For journalists, Twitter is a seductive and dangerous place. It’s a forum in which to see and be seen. Editors encourage journalists to use it in order to promote their work and build their personal brands, which in turn redound to the benefit of their employer. But the way to do that is to be edgy — and journalists who are too edgy often find themselves without a net, and sometimes without a job.
The latest journalist to run afoul of these contradictions (maybe, as we’ll see below) is Lauren Wolfe, who, until last week, was a freelance editor for The New York Times. Yashir Ali, who writes for New York magazine and HuffPost, tweeted last Thursday that Wolfe had been dismissed for tweeting “I have chills” as Joe Biden’s plane was landing in advance of the inauguration. She also tweeted and then deleted criticism that Donald Trump had refused to send a military jet to pick Biden up; that turned out not to be true.
Liberals and fellow journalists on Twitter erupted in outrage over Wolfe’s dismissal, seeing it as a sign that the Times is twisting itself into knots to avoid being accused of bias. For instance, Wesley Lowery, who left The Washington Post after he and executive editor Marty Baron clashed over Lowery’s social-media posts, tweeted, “We allow critics — of good and bad faith — to hang us by our own rope when we conflate objectivity of process with individual objectivity. Someone having or expressing an opinion does not mean they are not capable of providing fair and professional coverage on a topic.” (Lowery now works for the Marshall Project, a well-regarded nonprofit that covers criminal-justice issues.)
Virginia Heffernan, a Los Angeles Times columnist who hosts the soon-to-be-retired podcast “Trumpcast,” also came to Wolfe’s defense in a thread that compared the liberties that The New York Times allowed to swashbucklers of the past like Johnny Apple and David Carr to the locked-down mode that prevails currently. She also defended a tweet by Times contributing columnist Will Wilkinson, who was fired from his position at the Niskanen Center, a think tank, for a dumb tweet in which he joked, “If Biden really wanted unity, he’d lynch Mike Pence.” Sorry, but that’s a tweet too far. Leaving aside the fact that Wilkinson was lampooning insurrectionists who really did want to kill Pence, his tweet was wildly inappropriate, as Wilkinson himself acknowledged by apologizing.
Which brings us back to the matter of Lauren Wolfe, whose tweets strike me as innocuous and in keeping with the relief most of the nation feels at the departure of a president who incited violence against Congress in an attempt to overturn the results of the election. At most, Wolfe should have been taken aside and told, “OK, enough.” But is that really why she was let go? The Times issued a murky statement that read:
There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.
Needless to say, that does Wolfe a disservice by leading all of us to speculate what dastardly deeds she committed to warrant having her gig terminated. Ali tweeted, “There were other tweets Wolfe was warned over I’m told but so far don’t know what those tweets are.” If that’s the case, then Wolfe’s publicly getting chills over Biden could be seen as the last straw after a series of missteps. (Even so — seriously?)
In any case, there’s an argument to be made that editors shouldn’t worry about their reporters’ Twitter feeds as much as they do. The all-time classic remains a tweet by Julia Ioffe in December 2016 in which she crudely speculated that Trump was having sex with his daughter Ivanka. Ioffe had already given her notice at Politico in order to accept a job at The Atlantic. Politico terminated her employment immediately. Fortunately for Ioffe, The Atlantic honored its agreement, and she has continued to churn out good work ever since.
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