Half-Baked: Cyber-feathers fly over Big Bird tweets

Brent Baker

TONASKET – I hate political rhetoric in all its forms, regardless of which side of the ever-growing political gulf in this country it comes from.

So this week, to celebrate the first anniversary of my employment at the Gazette-Tribune, I temporarily allow the issue to highjack my sports column to talk about the politics of eating Big Bird, and how the thought set off a Twitter bomb with “Tonasket” written all over it … sorry, better make that #Tonasket, since we are talking Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a microblogging site — or, in 20th century English, a personal online account where you can publish your thoughts from your computer (or your phone), 140 characters at a time. All to be read by anyone who is interested in either the person writing the “Tweets” or by topic. You can follow this newspaper by going to Twitter.com and typing “@Gazette-Tribune,” or find anything someone has Tweeted about Oroville by searching for #Oroville. (In this case it is not a number sign that proceeds the subject, nor a pound sign. In 21st century English, that is now known as a Hashtag.)

I (and the G-T) are new to Twitter and so is most of our area. For the first month of our initiation into the world of Tweets, there was approximately one mention of #Tonasket per week. So imagine my surprise when literally dozens of such references, including some directly aimed at the G-T, popped up nearly simultaneously late Friday night.

It didn’t take long to determine that Tonasket Mayor Patrick Plumb was in the middle of it. I was no longer surprised. The mayor is never shy about his opinions, some of which have gotten him in hot water in the not-so-distant past.

What had started online as a debate over PBS funding expanded into an online rhetorical melee with multiple people involved that devolved into name-calling — both ways, it should be noted — accusations by some that Plumb ranted about wanting to eat Big Bird, and worse.

Before long, @FiredBigBird’s defenders seized on Plumb’s use of the word “libtard” in one of the name-calling sessions and forwarded that little tidbit to seemingly every blogger and news organization in the country, and being Hashtagged as representative of the Tonasket mayor’s opinion of the mentally disabled. Conveniently ignored were the use of the terms “teatard” and “Republitard” hurled in his direction, but the damage was done.

“It was provocative on both sides,” said Plumb in an email on Sunday. “After I got called a ‘teatard’ and ‘Republitard’ I went back to the main dude (that he’d started the discussion with) and called him the ‘libtard’ and he blew up like I was criticizing people with mental disabilities … When someone Twitter bombed me with a bunch of porn … and after I made it clear that I had nothing against people with mental disabilities I deleted the account.”

As for the insult, Plumb said he came across it while reading the Daily Kos, a major left-leaning blog that boasts millions of registered users.

With Plumb’s Twitter account deleted – and despite some screenshots I’ve seen of the exchange, which can easily be Photoshopped or otherwise altered — it’s hard to verify all of those events, but I did see the name-calling going both directions in real time before it exploded out of control.

Plumb and the City Council have done some very good work for Tonasket. He has worked hard to enhance the business climate in town, worked to improve the city’s infrastructure, and tried to find ways to enhance Tonasket’s reputation as a tourist destination.

I like him personally, and being a smart-aleck at heart I have often found some of his comments a refreshing break in the doldrums of long council meetings that I cover.

But all of that could become moot if his off-the-cuff remarks continue to overshadow all the behind-the-scenes work that has gotten done on his watch.

Even though his Twitter and Facebook accounts are his private accounts and not the city’s, as a sitting public official the words that he says and writes are not just his own. Like it or not, he is the mayor even when he is sitting at his computer privately debating politics. He is on-duty no matter where he is. And in a sound byte world, nothing will be taken in context. It will be exploited, exaggerated, and used to craft a caricature that will be maniuplated by whoever finds it expedient to do so.

Twitter and other forms of social media make it that much more critical that words be carefully considered. I don’t want Plumb to turn into a local-level conservative version of Vice President Joe Biden, who is known more as a gaffe machine than for any of his acts of public service.

Do I think Plumb is insensitive to the plight of the disabled? No. But by letting himself get sucked into the can-you-top-this namecalling free-for-all of political rhetoric that could have no good outcome, he painted himself and the city with a pretty big target.

It doesn’t matter if he was debating a political operative trying to goad just such a response or some 40-something blogger sitting in his mom’s basement in his underwear. There’s no moral high ground here between his name-calling and theirs, but he’s the elected official and needs to be better than that.

I’ve always felt that anyone taking an oath of office should conclude with a modified Miranda statement …. “Anything I say can and will be used against me.”

It may be the one universal truth in politics.