Social Media

Red Flags Raised by Ill-Advised Indy 500 Tweets

By Craig Matsuda
Social media can help journalists expand their audiences. It can also end their careers — especially when their private thoughts as individuals are perceived as reflecting their employers’ public views.

In an unfortunate reminder of the power — and perils — of social media, Terry Frei, a seasoned sports journalist, lost his longtime job at The Denver Post in very public fashion over the Memorial Day weekend.

This unhappy incident offers a sharp reminder to working journalists: They face risks if they can’t maintain their professionalism even as they express strong personal emotions and experiences — which also may undercut their news organization’s reputation and pursuit of objectivity.

For journalists, Frei’s firing — whether fair or not — also serves as a reminder that the public doesn’t easily separate them from their employers. Social media audiences, for example, typically don’t see journalists as individuals, with opinions of their own; instead — and despite the disclaimers they may put on their social media accounts — they are frequently viewed as an extension of their news outlet. This tight association also may be reason for journalists to be more savvy about the history, traditions, culture and best practices of the places where they work.

For the public, the events surrounding Frei’s dismissal underscore that reputable news organizations have standards to which they hold their journalists accountable, even on social media, and that failure to live up to them can have serious consequences, such as suspension and even termination.

Frei’s woes started when he took to Twitter to express his discomfort that Takuma Sato had won the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first Japanese driver to take the checkered flag at the storied race. When others responded negatively to his tweet, Frei worsened his situation with another tweet, stating that the death of a college football teammate of his father’s in the Battle of Okinawa “is what Memorial Day is about.” When more criticism poured in, he deleted those tweets and posted “I apologize.”

That wasn’t enough for the Post, which announced his dismissal on its website. Neither Frei nor the Post has commented further.

Frei subsequently attempted to explain his actions by writing that on the day of the race, he was driving to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of his father, a former college and NFL coach who during World War II had made 67 flights over bombing targets in Japan. He noted that he had written about American athletes who had served in the war, including two of his father’s college teammates who were killed in the Battle of Okinawa. He again offered his apologies, saying he was filled with emotion on a supposedly somber weekend that honors America’s fighting forces.

The social media storm he unleashed didn’t abate. Even Frei’s critics, including Gil Asakawa, a Post alum and a writer on the Japanese-American experience, expressed surprise when the Post fired the sports writer. Was that action too extreme? That call, no doubt a tough one for the paper’s editor and publisher, isn’t hard to fathom for anyone familiar with Colorado and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Post.

The Post’s History

Ralph L. Carr was Colorado’s governor during World War II. He provided a rare, brave voice in opposition to the shameful treatment of more than 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, urging their safety and welcoming them to Colorado after they were released from years of wrongful official imprisonment, including in camps in the state. The Post, which called itself “The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire,” got itself on the wrong side of history, vilifying Carr in its pages. He was a one-term office-holder.

But as the war ended, the Post changed dramatically, especially with the hiring of Palmer Hoyt as editor. Hoyt, whose son was a foreign correspondent, exiled xenophobia and racism from the paper’s pages. He hired Larry Tajiri and Bill Hosokawa, two journalists of Japanese descent and accomplishment, and saw them rise to positions of prominence in a way that would be unique in American newsrooms, sadly for decades. Tajiri became a noted drama critic, no small feat considering that the theater was the first love of Helen Bonfils, a member of the Post’s founding family and a top executive of the paper. Hosokawa served as a reporter, a foreign correspondent, and editorial page editor — long the highest-ranking Asian-American news executive in a mainstream publication. He wrote several books, including “Nisei,” a much-referred-to history of second-generation Japanese-Americans.

History hasn’t closed its books on Tajiri and Hosokawa, who clearly influenced the world — especially their communities — with sometimes controversial views. But they helped set a path for the paper.

During the tumultuous times that followed, such as the court-ordered integration of Denver’s public schools, the Post spoke out loudly for racial equality. The paper fought tooth and nail in a long newspaper war with the rival Rocky Mountain News, with the Post emphasizing its national and international coverage as differentiating assets. In flusher times, the paper wrote fairly, objectively and well about economics and global affairs, including reporting on Japan. The paper has set the record right, and has written favorably about Carr, whose reputation only rises by the day. The Post, which in recent times has appointed women and African-Americans to its top newsroom jobs, has been a place of opportunity for journalists of color (including me).

The takeaway here is not flackery for the Post. It is not to suggest that journalists stay off Twitter, nor that they keep their views to themselves. To the contrary: News organizations are enriched when their staff members use their diverse experiences, backgrounds and views to illuminate their work. But news outlets also are living institutions that have histories and traditions, as well as demonstrated values and cultures. This reality cannot elude journalists, who should prize practitioners who can be mindful of the world’s broader contexts and use great care in expression.

Craig Matsuda, a Denver native and Los Angeles communications consultant, was Sunday metropolitan editor at The Denver Post before joining the Los Angeles Times, where he held a variety of positions, including senior editor in newsroom administration and assistant foreign editor. This is an expanded version of a Facebook post.