Analysis: Freedom of speech and corporate over-reach
How much control should media organisations exercise over what their employees post on personal social media accounts?
Every discussion about freedom of speech and censorship has to start with the episode of The Simpsons in which Krusty the Klown is shooting a video commercial for Krusty Burgers. In the scene, he pretends to be about to take a bite of the burger, and then a stunt double does the actual eating. It’s a bit of a running gag through the seasons — the idea that the founder and spokesperson of the company actually hates his own product.
There are parallels to be drawn here with the suspension of journalists who express opinions on social media that are deemed contrary to the editorial values of their publications.
Can a news organisation, in a time of precipitously declining revenue, and where the path to survival appears to be the old-fashioned one of actually getting people to pay for news, afford to have staff members alienate both the potential and actual audience?
Another way that news is analogous to Krusty Burgers is that a lot of news appears to be like fast food — flashily packaged, cheaply made and empty of any nutritional value.
It’s a parallel that will be embraced both by those who are legitimately critical of how news media has evolved to meet the clickbait-driven demands of generating revenue at the whim of the internet search and social media megavampires. But it will equally be welcomed by those spiteful disinformation trolls whose only interest is in making us distrust media and, ultimately, the very notion of truthfulness.
The most recent international example of a news brand suspending a journalist for something she posted on her personal social media account is that of The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez.
According to The Post (and let us remind ourselves of its motto: "Democracy dies in darkness"), "national political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues."
All that Sonmez had done was tweet a link, without adding a comment herself, to a story headlined: "Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession".
Not only did her employers suspend her; she received thousands of abusive messages, including death threats.
I myself am no stranger to the fervour of basketball fans, and of Bryant fans in particular.
In 2006 I wrote a satirical review of one of those hugely expensive, pretentious Cape Town restaurants that pop up to fleece the nervous nouveau riche, then disappear with the profits. This particular restaurant served what they insisted was Kobe beef, which led me (wittily, I thought, given what I assumed was the average food knowledge of the restaurant’s target market) to pretend that I didn’t know this meant beef from Kobe, Japan.
I wrote: "Naming your beef dish after Kobe Bryant, an overrated, obscenely overpaid American basketball star accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel room — that’s brilliant! It sums up the entire Cape Town restaurant scene."
The number of hate mails I received from Bryant fans was truly astonishing, though naturally the only actual death threats came from the Cape Town food community.
But the publication associated with my column didn’t blink an eye at the number of people saying it didn’t know anything about food, because what I wrote was funny to many other people.
And this brings us to the example of a local journalist suspended for his personal tweets — the erstwhile comedian and online news editor of The Citizen, Daniel Friedman.
The Citizen’s press release is a masterpiece of blandness. "Management has noted public concerns regarding online news editor Daniel Friedman’s statements made on his personal Twitter account, social media and other online platforms. Some of his statements were made through his comedy persona, Deep Fried Man.
"An investigation is under way and Friedman was suspended pending the conclusion thereof.
"The Citizen has a strict social media policy. The allegations concerning Friedman will be handled according to this policy. If disciplinary proceedings are required, these will be launched and conducted fairly and reasonably."
The alt-right lite of SA, who are running out of credible enemies to use for fundraising purposes, have chosen Friedman as their target. They claim he is making fun of white genocide.
For those white people who have mysteriously not noticed this genocide, and are now looking nervously through their curtains, don’t worry. "White genocide" is to the alt-white what "rogue unit" is to the propaganda wing of Independent Media. Neither actually exists, but these are very useful lies if you want to give your fascist supporters memes around which to mobilise crass hatred.
The Citizen has previously gone on record defending Friedman. In late 2018, it said: "The Citizen … completely rejects the negative public comments about its digital news editor, Daniel Friedman, and a video he made some years ago.
"The contents of that video have been falsely and maliciously linked to farm murders …. Friedman made the video as a comedian and to satirise those white fears — which in the end turned out to be unjustified. Nothing in the video relates to farm murders. Claims to the contrary are false."
So why is The Citizen now throwing Friedman to the mangy wolves of the alt-white? The key, I think, lies in the quality of the satire.
Friedman’s video from 2013 is funny. Generally, his online gibes at the heroes of the alt-white resistance are not. Take this one, for example (I’ve excised the names of the three people he lists, as I’m vehemently opposed to amplifying their lies): "This is the year these lying right-wing scumbags like [X, Y and Z] learn to regret ever placing my name in their Herpes-ridden mouths."
How is this at all funny? While we might feel sympathy with his anger at someone who tweeted "Mein Kampf is an absolute MUST READ", it’s not sufficiently couched in his persona as a comedian.
It’s not that any reasonable person would necessarily impute the same lack of objectivity to the editorial brand of The Citizen. It’s that Friedman has given a huge amount of ammunition to those whose existence is predicated on destroying trust in the media.
I’ve just helped with a research project by the Global Disinformation Index, looking at whether SA news organisations have editorial policies readily available on their sites. Most do not, which is a lamentable lack of transparency that worsens the problem of declining trust in the media.
The Citizen doesn’t have its social media policy available online, but it was happy to send me copies of all its policies on request.
wHAT IT MEANS:
Everyone has the right to spew whatever idiocy they want — but that right doesn’t extend to actually being read
The relevant policy that Friedman has allegedly contravened — though I have no way of knowing if this is a new policy spun up because of the current crisis of credibility, or one he was made aware of when employed — begins by stating: "The Citizen respects the sanctity of freedom of expression. In very few cases would we ever support the suppression of any opinion, even if some may deem it offensive."
I can’t reproduce the entire policy, but relevant bits include: "Would someone who reads your post conclude that you are biased on a specific issue?"; and "Would readers of your content conclude that you are a Caxton journalist … and, upon reading such, be adversely influenced in their views of Caxton’s news coverage as well as impartiality?"
I’m only about the millionth person to try and point this out to the Ayn Randlords of the free speech internet — those overly entitled people bleating about losing their rights to freedom of speech every time a news organisation, politician or journalist blocks them on social media for being morons — but let’s try again. As comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has written: "Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach."
While everyone has the right to spew whatever idiocy they want, it’s not their right to be read. So when a news site takes down a particularly bigoted or vicious comment, it’s because they don’t want the editorial quality of their product to be tarnished.
You have every right to graffiti your mean-spirited racism onto the urine-splattered toilet wall that is your podcast, but you don’t have the right to force everyone to listen to it.
But I have every sympathy for The Citizen. It’s handed the alt-white rabble rousers a victory, but it really doesn’t seem to have had a choice. If your social media isn’t defensible on journalistic grounds, and it isn’t really justifiable on comedic grounds, it’s almost impossible for a media company to make the sacrifices necessary to protect your freedom of speech.