Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and the never-ending dilemma over social media

Photo (cc) 2019 by Andreas Komodromos

In what should be a surprise to no one, follow-ups show that The New York Times  fired freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after several previous incidents in which the paper’s editors believed she had violated social-media guidelines. It wasn’t just the “I have chills” tweet about President Biden. But the question remains: What was the big deal? As Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair puts it:

As the situation snowballed, there was also a palpable yearning for more information about what was behind the Times’ decision. Was Wolfe a sacrificial lamb thrown overboard in the face of bad faith criticism? Had the Times overreacted to what could be interpreted as an expression of relief given the authoritarian bullet America just dodged? Or was there more to the story?

The answer, Pompeo says, citing “a number of senior Times sources”: “Wolfe had previously been cautioned about her social media behavior. A manager gave her a warning months ago after staffers expressed discomfort with certain tweets she was told bordered on being political.”

Tom Jones of Poynter argues that Wolfe’s termination raises questions that need further exploration:

This incident once again brings into question the social media presence of journalists. When a journalist tweets, do they represent just themselves or the organization they work for, as well? Can someone’s work be questioned over something they post on Facebook? Is a journalist always “on the clock,” even when they are tweeting personal thoughts?

Finally, Wolfe herself speaks to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post. And what she has to say casts doubt on the idea that her previous transgressions played any role in her firing. Wemple writes:

Months ago, recalls Wolfe, she received a warning from the same manager about her Twitter activity; as an example, he cited a tweet in which, Wolfe says, she’d connected the resistance of conservative men to wearing masks to “toxic masculinity.” She deleted the tweet. But, according to Wolfe, the manager said her posts in general were “borderline” and that other Times staffers had done “worse.” Last week’s tweet was “the only reason they fired me,” Wolfe says.

Wemple also describes as “dreadful” the Times statement (see previous item) in which management said it would respect her privacy while not respecting her privacy. It surely is that. By insinuating that Wolfe was fired for something much worse than the “chills” tweet, the Times harmed Wolfe’s reputation and made it more difficult for her to move on to her next job.

The Times is known for having strict guidelines about its straight-news journalists expressing opinions on social media. If, in fact, Wolfe proved incorrigible after previous warnings, then I suppose the Times acted appropriately, even though it still strikes me as an extreme reaction to a pretty harmless tweet.

It also appears that Times management reacted as much to the outrage stirred up by the gadfly journalist Glenn Greenwald and others as it did to Wolfe’s actual tweet. According to Pompeo, Wolfe was told that her tweet had sparked an outcry, and “we can’t have that.” For what it’s worth, Greenwald says Wolfe shouldn’t have been fired.

Earlier:

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5 thoughts on “Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and the never-ending dilemma over social media

  1. nahantjim

    I think it would be better for all concerned to tell newspaper reporters and other journalists to inactivate their twitter accounts for the duration of their employment. It is a medium that invites publishing one’s least considered thoughts even though Trump saw it as a means of governing.

    Speaking of whom…you mention “Virginia Heffernan, a Los Angeles Times columnist who hosts the soon-to-be-retired podcast ‘Trumpcast,'”

    Trump is not going away. He will continue to be a political phenomenon with considerable influence, especially if, as now expected, Senators from his current party will not vote to convict him. The danger has not passed. The need to offset his corrosive influence continues to be needed. One should not underestimate his creativity when it comes to malevolence.

  2. MagellanNH

    I’m just a consumer of journalism and I’m not an expert in all the teachings and traditions of the profession. However, to me journalism is fundamentally a truth-seeking process that does its best to neutralize the built-in bias that every reporter and editor brings to every story that’s published. I think of a robust journalistic enterprise as similar to the scientific process in this regard.

    It’s not just the job of the journalist to strip out the bias from their reporting, rather it’s the job of the journalistic process. Personally, I find it much easier to contextualize a reporter’s work when I know more about their politics and their own biases. This makes it easier for me to evaluate how well the neutralizing process has worked when I’m reading a particular article.

    IMO, every journalistic enterprise has to continuously set a top priority between either unabashed truth-seeking and “helping to improve society,” however the organization defines that.

    For me, the problem with the NYT is not that their journalists have biases and reveal them on Twitter. Rather, it’s that the NYT as an organization often seems to prioritize truth-seeking below some opaque and often fuzzy goal of “making society better.”

  3. Steve Ross

    As a journalist who reveres and values the NYT, I note its distaste for covering its home town (except for topics that elites care about), and its biases and stupidity covering the industry I cover (broadband). Its business coverage tends to “whatever is good for Wall Street is good for the economy.” See, for example https://www.bbcmag.com/multifamily-broadband/bandwidth-hawk-respect

    In that context, I suspect the tweet was just an excuse for the boss to act on a personality clash. Did anyone at NYT get fired for not covering the primary campaign in Queens that elected AOC?

  4. Pingback: Well, of course Lauren Wolfe has launched a Substack – Media Nation

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