What Freelance Writers Can Learn From Jesse Jackson’s “Mistake”

The big controversey in the headlines at the time I’m writing this is Jesse Jackson’s gaffe on the Bill O’Reilly show. Jackson made some untoward comments about Barack Obama when he thought the microphone was turned off.

Jesse Jackson clearly never attended broadcasting school. If he had, he would know that a microphone is NEVER off, especially on network television. When the operator pushes the “off” button, it should be treated like a deadly snake some rancher has just killed. Did you know a poisonous snake with its head cut off can still strike and kill you? Jesse Jackson knows that now, all too well.

What can freelance writers learn from this?

For starters, there is the growing awareness of what happens when a potential employer, editor or publisher wants to Google you before they start paying you for services rendered. In the mid to late 90s, I knew of several people in the freelance IT industry who ran webcam blogs. Many of these people weren’t very concerned over the amount of clothing they wore on their webcams. I don’t think they thought very much about the notion that those pictures could still be floating around today, ten years later.

Not that many freelance writers are doubling as webcam exhibitionists, I just use it as an example. But I do wonder what happens when the head of some IT department thinks when they Google a potential freelancer only to find a cache of revealing photos floating around some ancient usenet group or photo sharing service.

The Jesse Jackson incident reminds me of the bane of our online freelancing existence–the misforwarded e-mail. This is the closest most freelancers will get to the “I thought the mic was turned off” mistake. You are dealing with a particularly frustrating client and you want to vent your spleen in an e-mail. By accident, you wind up CCing the person you are complaining about. It sounds like a completely stupid, boneheaded mistake (it is) but it happens more often than you realize. It actually happened to someone I know very well quite recently. All you have to do is be slightly tired or missing that first cup of coffee.

And then there’s the realm some freelancers wind up in–they write something that catches fire and get some press attention. Maybe it’s a solid piece of investigative journalism, or a strong article in a well-placed publication. At some point you were in the right place at the right time and you find yourself having to answer media questions. It’s easy to forget that unless you say “this is off the record” you can wind up being quoted on radio, television and the net. It doesn’t matter whether you say “This is the best steak I’ve ever eaten!” or “I’d like to blow up McDonald’s”. Even if you were just kidding, there you are on the news saying it over and over.

The final, most directly writing-related lesson to learn from this? Be careful what you write in the early days–it could come back to haunt you later. Have you ever written a piece of commercial content for a product you knew was dodgy and didn’t really believe in? What would you say if an editor quizzed you out of the blue on that during an interview or in response to a query letter? Some editors (read: me) like to do some research on their writers before they say “let’s work together.”

I google writers, I actually read their clips and try to see where else they have been and what they do. Some writers list those low-to-no-pay content websites as writing credits. Some editors pay very close attention to those clips beacause they know no editor has touched them. They judge you harshly over these articles because they can see all your mistakes, your writing peculiarities and the holes in your prose. Those content sites do people a disservice because most noob writers submit first drafts.

Later on when they grow up in the craft, they realize just how silly they were.

All this is available over the online equivalent to the live microphone. What can you learn from Jesse Jackson? Don’t let anything hit the net or the mic that you don’t want repeated on the Bill O’Reilly show. Unless you post totally anonymously or using a psuedonym, it could come back to haunt you.