A moment of stupidity should not define anyone's reputation

Every politician today surely fears having his or her own Macaca Moment: saying something stupid (or worse) in public and having it posted on YouTube or other video-sharing sites.

Every politician today surely fears having his or her own Macaca Moment: saying something stupid (or worse) in public and having it posted on YouTube or other video-sharing sites.

Former Sen. George Allen learned this the hard way last year, when he famously called an opponent's staffer "Macaca" - a remark that ultimately helped cost him re-election.

Since then, other politicians have found themselves explaining or apologizing for comments that found their way via the Web to wide distribution. Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) found himself in a bit of a hot seat when his "Bomb Iran" joke to a veterans group (making reference to the old Beach Boys song) got wider play.

Allen's remark appeared to be part of a long pattern of racial insensitivity. It was, therefore, entirely relevant. McCain's admittedly bad joke seemed less serious to many observers, but it was hardly irrelevant given his strong support of the Bush administration's Iraq War escalation.

Yet we need to ask: Are we learning the right lessons from this kind of thing? Maybe not.
There's something worrisome about the way we tend to reduce people to single moments or events. When we fail to take the overall person into account, we can lose not just nuance, but also simple fairness.

It's not just politicians who have to worry about this, though they speak publicly more often than others. Public figures of all kinds need to think about it.

This is an age when anything we do in public can be recorded, with video cameras proliferating across society. Privacy laws are not close to catching up with technology, but if we abridge our First Amendment right to capture images and sounds of things and people in public places, we also stand to risk much of our freedom.

I'd advise politicians to have someone from their own campaigns take videos of everything they say in public, then post it before someone else does. That doesn't solve the dumb-remark problem, but it shows a clued-in perspective.

Younger people have figured it out, to some degree, as they post enormous amounts of personal information on public Web sites. The MySpace and Facebook generation is much less worried than its parents.

Yet will they also be held to account in five or 10 or 20 years for the crazy things they all did in their teens and 20s? My generation did them, too, but didn't record them for all time.

The solution is recognizing that we all say and do stupid things, but we shouldn't make those the single defining aspect of our lives. It would be especially useful for journalists to keep this in mind.

As someone who hires people from time to time, I could care less whether a job candidate did something human years earlier.

Let's cut each other some slack.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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