The New York Times Public Editor's Alt-Right Blindspot
A reporter’s simple retweet landed him at the center of an alt-right harassment campaign—so why is he the one apologizing?
What happens when your newspaper’s public editor, the person in charge of finding out what happened when your newspaper messes up, messes up?
That appears to be what happened to New York Times public editor Liz Spayd in her Friday ombudswoman column, in which she publicly rebuked Times Culture writer Sopan Deb for a benign tweet that put him at the center of an alt-right harassment campaign. Spayd didn’t even mention the source of the harassment campaign that flooded her inbox, a noted Pizzagate conspiracy theorist whom The New Yorker described as a “champion” of the Gamergate movement and who has said “date rape does not exist.”
In fact, Spayd doesn’t even mention in the story that the harassment campaign was going on.
On Wednesday, Deb retweeted a tweet from the rapper Bow Wow, who posted that President Trump should stop attacking Snoop Dogg on Twitter “before we pimp your wife and make her work for us.” Trump had denounced Snoop earlier in the week for releasing a music video that depicts the rapper shooting a cartoon-style toy gun at a clown dressed as the president.
Deb didn’t publicly endorse or renounce the tweet, instead making a pun that “The outrage from @BreitbarkNews is going to be through the woof.”
“Breitbark News” is a parody Twitter account that posts jokes about dogs in the tone of pro-Trump media outlet Breitbart.
Still, all day Wednesday and Thursday, alt-right ringleader Mike Cernovich repeatedly told his followers that it’s “important to let human trafficking orgs know that @SopanDeb and NY Times think slavery is hilarious” and imploring his readers to “let the Public Editor know.” He referred to Deb as endorsing “rape culture in the NY Times newsroom” and continually said the tweet promoted “human trafficking.”
Once again, Deb, a culture writer at the Times, tweeted one pun about dogs.
Spayd, seemingly unaware of the power of targeted harassment campaigns on Twitter, or of the source behind the rage against Deb, publicly denounced the retweet that made it “into the public editor’s inbox on Thursday.”
“Amid the thousands of tweets that fly from the keyboards of journalists every day, occasionally comes one that sets off an alarm: ‘Whoops. Should I have said that?’” she wrote. “Wednesday afternoon, that bell should have sounded shortly after a New York Times culture writer, Sopan Deb, reacted to a vulgar tweet by the rapper Bow Wow with a comment Deb now wishes he hadn’t made.”
It is not the first time Cernovich has accused someone of supporting human trafficking and rape culture with no evidence whatsoever. He was one of the primary propagators on Twitter of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which is the belief that leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta unveil a wide scale pedophilia ring if one were to replace words like “cheese” with “little girl” and “pasta” with “little boy.”
In December, as the outlandish theory migrated from Cernovich’s account to conspiracy websites like InfoWars and picked up steam on Reddit and Twitter, armed gunman Edgar M. Welch fired shots into a Washington D.C. pizza shop because he believed it contained a “pedo ring.” The subreddit devoted to the conspiracy was then banned by Reddit executives, and InfoWars began quietly pulling articles and videos related to the movement.
Cernovich is a known provocateur, whose tweets like “Who cares about breast cancer and rape? Not me” appeared in a New Yorker profile last year. “I use trolling tactics to build my brand,” he said in the piece.
Spayd neglected to mention Cernovich or his coordinated effort within the piece, instead saying the overreaction to Deb’s tweet was “expressing a sentiment shared by many.”
In truth, her inbox was simply overwhelmed by trolls sent by an alt-right Twitter account, a tactic that’s become increasingly popular since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, but one Spayd failed to recognize.
Efforts to reach Spayd by The Daily Beast went unreturned at press time.
The Daily Beast asked Cernovich by email if he really believes Deb supports "human trafficking" and "rape culture" because he made a dog pun above a Bow Wow tweet.
He emailed back a series of questions in return, asking if Deb would have “made the same “‘joke’ if a Trump-supporting celebrity had threatened to pimp out Michelle Obama?”
“Where are the feminists? Silent as usual, because conservative women (or even women married to conservatives) are fair game for attacks and even criminal threats,” he said. “This is why we do not respect you and other fake news outlets. You obsess over the Tweets of Trump supporters but say nothing when a criminal threatens to kidnap and enslave a woman.”
Cernovich then went back to lightly prodding Bow Wow.
“P.S.” he wrote. “Lil' Bow Wow is a studio gangster.”