Lessons from a Twitter train wreck

Sportswriter Joe Cowley tries to delete his sexist tweets to save himself. Too bad he misunderstands the Internet

Topics: Twitter,

Lessons from a Twitter train wreckJoe Cowley

There’s a lot about what went down with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Joe Cowley’s painfully sexist airplane rant on Twitter this weekend that’s hilarious. There was the whining that “I’m more likely to see a Squatch before I see a hot flight attendant.” There was the concern over flying in a plane with a “Chick pilot.” There was his gloriously tone-deaf response to sportswriter Sloane Martin about his comments, culminating with a demand she “hottie up that [profile] pic a bit more.” Had he added a mention of how much he loves scotchy scotch scotch, the entire tirade could still not have felt more deliriously out of time.

But the most wildly out-of-touch element to the whole affair was what Cowley did next. He shut down his Twitter account. It’s a classic response to an online attack of verbal diarrhea — the old waving of the magic delete wand to make all the bad stuff disappear. Too bad it doesn’t work.

We’ve recently seen a surge of hopeful deletions in the aftermath of stupid tweets. Last week, Mitt Romney spokesman Richard Grenell quietly eradicated his tweets suggesting that Rachel Maddow resembles Justin Bieber and ought to “take a breath and put on a necklace,” along with other gems. According to the Associated Press, Grenell, who’s also taken pot shots on the appearance of Hillary Clinton, Calista Gingrich and Michelle Obama, scrubbed more than 800 tweets from his feed. And last month, actress and conservative windbag Patricia Heaton went on a Sandra Fluke tear, saying “you’ve given yer folks great gift for Mother’s/Father’s Day! Got up in front of whole world & said I’m having tons of sex- pay 4 it!” and suggesting that if Fluke’s followers sent her “one condom, her parents wouldn’t have to cancel basic cable, & she would never reproduce—sound good?” At least Heaton had the sense to acknowledge that she purged the tweets after she removed them, saying, “I apologized to Ms Fluke last week. I may not agree with her views but I didn’t treat her with respect and I’m sorry. I was wrong. Mea culpa.”



The hastily issued, immediately regretted tweet is part of what makes online interaction the entertaining train wreck it so often is. After this year’s Grammys, Chris Brown sent an expletive-laced message to the haters — and promptly removed it. And by now, Kanye West is almost as well known for the tweets he’s withdrawn as the ones that inspired a Josh Groban musical interlude. In a world of handlers and publicists and artfully crated personae, human beings – professional human beings who ought to know better, even — still find a way to make utter boobs of themselves. But what makes the likes of Grenell and Cowley look particularly foolish, isn’t just the inanity of their initial tweetstorms. It’s the cowardly, immature way they ran from them.

Here’s a tip: They’re called screen grabs. When you say something offensive or idiotic, or both, to the entire world, people are going to archive it. You can post it for an amount of time so brief you believe Olympic scorekeepers could not measure it. It doesn’t matter. It’s out there. And if you call yourself a journalist, you in particular should be familiar with a little something known as a correction. That way, when you mess up, you don’t come off looking like you have all the wherewithal of a toddler covering her eyes and boasting, “You can’t see me!” Yeah, we can still see you. That’s how we know how many tweets Grenell deleted. That’s how we know what Cowley said.

People screw up and say dumb things all the time. Sometimes they type them and then impulsively hit the send button. Impulse control: always a losing battle. The best people can do afterward is learn from their mistakes, apologize for them, and move on. And there’s certainly a case to be made for removing words that would cause hurt or offense. The delete button can be your friend. But it’s worthless to try to slink off and do a stealth revision of the past. What you do in public is seen in public. More significantly, it is remembered. Forever.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>