Under increased pressure from outside critics and hostile adversaries, The New York Times is getting more serious about the damage social media can have on the paper.
In an internal email to staff this week, reviewed by The Daily Beast, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said that the paper would not be intimidated by those trying to undermine their reporting but urged employees to be more vigilant about what they say in public outside of written articles.
“If anyone—even those acting in bad faith—brings legitimate problems to our attention, we’ll look into them and respond appropriately,” he said. “It is imperative that all of us remain thoughtful about how our words and actions reflect on the Times, particularly during this period of sustained pressure and scrutiny. We all play a part in upholding our commitment to give the news impartially without fear or favor.”
The memo was a reaction to just the latest social-media controversy involving the newspaper of record: pro-Trump outlet Breitbart News resurfaced Times senior staff editor Tom Wright-Piersanti’s decade-old tweets that included insensitive anti-Semitic comments. He apologized for the posts.
Several days later, the Times published a story about an infamous group of pro-Trump GOP operatives who have worked behind-the-scenes to dig up old, offensive social-media posts of journalists at news outlets deemed the “opposition” to President Trump.
The memo and article both alarmed Times staffers, spurring many to take precautions to protect themselves. “I think people are being more cautious, I know people are locking down their accounts,” one Times staffer told The Daily Beast.
And while there is no official edict or documented strategy, many editors have urged staffers to be hyper-vigilant about their social-media behavior.
“It’s a full-on issue now that even management is grappling with,” another Times employee said. “Everyone senses a need to come up with a plan to handle journalists’ social-media history, especially if this is going to be an ongoing problem.”
Over the past several weeks, the paper has been roiled by a number of embarrassing social-media headaches.
New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was demoted after two Twitter incidents: In one tweet, he flippantly dismissed the notion that Democratic congresswomen of color Rashida Tlaib, of Detroit, and Ilhan Omar, of Minneapolis, accurately represent the Midwest, and that civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis, of Atlanta, represents the Deep South; and in response to critical tweets on the matter from author Roxane Gay, Weisman emailed her, her assistant, and her publisher demanding an “enormous apology.”
And then earlier this week, conservative opinion writer Bret Stephens threatened a George Washington University professor who jokingly called him a “bedbug” on Twitter by emailing him (along with the school’s provost) and challenging him to “come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face.” The disproportionate response to an otherwise obscure tweet was broadly criticized online and the columnist ultimately quit Twitter as a result.
Both Twitter-based mishaps were widely mocked both inside and outside the Times building in a manner that echoed concerns of the paper’s top editor.
During a town-hall meeting with staff earlier this month, executive editor Dean Baquet expressed displeasure at the way social-media outrages had affected company morale, saying it was “painful” and destabilizing to see staffers fight or subtweet each other on Twitter. He also suggested that he was open to instituting new rules in order to keep disputes between Times employees off the social-media platform.
“I think we should tighten the rules a little, which always upsets people a little bit,” he said. “There were tweets that people at the New York Times retweeted or liked last week that were really painful for this newsroom and for me personally. So I’m gonna keep saying that, and maybe we should talk about the rules, too.”
The paper has operated under fairly strict but straightforward social-media guidelines, which it released publicly in 2017. The rules are primarily designed to “avoid expressing partisan opinions or editorializing on issues that The Times is covering,” and include restricting reporters from mocking readers or making “offensive comments.”
Nevertheless, the barrage of recent incidents on social media have left many in the organization fatigued.
Multiple staffers expressed ambivalence and frustration about the onslaught of outside interest in paper’s internal affairs. When asked about the mood inside the newsroom following Stephens’ recent blunder, one staffer quipped: “I’m so sick of talking about this shit.”
—Lachlan Cartwright contributed reporting.