Note: Without acknowledging the original headline (captured in the screenshot to the right), MinnPost has changed the line to reflect the facts of the matter. Nice to see the thoughtful, well-funded editors correct the record, but leave no trace of it. [end note]
If I were a progressive movement blogger, I'd pile on with the framing of the Gretchen Hoffman social media ethics scandal delivered in the headline and content of a thoughtful analysis by James Nord at Minnpost.
As a writer, I'll have to break with the collective on this one, and consider what the facts of each incident can tell readers about policy debates, politics and reportage in Minnesota.
Framing: a new window for an old social media tool
Twitter seems to be getting to some Minnesota lawmakers, both seasoned veterans and freshmen newcomers.
While some legislators have used social media effectively to air their views in cyberspace, others, like freshman GOP Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, have faced backlash for inflammatory tweets sent to their followers.
Others seem perplexed by the whole social media phenomenon, and it showed during the nearly six-hour Monday meeting that ended with a legislative ethics subcommittee ordering an apology. . . .
. . .First ethics complaint over social media
The kicker? Hoffman must also remove the offending tweet and link to the subcommittee's resolution on the matter. Thomas Bottern, Senate counsel, said to his knowledge this is the first ethics complaint regarding social media in the body's history.
That last paragraph is true; the headline is inaccurate.
For while Bottern's observation is most likely true about ethics complaints in the Minnesota Senate, the first ethics complaint involving social media in fact took place two years ago, in late May 2009. And the first person summoned for a social media-related ethics violation was a DFLer, former State Representative Paul Gardner.
Old news, old tool: the case against Paul Gardner
Minnesota Public Radio reported in Ethics complaint filed against Paul Gardner:
GOP Rep. Mark Buesgens and GOP Rep. Tom Emmer have filed an ethics complaint against DFL Rep. Paul Gardner for comments Gardner made on Twitter. Gardner has deleted his twitter account but in his tweets on May 8th he wrote "Emmer seems to belittle his female colleagues (rage, sarcasm) on the floor more than the men? Great face to the GOP?" and "Why is Buesgens wearing sunglasses? Black eye?"
In the complaint, Emmer and Buesgens wrote:"Representative Gardner's communications were clearly designed to suggest that his colleagues are physically violent and prone to harassment of female members of the House of Representatives." Representative Gardner knew or, at the very least, should have known that his written comments were false and injurious to his ALL (sic) of his legislative colleagues...."
"...There can be NO dispute that Representative Gardner's actions violate his ethical obligation to treat his legislative colleagues with "respect" and "fairness." Nor can he be said to have exercised "sound judgment" by publishing false statements to the public from the House floor."
The complaint asks that Gardner be properly reprimanded and disciplined.
Gardner did write a formal apology to the entire House floor on May 11th. In an interview, he also said he apologized to the two personally and posted a link to his apology on twitter. He added that "I don't understand how many times that you can say you made a mistake and take ownership for actions and seek a remedy that seems to resolve their actions."
Minnpost's own Casey Selix mused about the upshot of the ethics complaint in Trouble in Twitter-land: tweeting without thinking:
The last time the Minnesota House Ethics Committee considered a complaint against a lawmaker, the year was 2003 and Twitter.com did not even exist. Last week, committee members and others found themselves tripping over the Twitter lexicon at a hearing on a Democrat's unflattering tweets about two Republicans during a budget debate.
The complaint filed against Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview, is one of several instances in recent months where pols, pundits, celebrities and job applicants have gotten into trouble by typing their thoughts and activities — in no more than 140 characters at a time — into what Twitter describes as a "real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices." . . .
A troubling introduction to Twitter
A teed-off Emmer told the Ethics Committee that he and Buesgens weren't familiar with Twitter until they were shown Gardner's comments while they were on the House floor. Indeed, their complaint (PDF) twists Twitter's lexicon a bit by describing Gardner's tweeting as "twitting.
Therein ends the old lesson.
New story, old medium: Hoffman free-floats amid signifiers
The Hoffman story--two years later--is a much different tale, although the same breathless tone about the "new" toy, twitter, informed both yesterday's hearing and the coverage of it.
It's useful to step back first and take a look at the policy area being considered before the Senate when Hoffman and Senate Majority Leader Michael Brodkorb made their series of unfortunate tweets.
While Minnpost and others--including the Senate ethics committee--are a-flutter about the medium, let's reconsider the bill under debate on the Senate floor that prompted Hoffman's misleading tweet. Barbara Goodwin was reviewing the disregard for people-- disregard literally set in brick and stone by the very words chosen to name the facilities --for those actual people the state once warehoused in state hospital buildings. She did this in a floor statement during which she fought against cuts to the Health and Human Services budget where the needs of real people and their families are met.
Hoffman's tweet boldly misrepresented Goodwin's words and, as Bluestem pointed out this morning, the attorney defending Hoffman's behavior tried to make the issue about those words wounded the poor dear's soul-felt sympathies toward the vulnerable.
That the words upset Hoffman, but cutting funding for the vulnerable did not, suggested that the ethos of Michael Brodkorb's majority caucus floats in a post-modern world of liberated signifiers that would impress Claude Levi-Strauss himself, if only he were not dead.
And poor Hoffman. Life must be a deeply painful experience, as she wades into the pool of language where free-floating signifiers nip at her ankles like hungry panfish.
Back to the future: debate free floating in the twitter
And so back to the earlier (and first for Minnesota, as far as I can tell) ethics complaint involving twitter. What was the substance of Gardner's tweets? Twitting Buesgens about wearing sunglasses on the floor of the House.
Rude, to a certain degree, but in light of the subsequent and very public emergence of the house member's substance abuse issues along a remote Wright County road last fall, nearly prophetic. And Emmer's aggressive sarcasm? Certainly subjective as to how people might respond. Ask Robert Erickson for details.
But unlike Hoffman's tweets, neither of Gardner's comments related to a policy debate that could lead to life-threatening conseqences for vulnerable Minnesotans. While Buesgens' drunk driving was a threat to other drivers, he's mostly taking responsibility and adhering to the conditions of his probation.
Perhaps the media with far greater reach than this blog could link the attendant policy discussion of the Goodwin-Hoffman ethics incident than repeatedly focusing, like magpies or jays with a pilfered shiny bauble, on the new-ness of Twitter. It was new in 2009 with the Gardner complaint. It is not new now, and each caucus in both chamber might spend the requisite five or ten minutes reviewing principles on basic civility. Then, perhaps, the legislature might focus more on the job for which its members are elected.
Gardner, Hoffman contrasting apologies
Finally, there's a stark difference in the way in which Gardner and Hoffman responded to the initial complaints about their short messages. Even before the formal complain was filed, Gardner apologized. Prior to the hearing on the ethics complaint, MPR reported back in the day:
. . .Gardner did write a formal apology to the entire House floor on May 11th. In an interview, he also said he apologized to the two personally and posted a link to his apology on twitter. He added that "I don't understand how many times that you can say you made a mistake and take ownership for actions and seek a remedy that seems to resolve their actions."
And Hoffman? As Nord's article points out, she remained unapologetic about the truth of her tweet as yesterday's hearing approached, while her lawyer warned about the "thought police" snooping through tweets, looking for pearl-clutchable items.
Moreover, while Republicans demanded further action from Gardner, who had repeatedly apologized before the earlier House ethics hearing, Don Davis reports that:
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, led debate against forcing Hoffman to apologize multiple times, calling it “piling on.”
Perhaps Bluestem can go out on a limb and suggest there's a bit of a double standard at work on the part of the Republican Party.
However, Hoffman's approach to language, however, has been eclipsed by a new disturbance in the force of discourse, as evidence comes forward about an email exchange in which everybody's favorite pistol-packing Republican rep abuses both history and analogy. Check out Paul Demko's Union seeks explanation from Hackbarth about email complaining of ‘communist’ propaganda in which Minnesota's public professional employees union is compared to the rise of Hitler and Castro.
Screenshot: Minnpost's most likely unintentionally misleading headline.