MSNBC et al: What does it take to get fired over a tweet?

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.

Evan Vucci/AP
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.

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

“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.

In a string of mishaps, the network has expressed disapproval of its employees' swings at the political right, even as it has sought to stake out a slice of partisan territory in the television news-and-commentary market as the liberal antidote to Fox News.

Just before the now-repudiated tweet went out, Griffin had given an interview to The Daily Beast in which he said MSNBC’s coverage is being repackaged as even more analytical, saying he imagined a daily progression of news on the network from less analytical reporting in the morning to the highly partisan talk shows at night. He drew a distinction, though, between promoting an “ideology” and suggesting a “sensibility”; MSNBC’s analytical cadence has and would have the latter, not the former, he said.

But if MSNBC has such “sensibilities,” it has struggled over just how partisan and cuttingly opinionated its employees can be on their own shows, not to mention in the minefield-pocked land of Twitter – a new frontier in journalism where the rules for news employees remain hazy.

This week, network employee Ronan Farrow faced backlash over his tweet about Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, the wounded Ranger who was honored at the State of the Union address on Tuesday: “Cory ‘struggles on the left side.’ Congress relates,” he said, on his own account.

And Alex Wagner, the new host of Martin Bashir’s program, weathered conservative anger this week over a tweet about Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, who gave the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address: "Living room. Lady on a settee. Where’s the needlepoint?,” she queried via her Twitter profile. Fox News called the tweet “blatantly sexist.”

MSNBC does not appear to have taken disciplinary action against either of the two reporters, but it has taken a hard line with employees who have made apparently overly partisan comments on air.

Earlier this month, the outlet pressed its anchor, Melissa Harris-Perry, into apologizing for a slam she took at Mitt Romney’s biracial family on her show. In December, Mr. Bashir resigned over scatological comments he made about former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Former MSNBC anchor David Schuster had also tussled with the outlet in 2010 over his tweets criticizing Republican leaders for the downfall of Detroit; he now works for Al-Jazeera America.

The problem of balancing brand statements with individual personalities on social media is not unique to MSNBC. In 2010, CNN fired Middle East correspondent Octavia Nasr, saying her tweet mourning the death of a Hezbollah leader compromised its objective reporting brand. In 2012, The New York Times assigned a social media minder to review and edit the tweets of its Jerusalem reporter, Jodi Rudoren. Also in 2012, Politico let go reporter Joe Williams, citing his disparaging tweets about Mr. Romney.

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