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MSNBC et al: What does it take to get fired over a tweet? (+video)

MSNBC has fired the employee who slammed the 'rightwing' on its corporate Twitter account. It's the latest flash point as news outlets try to balance brand statements with social media's 'say-anything' culture.

By Staff writer / January 31, 2014

President Obama talks with MSNBC's Chris Matthews during a break in the taping of an interview for the 'Hardball with Chris Matthews' show last month. The network has recently come under fire over a tweet sent out on its account that lampooned the 'rightwing' as likely be upset by a Cheerios ad featuring a biracial family.

Evan Vucci/AP

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On Wednesday evening, a MSNBC employee composed a tweet that turned out to be a career-stopper.

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/biracial family,” the MSNBC staffer wrote on the network’s account, beaming the message out to some 557,000 followers.

That tweet, now deleted, set off a public blowup between the Republican National Committee, which says the tweet paints the party as racist, and MSNBC, the news network that many see as left-leaning.

MSNBC has fired the still-anonymous employee. Meanwhile, the incident has become a proxy for a larger meditation on the difficulties of maintaining a news-outlet brand statement in a free-wheeling social mediaverse. 

The MSNBC tweet in question, posted on Wednesday afternoon, referenced a Super Bowl commercial for Cheerios. The ad, featuring a biracial family having breakfast, was released ahead of the Big Game and is a sequel to an ad the cereal company aired last spring. That original ad had prompted racist ire from YouTube commentators when it debuted.

The network’s apology for the tweet was almost immediate: The tweet was pulled down, and a contrite tweet followed.

“Earlier, this account tweeted an offensive line about the new Cheerios ad. We deeply regret it. It does not reflect the position of msnbc,” the network tweeted, late Wednesday night.

But it wasn’t enough: Early on Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the RNC had interpreted “rightwing” as a general lampoon of the Republican Party, caricaturing it as racist. In a letter to the network, he said the committee would place a ban on all staff members appearing on MSNBC until the network made a more public apology and took “corrective action.”

Later that evening, MSNBC President Phil Griffin did so, apologizing to Mr. Priebus in a statement that called the tweet “outrageous and unacceptable.”

“We immediately acknowledged that it was offensive and wrong, apologized, and deleted it,” Mr. Griffin wrote. "I personally apologize to Mr. Priebus and to everyone offended.”

He also said the network had “dismissed” the staffer who wrote it. The employee has not been named.

The apology was accepted – sort of. In a memo to RNC staffers, RNC communications director Sean Spicer said the committee is lifting the ban on appearances on MSNBC programming, but also reiterated its overall irritation with the network.

“We will aggressively monitor the network to see whether their pattern of unacceptable behavior actually changes,” Mr. Spicer wrote. “We don’t expect their liberal bias to change, but we will call them out when political commentary devolves into personal and belittling attacks.”

The tweeting flap is the latest in a series of scandals for MSNBC, each tied to the outlet’s apparent indecision about how much leeway to give its employees – many of them big, public personalities – in pushing and promoting its left-of-center brand, especially on social media.

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