It’s practically a given that privacy is dead. Just ask Mel Gibson. His creepy rantings (and pantings), as recorded by his girlfriend, have probably ended his career. In a different way, General Stanley McChrystal was also brought down by a breach in the traditional discretion granted to subjects of his ilk, greatly amplified by digital media. All it took was a couple of careless remarks made by aides when they mistakenly counted on a wall of privacy. The general was no match for the social web.
Just last month, Helen Thomas was caught on tape blasting Israel and advising that Jews should “go back to Germany,” precipitating a sad end to a long career. Of course she knew she was being recorded, but she somehow never thought her remarks would be on YouTube within a day.
I wouldn’t put those three in the same category, and in each case, the consequences were probably deserved. But social media helped hasten a harsh denouement and ensure that no second chances were granted. When stories are retweeted and shared within minutes, there’s no room to deny, delay, or clarify. You can die by your own hand within hours.
There’s another reputation that was recently shredded, that of USDA officer Shirley Sherrod. Social media was at work here, too. Sherrod was unfairly branded as racist and lost her job in the time it took to say “viral video.”
Should we blame the digital age – with its privacy-destroying technologies and 24-hour news cycle – for the Sherrod mess, too? The speed of the web was a factor, sure. Even more, it was the “gotcha” approach of the race-baiting Andrew Breitbart, who has tried, and briefly succeeded, in actually delegitimizing real journalism.
What happened to Sherrod is about racism, the knee-jerk response of the White House, and, yes, digital culture. But when the video snippet was released, and the early media pounced on the story, something else was sacrificed. Not privacy. Context.
Context is what journalists are supposed to create and provide. They’re meant to vet material, its source, and seek comment, at minimum. McChrystal, Thomas, even Mel Gibson all had that opportunity. Breitbart didn’t do that when he posted the video, proving he’s not a journalist. But, what’s even more disturbing, for too long a while, neither did some of the so-called legitimate press.