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Don’t Hurl Acid on the Internet

BY IN BLOG On 15-06-2012

[Originally Posted June 15, 2012]

I tell media training workshop participants to treat a microphone like a gun.  Safety dictates that we treat a gun as if it’s loaded.  So we should treat a microphone as if it’s always on, recording or live broadcasting.  And we should treat a reporter as if he is a microphone.  In other words, never say anything in front of a reporter or a microphone that you don’t want the whole world to hear.

Another loaded gun is the Internet; in fact it’s more like a loaded Howitzer.  Today’s teachable moment involves email, blogging, tweeting and Facebooking.  In workshops I flag two caveats: nothing you send into cyberspace is private and the Internet never forgets.

To the legion of people who’ve learned this lesson the hard way add Jay Townsend, a political consultant who posted a tasteless comment on Facebook and saw it go viral.

Townsend was a top campaign advisor to Representative Nan Hayworth, a New York Republican waging a tough reelection fight. Townsend posted an incendiary comment about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay bill on his Facebook page.  The bill, signed into law by President Obama, makes it easier for women who who believe they have faced wage discrimination to sue for damages.  On the social networking site, Townsend railed against “all the Lilly Ledbetter hypocrites who claim to be fighting the War on Women” and added: “Let’s hurl some acid at those female Democratic senators who won’t abide the mandates they want to impose on the private sector.”

Townsend’s gaffe has particular resonance for me because many decades ago,  I covered the New York trial of Burton Pugach, a spurned lover who hired thugs to throw lye in the face of his former girlfriend, Linda Riss.  Riss attended the trial with dark glasses covering her eyes and wounded eyelids.  But the red, lumpy burns on her face were visible for all to see.

Giving Townsend the benefit of a doubt, let’s treat his acid hurling comment as a metaphor and not a prescription for violent political action. If he had uttered it to you in private, you might have thought it was vile, tasteless and indicative of an urgent need to consult a mental health professional. But, unless you were recording the conversation,  it would have gone no further. But Townsend didn’t restrict the comment to private chats, he posted it on Facebook for the world to see.  And see it, the world did.

With exquisite bad timing, Townsend posted the “hurl some acid” comment right around the time the Los Angeles Times ran a Page One story about a 10-year-old Pakistani girl whose face had been literally melted to nothingness in an acid attack. A photo accompanied the story showing the hideous extent of the child’s disfigurement. SavingFaceStillAlso, acid hurling at women was the subject of this year’s [2012] Academy Award winning documentary, “Saving Face,” from Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.  On the left is one of the less disfigured victims of acid-hurling depicted in the film.

At first Rep. Hayworth’s minions adopted the “boys will be boys” defense, calling the outcry over the acid hurling suggestion a “manufactured controversy,” and adding that the comment “was not made on behalf of the congresswoman or her campaign and was clearly not meant to be taken literally.”

After much irreparable damage had been done to her campaign, Hayworth — to use another violent metaphor — threw Townsend under the bus.  He resigned with the usual lame statement: “I posted a stupid, thoughtless, and insensitive comment on a Facebook page…. The mistake was mine and mine only, and the post in no way was intended to represent the views of anyone for whom I have worked or represented.”

Given the uncivil nature of our politics, this incident was not a career-killer for Townsend.  In fact, he has an active website where he is recruiting new candidates to advise and support. One section of that site is entitled the Ten Worst Mistakes a Candidate Can Make.  Curiously, posting insensitive inflammatory invective on Facebook isn’t one of those mistakes. Nor could I find anywhere on his site advice to candidates to treat a microphone like a loaded gun, treat a reporter like a microphone and treat social media like all three — a gun, microphone and reporter.  Too bad, it’s a lesson he could teach from bitter first-hand experience.





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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.