Published Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 10:53 pm / Updated at 2:06 am
Hansen: Bo Pelini will have to carry burden of tirade with him

At the end of a Cornhusker controversy, after the fury from the final Facebook post has faded away, there sits one cold fact about the world in which our most public of public figures now live.

When you are someone as famous as Bo Pelini, the world is listening. Even when you don't want them to be. Even when that doesn't seem fair.

“You have to watch your words and watch your step every single second of the day,” says Chris Peterson, a political consultant who long worked for Sen. Mike Johanns. “And the explosion of social media, the explosion of the Internet, has made that more true today than ever before.”

I called Peterson because I wanted to run a hypothetical by him: What if a Nebraska politician he worked for had tongue-whipped Nebraska voters the way Pelini went after fans in a two-year-old audiotape leaked this week?

I also called an expert on Internet-age business and privacy to pose a similar question: What if a CEO of a publicly traded company went all Pelini on his shareholders?

What would happen to the politician and the boss? Would voters and shareholders forgive and forget, in part because the leak violates our own personal standards of privacy?

“My first response if that happened? That would be 'Oh, %*&@@#%!' ” Peterson said of the political hypothetical. “And then it's time to huddle, quickly craft a response ... and impress upon (the politician) the need to rapidly respond and calm the firestorm.”

Of course, we don't actually need hypothetical scenarios in order to talk about politicians recently burned by leaked recordings.

In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama spent months apologizing for and backtracking from a comment in which he suggested that some misguided residents of the Rust Belt cling to guns and religion.

He survived, but possibly only because, when the audio leaked, he held a healthy delegate lead over primary opponent Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent months apologizing for and backtracking from a comment in which he suggested that 47 percent of the country were no-good deadbeats who would therefore vote for Barack Obama. He did not survive, and many pundits believe the secretly recorded and leaked video contributed to his demise.

In both cases, the leaked comments fed into and strengthened negative narratives of each candidate, say Peterson and Kirsten Martin, the aforementioned expert on business ethics and privacy.

The narratives: Barack Obama is a leafy-green-eating, lefty elitist. Mitt Romney is an unfeeling multimillionaire.

And Bo Pelini? Well, he's a hothead.

“If everyone loved (Pelini), they would glance right over this,” says Martin, a business professor at George Washington University. “But when I listened to it, I thought ... there must be a history here. There must be something about it that rings true for some people.”

Martin tried valiantly and failed to come up with a real-world example of a CEO trashing his shareholders.

Why? Because a CEO would never go after his shareholders, even in private, like a clearly agitated Pelini went after his “fair-weather fans,” she said.

“You can't take stockholders for granted,” says Martin, who has written extensively about business, technology and privacy. “The stockholders will leave, and the stock will dip. There is an immediate correction.”

So, yes, the CEO would likely be gone if he called the people who invested in his company a bunch of naughty names. But the analogy isn't airtight.

Nebraska fans are less fickle than shareholders, she said. They are more willing to accept the idea that Pelini said what he said in a heated moment and that he has changed since 2011.

They aren't fair-weather, at least not compared to people who buy and sell shares every week.

They are in it for the long haul. They are more willing to forgive.

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“I understand that,” she says. “I went to Michigan.”

Peterson says he actually thinks Nebraska politicians who trashed Nebraskans in private — and then apologized in public — could survive. But only if they had a lot of good will banked with the state's voters.

And only if they apologized quickly and repeatedly, and then managed to change the conversation to things the politician was doing to help the state.

In this way, he says, the politician analogy doesn't fit, either.

It's easier for a football coach to survive a secretly recorded tirade because it's easier for a football coach to do something to change the conversation on Saturday.

“A politician can't just go out and beat Michigan,” Peterson said.

Which brings us back to the notion of our public figures and privacy. Whether their privacy matters. Whether it should.

Martin argues that it should matter, that everyone, even Bo Pelini, needs a safe space in which to vent his frustrations without being graded or judged. To live without this safe place, Martin said, “is a lonely existence.”

But Peterson says that even if it should matter, it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter because no matter how many people take offense to how the information was leaked — in this case, an anonymous emailer sent it to Deadspin — the cold truth is that the information is now out in the world.

The tirade is out there, and we can't and won't un-know it. It will be on the lips of countless Nebraskans the next time Bo Pelini loses a game and frustrates fans, just like it would be right there the next time our hypothetical Nebraska politician voted a certain way and frustrated voters.

It will soon disappear from, but it will still be in the back of many of our minds. That is now Bo Pelini's challenge. That is his cold truth.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.



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