McQueen’s disappearance. We’re saddened to learn how lonely Radiator Springs has become, but it’s no reason to be despondent. The drama comes from the humbling change in Lightning McQueen’s life.

So Cars is less likely to make your toddler (or worse, the parents) weep. That doesn’t mean it’s flimsier fare. If you’re looking for educational value, the messages of humility and community in Cars are a bit better than “Hold on to your toys or they’ll be really sad!”

And the lack of emotional trauma means you can watch the film again. And again. And again. And … maybe that’s a little much. But it’s certainly more than you could stand with one of the Toy Story films.

Newspapers can be just like new media whiz kids! (But not in a good way)

A few days ago, I angered some of my Twitter followers by referencing a truly twisted piece of soccer opinion-writing at Bleacher Report. I can’t give a blanket condemnation of the site in deference to a couple of buddies who work there, but I can say the post in question has the following fatal flaws:

1. Somehow connecting the U.S. men’s soccer coach to the country’s failure to land the World Cup on the basis that he occasionally voiced support for it. (By that argument, Morgan Freeman should stop acting, Landon Donovan should stop playing soccer, and Bill Clinton should stop being Bill Clinton.)

2. Insisting that the “new president and coach” of U.S. Soccer should organize competition for Under-20 players, failing to notice that such competitions already exist. (Not to mention the multiple national championships for U19s and below, plus the PDL.)

3. Insisting that the new regime should switch from a 5-4-1 formation to a 4-4-2. When, exactly, has a U.S. team played in a 5-4-1?

4. Suggesting that Jurgen Klinsmann be named not just as U.S. men’s national team coach, a fairly popular opinion but not quite a majority, but as president. The case for: He’s “capable of propelling these changes.” Maybe I’ll take a random poll at the NSCAA convention and see how everyone thinks Klinsmann would fare at changing every aspect of U.S. soccer. (Then again, if he wants the USA to “change” to a 4-4-2 and institute Under-20 competitions, he could claim success on Day 1!)

Silly blogger, right? Thank goodness we can turn to respected newspapers …

… and find this piece from NYU econ professor William Easterly lamenting celebrities’ efforts to go beyond John Lennon’s simple call to “give peace and chance” and actually study issues, meet with politicians and work to bring attention to their causes.

He’s close to a legitimate argument, suggesting that celebrities should be more confrontational outside the system and less conciliatory within it. But why should one approach fit all? If Bono has the patience and kindness to meet with Jesse Helms and appeal to their shared religion (in general terms, at least) to work toward common ground on ending poverty and AIDS, why shouldn’t he?

But that argument isn’t enough to put the good professor alongside our Bleacher Report blogger in our gallery of misguided writing. Ready for this comment on Bono?

Little wonder that he hasn’t cranked out a musical hit related to his activism.

Except Walk On, about Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Or Where the Streets Have No Name, about reaching beyond the labels put on us by our street addresses. (That’s one plausible take, at least.)

Or The Unforgettable Fire, inspired by artwork of the Hiroshima bombing.

Or Sunday Bloody Sunday, a desperate cry for peace in Northern Ireland.

Or Pride (In the Name of Love), an homage to MLK.

Or (admittedly not major hits) Bullet the Blue Sky and Mothers of the Disappeared, both inspired by El Salvador’s civil war. (Live, Bono has been known to call out a few people in the spoken-word section — Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts among them.)

Or Silver and Gold, a protest of politicians emphasizing money over civil rights, which originally appeared as part of the Sun City project, in which Bono joined Little Steven and many others to tell the Sun City resort they’d refuse to play there as long as South African apartheid remained.

I’m not one to take random potshots at academics. They’re under enough fire from political movements attempting to bend reality to their wills. But that comment reminded me of “hip-hop scholar” Michael Eric Dyson giving a purposefully offensive commencement address at North Carolina, in which he not only went out of his way to offend all the grandmas who had come to see a nice batch of December graduates but also mentioned Alanis Morissette singing about “fellatio in the back seat of a car.”

Car, theater … same thing.

So perhaps I’ve been too hard on our Bleacher Report blogger. If academics are going to be rewarded for failing to do the most basic bits of research on their pop-culture references, what kind of example does that set for the rest of us?

(Or maybe I’m just venting.)