The media’s struggle to grasp social media and personal connections continues, this time at CNN. Yesterday afternoon, reporter Elise Labott tweeted out a story from her network about the vote on the House’s SAFE Act enacting a “pause” on admitting Syrian refugees. Labott didn’t contribute to the report, but did add her own thoughts to the subject when she promoted the story on Twitter:
— Elise Labott (@EliseLabott) November 19, 2015
Her take on this drew an avalanche of criticism, and some support as well. Eight hours or so later, though, Labott followed up with this tweet:
Everyone, It was wrong of me to editorialize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.
— Elise Labott (@EliseLabott) November 20, 2015
What happened in between? Erik Wemple reports that CNN suspended Labott for two weeks for her commentary. Wemple argues that CNN needs to crack down on social-media postings in order to protect its brand:
Scrolling back a couple of months on Labott’s Twitter timeline turns up mostly straightforward tweets about hearings and the news of the day. Makes sense: She’s CNN’s global affairs correspondent and not a commentator, meaning that she’s bound to comply with the CNN neutrality principle/sham.
Evenhandedness, mind you, isn’t just a matter of journalistic principle for CNN. It’s a business imperative. Competitors Fox News and MSNBC are “two partisan networks, that are looking out for their viewers,” CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has said. That split, he has argued, makes CNN ever more “essential” to viewers.
Well, maybe, but does anyone believe that a lack of editorializing equates to neutrality? Wemple calls it a “sham,” and he’s right. David Harsanyi puts it well:
There are two problems here, one acute and one systemic. On the first, two weeks for a dumb comment on social media regarding a story Labott didn’t write is ridiculous. She apologized, albeit perhaps under some duress from her employer, as it turns out, and that should be sufficient. A two-week suspension isn’t going to convince anyone that CNN reporters (or any reporters) are robots without their own biases and opinions. If anything, it’s better for consumers to have those out in the open. Media bias was obvious long before Elise Labott hit Twitter, and suspending her over this tweet isn’t going to convince anyone that it’s been cured, at CNN or anywhere else.
In fact, that is one of the merits of social-media interaction — so that consumers can interact with and get to know reporters. CNN obviously values that promotional value, or they’d order Labott and other reporters off of Twitter and Facebook altogether. If reporters do nothing but tweet headlines, there would be no value to their engagement at all; CNN tweets headlines all day long, and people can find links there if that’s all they want.
The chronic issue for CNN and other media outlets is that they still don’t understand social media, its value, and its consequences. Cracking down on Labott for being human on Twitter just underscores how much they miss the point. Either allow reporters to engage honestly on social media and develop real brand attachment, or tell them to stay off of it altogether. Suspending Labott for two weeks for doing what CNN normally values from Twitter engagement — and for an only mildly provocative editorial comment at that — is not just silly, but hypocritical.