Critiquing Statehouse Reporters, 140 Characters at a Time

By: - May 31, 2012 12:00 am

Governors and their staffs now regularly use Twitter to make major announcements about policy initiatives, host virtual town hall meetings and weigh in on the day’s news. But some are also using the social media networking service to challenge the journalists covering them and to weigh in on the job they’re doing. And any Twitter user can read these brief exchanges of information or criticism.

Governor Jerry Brown’s press secretary, Gil Duran, often engages with journalists through his personal Twitter account. A recent Twitter conversation made its way back into newspapers after it turned personal.  

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters tweeted that California “may be a tired American State” in immediate response to a Brown appearance on CBS This Morning during which he defended California by saying it isn’t “some tired country of Europe.”  Duran responded by saying “No, it’s just you that’s tired, Dan. Just you,” as the Los Angeles Times later reported.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott’s communications director, Brian Burgess, has developed a reputation for using his Twitter account to critique coverage of the governor, often with harsh language. On March 8, he tweeted criticism at the publication Politifact, saying “you nitpicked the words he used, even though he said it correctly hundreds of other times … that’s just lame.” In a related tweet, he denounced the publication as “a joke.”

Last June, Burgess directly challenged the journalistic integrity of Mark Caputo, a well-respected political reporter for the Miami Herald.  The exchange began when Burgess called a story about the governor’s decision to use stimulus funds to balance the budget after saying he wouldn’t “proof that @MarkACaputo cares little for the facts.” After Caputo tweeted back requesting specifics, Burgess declined to respond but said “that you’re just now asking is proof that you’re unprofessional and engage in ‘gotcha’ journalism w/out fact-checking.”

At least some of the Twitter dialogue between journalists and the politicians they cover is all in good fun — and mostly a change in format rather than content. “Social media simply makes available for everyone to see the kind of conversations in politics that always used to go on in a back room or at a bar,” says David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication.

The immediacy of social media makes confrontations between reporters and their sources tempting to engage in and quick to escalate. “The new psychology of the new media makes it likely to be a daily occurrence in political campaigns somewhere by someone,” Perlmutter says.

He notes the long-held rules for politicians about staying on message are becoming more flexible as they adapt to the digital age. “If you are going to use social media effectively, you can’t use it just like newspaper advertising in the ’70s,” he says.  

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.