If there's one thing I should've learned by now, it's this: never Twitter a funeral. In my defense, everyone else was doing it. That still counts as an excuse, right?
On Friday night, I was at home watching Ted Kennedy's memorial service on television. I'd been to the Library earlier in the day, as a civilian, to pass through the line winding by the Senator's coffin. I was enjoying the memorial immensely: like many other commentators, I was struck by the openness of the stories that Ted's friends offered -- it was being broadcast on television, but it wasn't of television: the stories stretched on and on (and on), just as they do at actual memorials. There were long pauses and awkward transitions. The speakers spoke to people in the audience, not to the cameras.
And yet I was also gripped by a tingling sense of how the service would be perceived as politics. I thought Joe Kennedy was marvelous in the early part of his speech, thanking Ted's kids for sharing their father with the neices and nephews who lost their fathers when Jack and Bobby were assassinated. But I also thought he was making a huge public-relations mistake by prefacing his personal remarks about Ted by talking about how his dad had bought him a boat -- it set off all kinds of internal red flags about how I feared his remarks would be interpreted by working-class folks and, more importantly, by Kennedy enemies who might be looking for any angle to skewer Ted as merely the product of privelege. In retrospect, I was probably wrong to worry -- and I was defintely wrong to have Twittered (as I did after Joe's boat story sailed on a few minutes too long) that it was an "epic fail." On Saturday I listened back to Joe's speech, and thought it sounded sweeter, less rambling, than it felt the first time around -- and also, after many of the subsequent speakers told stories involving Kennedys and boating, it had struck me that whatever class differences were revealed by these stories, it was silly to have thought that it was possible to have hidden them. Of course the Kennedy kids' dads had bought them boats. They're Kennedys!
The immediacy of Twitter -- its lack of filtration -- is a large part what separates it from the rest of the internet. The other part is its brevity. Both those factors, as my colleague Adam Reilly has so thoughtfully written, are also what make it so potentially dangerous for journalists. In the course of three hours, I wrote three Tweets that I wish I had back. That's not a particularly great batting average. The nice thing is that now I can write way more than 140 characters to offer some qualification.
On Friday night, Boston Mayor Tom Menino followed a string of remarkable speakers -- Senator Dodd, who delivered a note-perfect Irish-wake reminiscence; Deval Patrick, who spoke eloquently about being turned down for a job by the Senator, but also brought down the house by recalling his mother's refrain, "I love me some Kennedy"; Ted's former aide Bill Littlefield, who sang; John McCain, who was in reading-from-the-notes mode but whose presence spoke as much as his words. Menino was immediately preceded by Senator Orrin Hatch, who gave what had to be one of the strangest and most moving tributes I've ever seen. It was clear from Hatch's speech that he was uncomfortable being in a roomful of liberals, and it was also clear that he loved Teddy at least as much as anyone present: there were so many levels of subtlety and vulnerability wrapped up in his speech that I was still trying to get my head around it when Menino took the podium.
Let me first say this: there is nobody in Boston who is not familiar with the Mayor's public-speaking style, or lack thereof. They don't call him Mumbles for nothing. Other cities have mayors who can move the city with oratory -- we are not those cities, and we're fine with it. It's also regarded as somewhat below-the-belt to give the Mayor shit about it. I'm honestly not sure whether it's correct to refer to what the Mayor has as a speech impediment. The Mayor is acknowledged by everyone to be a very smart man with finely-tuned intellectual and political instincts. He let us use City Hall Plaza for a Bravery show, which is pretty damn cool (although Michael Flaherty is promising the Dropkick Murphys on Government Center if he wins.) But as Menino stepped to the podium on Friday night, I could only make out bits and pieces of his remarks. I got that physical tremble of embarassment, that feeling of inhabiting what you presume must be the embarassment of the person you're watching. On Twitter, I posted: "OMG no one in the room can understand a word Menino is saying." Immediately thereafter, Menino told a story about going to a Red Sox game with Ted Kennedy; it was difficult to follow the thread, and when Menino hit the laugh line there was a smatter of chuckles but mostly silence. I put up another Twitter post: "The rest of the world is going to think the Mayor of Boston is drunk or retarded. How 2 explain this is just what he's like?"
That got some re-Tweets and LOLs in response, as well as some comments from people who thought I was out of line. Not that it matters -- because the ambiguity is built into the form, which is the problem -- but my concern in this case was for Hizzoner, and less so for Menino than for Boston as reflected in the glare of the television lights. For most of the national audience for the broadcast -- which was on all three networks and blasted over cable news -- this was likely their first exposure to the Mayor of Boston. And if you didn't know that our Mayor has a speech impediment that can also be exacerbated by his Crohn's disease, then you might very well assume, incorrectly, that he was under the influence. (One responder on Twitter commented: "You mean to tell me he's not drunk?) My point was two-fold: to commiserate with my fellow sufferers that the Mayor was having a rough go of it, and also to communicate to the outside world that the Mayor was definitely not drunk. Or retarded. That's just the way he speaks.
However, and here's the mea culpa, I should not have Twittered them using the Boston Phoenix's institutional voice. There are two reasons for this: one, it deprived readers of transparency, because they couldn't see who the voice was behind the comments. And secondly because both posts contained conjecture -- on the matter of how the mayor would be perceived by others.
It goes without saying that Twitter is an evolving medium with an evolving ettiquette. When the Phoenix launched a Twitter feed we had only a single account, and reporters shared it. (As Web Editor, I've used it more than most.) We're in the process of doing something like what Boston.com has done to break out separate accounts by section -- and many of our reporters have also launched their own feeds. In the course of breaking news, the main Phoenix account has often re-Tweeted the work of our reporters, which does the work of revealing the source. It struck me, in retrospect, that a better way of covering Kennedy's memorial would've been to have logged in under the account that bears my name, as opposed to the one that bears the Boston Phoenix imprimatur. (In fact, on Thursday we'd set up a special feed to aggregate the Twitter accounts of reporters Adam Reilly, David Bernstein, and Chris Faraone as they fanned out to cover the arrival of the Kennedy motorcade from Hyannis.)
I make this distinction because while I have no personal regrets about what I wrote, the embarassment I felt was not institutional, while the communication of it was.More to the point, as the disclaimer goes, the opinions of this editor are not necessarily those of the newspaper. And in that context, the newspaper regrets