The Perils of Honest E-Mails

E-mail writers are finding that their notes occasionally reach a much larger audience than they intended. Commentator Judy Muller discusses some recent examples. Her advice is to think before you put anything in writing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Those new employees have some lessons to learn.

Commentator Judy Muller says one important lesson is keeping private opinions private.

Ms. JUDY MULLER (ABC News Correspondent, Commentator): Way back in 1964, when Blackberry's were still a fruit and Palms were read by fortune tellers, there was a movie called Never Put It In Writing.

Pat Boone hears he's losing a promotion to the boss's nephew. He writes an angry letter, accusing the boss of nepotism. Then he learns he is getting the promotion after all, and the rest of the movie is given over to his frantic attempt to intercept that letter. How quaint.

Today, Pat Boone's angry e-mail would have reached the corporate bigwigs in a nanosecond, and Pat would be toast. Demoted, perhaps, to the mailroom, or what's left of it.

The age of instant messaging clearly has its downside. Just ask ABC News Producer John Green, who has been suspended without pay for a month after a couple of his so-called private e-mails were leaked to the Drudge Report in a gossip column. In those messages, Green made disparaging remarks about the President and former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

This incident no doubt sends a shudder down the spines of all those who have ever sent an e-mail that they would not want read by the public, which is just about everybody.

Like lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In e-mails made public by Senate investigators, Abramoff repeatedly referred to the Indian tribes he was working with at "troglodytes, morons, and monkeys", as in, quote, "I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw Tribal Council."

Now, you don't have to be the object of a criminal investigation or someone who deals with public figures to see your e-mails go into boomerang mode. A photojournalist friend of mine, after a grueling day covering the horrific conditions in New Orleans after Katrina, vented his frustrations in an e-mail to his wife and kids. One of his kids sent it on to a friend, and the friend shared it with a blogger.

By the next morning, my friend's little essay had been read by other reporters who'd been perusing the Internet. It didn't say anything problematical, but it was a lesson in how fast a diatribe can travel; from zero to infamy in a matter of seconds.

So you'd think we'd think before hitting the send button. Maybe we should program in a warning that would pop up before the message is allowed to leave your computer or PDA. Something like, "Are you sure that this message won't come back to embarrass, indict, or otherwise haunt you?"

Meanwhile, a little common sense is in order.

The plot of that old Pat Boone movie may be out of date. But the title? Never. As in, Never Put It In Writing.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Commentator Judy Muller teaches journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, and she's the author of Now This: Radio, Television, and the Real World.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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