Friday, March 09, 2007

You can't say that out here!: Veteran Journalist Commits Career Suicide via Blog

Yesterday, something from Folio magazine titled When Blogs Go Bad appeared somewhere in my morning info gathering. The short post gave an extremely incomplete outline of 30-year veteran gun columnist Jim Zumbo's dismissal from Outdoor Life magazine, as well as the loss of his TV program and a number of endorsement contracts, for a comment he made on his blog...

The Folio article blames the blog--rather, as I discovered in my search of the term "fired Outdoor Life columnist", there was a heck of a lot more going on here than Zumbo firing from the mouth rather than from the hip...and committing an act of career suicide

As I read in a number of blog posts about the matter,I got that to lots of folks Zumbo wasn't all that liked even before he fired away. Zumbo was perceived as something of a "gun snob," who got a lot of perks for trophy hunting, but wasn't concerned about protecting hearth and home; that publicly saying something negative about one type of gun ("black guns"/assault rifles) might lead to severely crippling the Second Amendment; that many of said "black guns" are manufactured by Remington, one of Zumbo's sponsors; that Zumbo's words may have been used on a site that's perceived to be an "astroturf" group of gun control advocates posing as concerned sportsmen.

The key text from Zumbo's blog (now offline) that raised everyone's hackles:
I must be living in a vacuum. The guides on our hunt tell me that the use of AR and AK rifles have a rapidly growing following among hunters, especially prairie dog hunters. I had no clue. Only once in my life have I ever seen anyone using one of these firearms...

I call them "assault" rifles, which may upset some people. Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity. I'll go so far as to call them "terrorist" rifles. They tell me that some companies are producing assault rifles that are "tackdrivers."...

Sorry, folks, in my humble opinion, these things have no place in hunting. We don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them, which is an obvious concern. I've always been comfortable with the statement that hunters don't use assault rifles. We've always been proud of our "sporting firearms."

Trying to sort out the irate rhetoric from how Zumbo caused damage to Outdoor Life just enough to get him canned was an arduous task.

Emotional arguments, though, usually don't lead to established publications to fire long-term, trusted writers. There was more...

Zumbo did indeed offend Remington, one of his sponsors. Remington's a manufacturer of assault rifles (and ammo) like the ones referred to in his post.

Very bad move.

A good summary of how and why Zumbo's criticism of the AR-AK assault rifles heated to atomic is on Tom Gresham's Gun Talk blog. Tom uses those guns, and explained more clearly in his non-vitriolic post what motivated the shite-storm that was part of Zumbo's dismissal, as well as its locus:
"The next thing we learn from this is that the world has just changed. This entire episode took place inside of 36 hours, on a weekend -- a three-day weekend for President's Day. It happened...and this is important...entirely on the internet. The original posting was on the net, the reaction was on the net, the emails demanding that companies break off with Zumbo were on the net, and the reactions from the companies were all on their web sites. This was completely an internet event. It was a nuclear explosion, with tens of thousands of messages posted, spanning all the firearms-related web sites.

Gresham makes a great point about all this happening on the web--that, coupled with the event occuring in a very particular niche is also why it wasn't covered by the MSM. Yet what happend could have a huge impact on blogging efforts at magazines Therefore, it would have been important to know who and where all those emails came from, as much as who and where all those irate comments came from. Where they from the same ISP and phony email accounts? As much as the gun guys say a particular organization may be astroturf, astroturf comes in comments and email too. Comments can come in at such a fast and furious rate--esp. if they're coming from the same ISP--that it's difficult to know if those comments are legit. What may look like a shite-storm of "public" opinion--a "grassroots" outcry of "foul!"--may be a concerted effort on the part of a particular minority group to get something to happen.

I don't think Outdoor Life, nor any of the companies involved, would be all that interested in letting the public know if all the negative comments they received were legit--or if there was some "astroturf" mixed in. Perhaps OL doesn't even have the mechanisms to evaluate whether or not all the comments were legit. Most companies don't even think that there could be concerted, astroturfy efforts to get someone fired.

Publications should have mechanisms in place--a combination of human and algorithmic-- to evaluate huge outpourings of comments to absolutely guarantee that the opinions of the people are indeed the opinions of the people and not the efforts of special-interest organizations or or ad-hoc groups with agendas.

Further, Zumbo may not have been given any instruction on how to handle himself on a blog. He may have felt it was ok to say whatever popped into his head--that's happened before. Often, though, that's not the case. Bloggers know that we have to keep an eye on where our words go--and if high profile, keep track of what people are saying about us (not something I worry too much about--I'm small potatoes.) Bloggers and other media personages (journalists included) will often run "vanity searches" on Google, Yahoo, Technorati, Icerocket, and other search engines, to dredge up any place their words might be quoted and anywhere they might be misrepresented.

And they will often do what they can to triage anything they find damaging.

Overall, though, I would think that offending a huge sponsor like Remington (that also received a number of complaints), combined with a sufficient number of cancelled subscriptions (and complaints), could have been just enough to end the very long and prestigious career of Jim Zumbo.

(and it would have been nice if Folio got more of the story right and not blamed the blog for human error...)

Further reading: Outdoor Life and Jim Zumbo Part Ways
and Bill Schneider at New West on The Zumbo Affair, Afterthoughts

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1 comment:

Toby said...

Tish - Great coverage on this .. thanks for going the extra mile with your research.