I’m disappointed with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s response to a high school student’s tweet and with media coverage of the resulting fuss.
From his initial bullying response to his grudging, whining apology that didn’t really accept responsibility, Brownback has behaved as the child in this whole incident. And the media should have called him on his lame apology.
Brownback spoke Nov. 21 to a Youth in Government program visiting Topeka on a school field trip. A student at the program, Emma Sullivan, tweeted:
She didn’t really talk to Brownback; she was just joking among her friends, as kids tend to do using social media. But Brownback was listening — reading, actually. As the Kansas City Star reported, Brownback’s director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, called the tweet to the attention of a Youth in Government program official, who notified Shawnee Mission East Principal Karl Krawitz. The student got the proverbial call to the principal’s office, where she was told to write an apology letter.
Suddenly Brownback’s staff had lots more tweets to read:
The governor’s reaction could not have been more stupid. The response to the tweet should have taken one of these approaches:
- Ignore it. He’s the governor. He’s the grown-up. He should have a thick skin and a mature reaction.
- Respond with a light-hearted tweet showing some humor and willingness to engage.
- Invite the girl to come spend a day at the governor’s office. She gets a civics lesson and some swag. She meets the governor (a nice enough fellow in person) and probably ends up with a positive tweet (even if she didn’t agree with him politically, she might credit him with being a nice guy).
But Brownback’s bullying and Krawitz’s lack of backbone (he should have told the governor’s office it was out of line) were shameful. And Sunday, Sullivan stood up to them:
Since Brownback blew with his initial response, by Monday the situation called for a simple, abject and sincere apology. Here’s what I suggested:
Alas, the governor did not seek my advice. Here’s what Brownback’s “apology” said (published in full below, with my commentary in bold in parentheses):
My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. (Whatever happened to “the buck stops here”? Every politician sets the tone in his or her office and is responsible for the work of his staff. How many times has Brownback claimed and received credit for the work of his staff? When the staff does something stupid in your name, be a man and take the heat rather than pointing fingers.) Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.
I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future.
I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum. (The snarkiness of the student’s tweet does not justify bullying by a politician and a principal. So platitudes — whining, really — about civility and decorum have no place in an apology. It’s as much as saying, “I was right, but I apologize,” which is no apology.)
Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.”
The Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times and CBS all reported the apology, but I haven’t seen anyone note that he threw his staff under the bus, rather than accepting responsibility. A stuffy Kansas City Star editorial and Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri faulted Brownback and the school but couldn’t resist whining about the rudeness of the tweet.
Let me be clear here: If I were the student’s father, I might have chastised her gently for her disrespectful language. I might have done the same if I were her teacher, if I saw the tweet on my own, without involvement of Brownback’s office. If I were her father or teacher, I might have suggested (but probably wouldn’t have required) that she write a letter to Brownback, explaining respectfully whatever criticism she has. But I also might let it pass; I’d rather have a daughter or student who’s confident about voicing opinions on politics than one who’s uninterested in politics or worried about being scolded for speaking her mind.
But Brownback’s staff should have shrugged the tweet off or responded maturely. The principal and school officials should have told Brownback’s staff that he was out of bounds and that they would not even discuss the tweet with Sullivan. And the media should respect the right to criticize government officials without feeling the need to scold the student for a little youthful snark. Especially since they didn’t fault the adult for his lame, the-buck-stops-over-there-and-remember-she-was-uncivil non-apology. Petri actually, and incredibly, praised Brownback for his apology and said that Sullivan should apologize to him.
Sometimes my colleagues in the news media baffle me. If you’re going to scold the kid for her snarky tweet, at least give her credit for quoting Gandhi, too:
"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." -Gandhi—
Emma Sullivan (@emmakate988) November 26, 2011
Two footnotes that relate more to cluelessness about Twitter than to who was right and who was wrong in this fuss:
- Brownback apologized on his Facebook page, but not on his Twitter account. Didn’t this fuss start on Twitter? Doesn’t he want some of those people who were ripping him to retweet his apology (presuming that they won’t notice how weak it was)?
- Dean Obeidallah of CNN saw something sinister in the fact that Brownback’s office was monitoring tweets. Politicians routinely monitor mentions of them in professional media and respond to constituent letters and emails. Why wouldn’t they monitor what is being said about them in social media? Update: I see that the CNN piece identifies Obeidallah as a comedian, so I want to clarify that this is a commentary (and not that funny). Update #2. See Obeidallah’s response at the end.
Personal disclosures: I covered and interviewed Brownback nearly 20 years ago when I was a reporter and he was Kansas agriculture secretary. We didn’t become friends, by any means, but he was a helpful source and I liked him.
My views of Brownback’s failure to take responsibility for his staff are, I am sure, influenced by the fact that two of my sons have worked for U.S. senators. Mike, my oldest son, was press secretary, communication director and later chief of staff for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. My youngest son, Tom, is a legislative correspondent for Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.
Nearly final note (updated): I
will send have sent emails and/or social messages tomorrow inviting response from the journalists cited here, as well as Brownback, Krawitz and Sullivan.
Response from Dean Obeidallah:
Thanks for the emails – As long as we all have the right to mock elected officials when they suck, Im happy -if not, as a comedian Im out of business and more importantly it’s bad for our nation.
Im happy that so many stood up to Gov Brownback so quickly – thankfully it was not partisan, but just about what is good for America. (it’s truly rare in today’s political climate that Dems and Reps agree on anything)
I do think that there is a Big Brother feel to elected officials monitoring our personal Twitter and Facebook accounts and then having their aides contact people who hold power over us in the hopes of stifling criticism of them- I hope you agree with that. We must all stand up against that and its important the media and Americans be vigilant when our fundamental freedoms – speech, association or religion – are being infringed upon by our elected officials.
Thanks to Dean for that quick response. I agree fully, except that I have no problem with elected officials monitoring their mentions in social media. It was the response that was inappropriate.