Flap over Mary Sue Coleman's speech shows you should think before you tweet

Nov 14, 2013

These days, we are constantly being told how great the so-called new media are. Thanks to smart phones, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest of it, we can all share everything with everyone in the world at a nanosecond’s notice. That is to say, without thinking about it.

On occasion, this has allowed journalism to break new records getting the story first. But more often, it has allowed us to break new records in getting things wrong, in embarrassing ourselves and doing harm to others.

One horrible example of this happened last weekend. U of M President Mary Sue Coleman addressed the crowd at Michigan Stadium during the halftime game against Nebraska.

As sometimes happens, the sound quality was distorted, something familiar to any of us who have ever worn a lapel microphone. President Coleman apparently tried to compensate for the reverberation by slowing down her words, but that only made her voice sound more distorted and bizarre. Before the game was over, people were emailing and tweeting madly, speculating that she was drunk.  

Today, if you Google her name, up pops the university’s official denial. But you also get a dozen scurrilous blogs speculating that she was either drunk, suffering from a secret medical condition or both. This is beyond unfair.

Phil Nussel is one of Michigan’s most seasoned, and, frankly, cynical journalists. He has worked for many high-level publications, has been business editor of both the Detroit News and Free Press and is now managing editor of Automotive News’s online edition. He is livid at all this.

“I’m absolutely amazed at the new lows that Twitter and social media have brought to credible journalism,” he told me.  

Nussel, who has covered take-no-prisoners coal mine union wars in West Virginia, found himself totally shocked by this. He told me, “so everyone is reporting … Mary Sue Coleman being drunk when NOBODY had a single shred of evidence that she had a single drink all day. It’s too bad she’s not a private citizen -- she’d make a lot of money off libel suits.” He is, of course, entirely right.

While I have interviewed President Coleman several times, I do not know her well. But everything I know tells me there isn’t a shred of truth in any of this. Frankly, you would probably think I was mainlining crack if you heard me playing with my dog.

While the mainstream media have mainly behaved responsibly, many people can’t distinguish Forbes from Joe’s basement blog. On the net, it is now taken as ’fact’ that Coleman, long ranked one of the nation’s best college presidents, was hammered.

Nussel is beyond indignant. He fears that her legacy “is forever going to be tainted by the (false) perception that she was a drunk.” I hope he is wrong. But it is all terribly unfair.

Back in President Eisenhower’s day, columnists were convinced his wife Mamie was a drunk. She often appeared unsteady on her feet. But there were standards then, and nothing appeared in print. In fact, she had an inner ear disorder.

I don’t know how we make people think before they tweet. But that might be the very best new media idea of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.