March 31, 2023

Media Decoder Blog: Twitter Backpedals on Reporter’s Post

Twitter has become the default for people when they have a complaint. Even when that complaint is about Twitter.

The company found itself at the center of a Twitter firestorm when it suspended on Sunday the account of Guy Adams, a British newspaper reporter for The Independent, after he had posted complaints about NBC’s tape-delayed Olympics coverage. The posts included the e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, the head of NBC Sports.

On Tuesday, both Twitter and NBC backpedaled. While Twitter officials stress that the company generally does not monitor content, Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, admitted in a statement on Tuesday that Twitter “did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter rules and encouraged them” — NBC — “to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation.”

Chloe Sladden, vice president for media at Twitter, personally apologized on her Twitter feed for the mistake. NBC also issued a statement apologizing for having the reporter’s account suspended. Twitter then reactivated the reporter’s account.

“Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter,” an NBC spokesman said in a statement. “We didn’t initially understand the repercussions of our complaint, but now that we do, we have rescinded it.”

But the initial suspension already put both companies out of favor with many Twitter faithful. Out of solidarity for Mr. Adams, supporters also started posting the e-mail address of Mr. Zenkel, the NBC executive. They paired the hashtags #guyadams with #NBCfail. They called the incident a “watershed moment” for social media and accused Twitter executives of censoring Mr. Adams’s account “to cater to corporate whim.”

They also went for the jugular by threatening not to tune in to NBC’s Olympics coverage. Mr. Adams gained several thousand new followers after Twitter reinstated his account.

“Thanks to @NBCOlympics behavior wrt @GuyAdams I won’t be watching any more Olympics. Sorry, London.” wrote one follower.

Twitter has always enjoyed an extraordinary amount of good will from its users in part because it does not require them to sign in under their own names (unlike Facebook) and it allows almost unlimited free speech. The suspension of Mr. Adams’s account seemed like an exception to Twitter rules based on a corporate relationship.

Last month, Twitter and NBC announced a partnership to share their Olympics coverage across both of their platforms. NBC would promote Twitter’s Olympic event page through on-air graphics and Twitter would include NBC commentators on its Olympic events page.

The problems started on Friday evening when Mr. Adams, who is based in Los Angeles, started posting on Twitter how frustrated he was that NBC was delaying television coverage until prime time. He wrote, “Am I alone in wondering why NBColympics think its acceptable to pretend this road race is being broadcast live?” As his frustration grew, he filed a post to Twitter that was heard throughout social media.

“The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven’t started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think!” He ended his post with the work e-mail address of Mr. Zenkel. Soon he was retweeted and some angry followers added the hashtag #NBCFAIL.

That’s when Twitter officials abandoned their usual stance and contacted NBC employees they knew through their Olympics partnership. They told them about the post and advised them on how to suspend Mr. Adams’s account. Writing in The Independent, Mr. Adams said he discovered that his account had been suspended “for posting an individual’s private information such as private e-mail address.” But he stressed, “I do not wish Mr. Zenkel any harm.”

Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, said that the incident was a departure from Twitter’s generally strong reputation as a supporter of free speech.

“Twitter has a pretty strong history in defending free speech. They’ve stood up for users in court. They’ve publicly written about their dedication to free expression,” said Ms. York. “Twitter needs to do more work this time around to make people trust them again.”

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Comedy Podcast Inside News Corp. Feasts on a Scandal

The Bugle, a news satire podcast, had just recorded a blistering show about the closing of The News of the World tabloid, and now he had to edit the less-than-kind audio that included riffs on the soullessness of those responsible and the opinion that the paper “would not be missed at all.”

The Bugle is published by The Times of London, also owned by Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation.

“It was comedian’s gold, but an editor’s nightmare,” he remembered.

As some Murdoch-owned media properties chose to minimize the unfolding scandal, Mr. Skinner and the pair of comedians behind the podcast, Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, went straight for the jugular. The Bugle, among the most popular comedy podcasts in Britain with roughly 400,000 weekly downloads, spent three weeks hammering their corporate owners, News International, and Mr. Murdoch himself.

Mr. Zaltzman compared the scene outside The Times of London’s recording studio in Wapping to war-ravaged Stalingrad and Nagasaki, described The Bugle “the last remaining pillar of Murdochia” and reveled in both the firing of Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, and the shaving cream pie that had struck Mr. Murdoch.

For Mr. Zaltzman, 36, the decision to go hard on News International was a natural for the four-year-old weekly podcast that takes on the main news of the day with the least reverence possible. “It was a news story that we had to address — and address it funnily — and I think we succeeded,” he said in a phone interview.

The show has recently found a surge of interest from the United States, owing in part to Mr. Oliver’s frequent appearances on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” The number of downloads has nearly doubled in the last 18 months, according to rough statistics provided by Mr. Skinner, with much of the increase coming from American listeners. It is currently ranked among the top podcasts on iTunes.

The Bugle began in October 2007 shortly after Mr. Oliver, 34, moved to New York. The two comedians, who had worked together onstage in Britain and whose comedy closely follows the news, were approached by The Times of London to do a satire podcast.

“It took a while for us to find the best way to do it,” said Mr. Zaltzman. “But once it fell into the pattern it’s in, it’s stayed.”

Each show is a combination of scripted material and ad libs and is recorded and published on Fridays, with Mr. Zaltzman and Mr. Skinner sitting in the London studio, and Mr. Oliver joining by phone from New York.

The comedians write their jokes after briefly discussing the topics for the next program, but generally have not heard each other’s material until recording time. Spontaneous trans-Atlantic cackling is a large part of the appeal, for them and for the listener. “We try and make each other laugh while we’re recording it,” Mr. Zaltzman said.

As with most popular online productions, the show has spawned legions of loyal fans — known as Buglers — who have developed their own profane insider gags — like sending Mr. Skinner e-mail and Twitter messages telling him off — and even a Wikipedia-style site devoted to cataloging the show. (The official Web site is behind the newspaper’s paywall.)

The show follows a long tradition of British news satire from “That Was the Week That Was” in the early 1960s, to the 1990s radio show “On the Hour,” which Mr. Zaltzman said was among his inspirations.

Pairing a comedian with a newspaper to make a podcast is a newer phenomenon, beginning most notably with Ricky Gervais and The Guardian in 2005. Mr. Zaltzman also comes from a podcasting family: his sister, Helen Zaltzman, appears on another popular British comedy show, “Answer Me This!

“What podcasting does is give acts who want to get into the mainstream media a platform to prove their talents,” said Richard Berry, a lecturer in radio at the University of Sunderland who has written about podcasting. “It can bring radio talent or writers the same opportunities that YouTube gives filmmakers.”

It was the freedom to do what they wanted that drew Mr. Zaltzman and Mr. Oliver to making the show. “There’s not been any guidance or request from the Times Online hierarchy about what we can and can’t say,” Mr. Zaltzman said.

With new hacking-scandal developments each week, the show appeared to push the boundary of that freedom, especially after a man hit Mr. Murdoch with a plate of shaving cream during a Parliamentary inquiry.

“I’m not saying Rupert Murdoch’s face didn’t look better with a shaving cream pie in it,” Mr. Oliver said during one episode. “You just don’t want to find yourself with any misplaced sympathy for Rupert Murdoch.”

The two then jokingly wondered on air whether anyone higher up at News International was listening. “Should this not have been stopped by now?” Mr. Oliver asked. “It doesn’t make sense!”

“I can take up busking, John, it’s all right,” Mr. Zaltzman responded.

But no one from the company has complained, Mr. Skinner and Mr. Zaltzman said, and the show goes on. After a break last week, the podcast returned on Friday to tackle the most recent devastating events from Britain: the London riots.

They have had a front-row seat at that as well. “Last night was a very scary journey home,” said Mr. Skinner, 32, who lives in the Hackney neighborhood of London where rioters rampaged last Monday.

Newsrooms in the late summer are generally quiet places. But this year, the big events have been coming steadily. “It’s a bit of a summer of rage in the U.K.,” Mr. Skinner said. “We seem to be bouncing from one story of anger into another.”

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