How texts, tweets, emails can haunt sender

Commentary: People should think twice before hitting 'send'

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." When we were kids, our parents trotted out that bromide to stop the quarreling or salve hurt feelings.

Even then, most kids realized that the saying was not all it was cracked up to be. Words did wound, but generally they didn't spread as quickly, and they didn't hover in the ether for eons to come.

But now? Everything that's uttered, written, e-mailed, texted, twittered, recorded, overheard, even just imagined -- especially if it is uttered by or about a famous person -- is out there and ready to come boomeranging back, mostly to bite folks in the rear end. Political correctness has only heightened the urge to pounce.

One network lawyer told me last week that standards & practices departments are no longer bombarded by complaints about sex and violence on TV nearly as much as they are by all sorts of groups that feel offended by jokes they construe to be at their expense.

We kinda all know this, and yet the things we used to call bloopers only seem to proliferate.

It used to be that kids said the darndest things; but of course, grown-ups do too, sometimes wittingly and sometimes despite their better selves. And increasingly more publicly than they should.

What's changed too is that with all the multitasking talksters, twitterers, texters and opiners of all ilks out there, it was inevitable that the ratio of the riotous, racy or irrational would skyrocket.

And that ever-more voracious media, including but not limited to the blogosphere, has its radar out constantly to pick up oddball signals and deconstruct them; and that effort in turn feeds the appetite of the public for ever-edgier soundbites and ever-sharper commentary about it. With competition among outlets ever fiercer, the race to denigrate, deride or otherwise diss the party who blabbed or confessed or was simply caught off-guard has become an ever faster one.

Perhaps it's because people are constantly plugged in to media devices of one sort or another and thus increasingly tuned out to the people immediately around them, casual conversations with passers-by, neighbors or strangers are increasingly perceived as odd if not downright icky.

So, with the media ever alert to picking up anything potentially audience-grabbing or arresting, it's surprising that anyone feels they can speak freely -- and yet they do, ever more carelessly, a few even recklessly. Sometimes they can't help themselves.

There's so much digital dissonance out there, and so few ways to break through the clutter, that the impetus to be out there and outrageous apparently has become very tempting.

The latest example that has media types, if not the masses, scratching their heads: Viacom/CBS boss Sumner Redstone, who left a voicemail (as in a "recorded" message -- hello?) for Daily Beast columnist Peter Lauria asking him to give up a source -- whom, it was assured, wouldn't be killed, just "sat down and talked to."

We're not talking giving it up about Watergate here: We're talking about Electric Barbarellas, a girl band that the owner of Viacom, CBS -- and, as he makes a point of stressing in the voicemail, MTV too -- is convinced is great and deserves its own show. (Apparently, Lauria's source talked to MTV insiders who saw the band differently, as in terrible.)

It's a little like finding out, say, that the leader of the free world has a fondness for Cheez-Its and took the time to make calls to have them placed in school vending machines. That while an oil spill continues to pollute and joblessness continues to take its toll. OK, MTV is Redstone's company and he has the right to champion whatever content, but surely there are bigger fish for him to fry at his media empire. But perhaps those meatier issues on his plate are simply not getting recorded, or played back.

Hard to know if Redstone was embarrassed by the exposure; he seems of the school that believes no publicity is bad publicity.

Our nation's capitol seems full of folks who believe similarly.

We have the Vice President Joe Biden, who has become more famous for putting his foot in his mouth than for putting his signature on laws, as well as his one-time antagonist for the job and now possible Republican presidential hopeful Sarah Palin. Her own Alaska-inflected aphorisms keep coming, with no apparent chagrin on her part, and are parsed endlessly by both supporters and detractors.

But Hollywood is way ahead of Washington in producing folks whose slip-ups, solipsisms or silliness provide a field day for the media and as often as not resonate with the public at large. And for some reason, the summer seems to bring out the weird and wacky.

Some 12 million people may be out of work, but we hear more about one messed-up starlet going to jail for a couple of weeks.

Consider the media circus around Lindsay Lohan, with every detail of her statements, her demeanor and her sentencing discussed in excruciating detail and every element of her detention, down to the dinner menu of chicken casserole, laid out for public consumption.

Finally, there are the words that really do hurt like sticks and stones. They can jeopardize careers, end relationships and cost a bucket-load of money, as in this summer's sizzler: Mel Gibson ranting at his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva and spouting, yet again, invectives offensive to blacks and women. He's now disgraced, but that was only Act One, or perhaps Two (we've been there before with his misconduct). Now it seems she secretly taped his outbursts and her legal counsel failed to reveal a prior settlement, and there are e-mails or whatever ...

The summer may not be long enough for this war of words, but at some point a little silence, or at least someone saying something really smart, will be needed.
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