The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.
Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”
I just removed a retweet of an offensive joke. I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm.
CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.
Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.
Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.
Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.
The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:
The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.
Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.
You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.
Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.
We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.
It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.
The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.
It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.
In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.
The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.
Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.
Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.
Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.
I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)
Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”
Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.
And now The Associated Press has made a bad situation worse — responding to the petition by its own journalists about the firing of Emily Wilder by saying it will embark on a months-long review of its social media policy. Worse, the AP pulled Wilder out from beneath the bus so it could throw her under it again. The AP’s David Bauder reports:
The news leaders said sharing more information was difficult: the company does not publicly discuss personnel issues to protect the privacy of staff.
“We can assure you that much of the coverage and commentary does not accurately portray a difficult decision we did not make lightly,” the memo said. It did not make clear what information was reported inaccurately.
Also worth noting is that the AP’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who’ll soon take over the top editor’s job at The Washington Post, says she had nothing to do with Wilder’s firing and sounds disinclined to intervene. According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, “She tells NPR as a result [of her pending move to the Post] that she had handed off her duties and had nothing to do with this decision.”
The Associated Press’ decision to fire a just-graduated college student because of her pro-Palestinian social media posts raises some important issues for those of us who teach journalism.
The AP claims that it ended Emily Wilder’s stint as a news associate in Phoenix solely because of her tweets during two weeks on the job. That would be bad enough. After all, Wilder is 22 and at the very beginning of her career. In what world would it not make more sense to sit her down, explain what she was doing wrong, and let her off with a warning? Unfortunately, based on the evidence, it seems likely that her posts on behalf of Palestinian rights back when she was a Stanford student were an issue as well, especially when an online right-wing mob came after her.
Students in my ethics classes talked about Twitter a lot during the past year. I found the case of Alexis Johnson to be particularly useful in illustrating the dilemma that journalists face. Johnson, you may recall, was banned from reporting on Black Lives Matter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after she tweeted a harmless joke comparing littering at a Kenny Chesney concert to the trash left behind at racial-justice protests.
Some of my students were adamant that journalists should be free to tweet what they like — that they have a First Amendment right to express themselves on their own time just like anyone else. What I tried to convey to them was that Johnson’s situation was a lot more complicated than that. No, journalists may not tweet anything they like. Straight-news reporters can’t tweet their opinions about people and issues they cover.
The problem with the Post-Gazette wasn’t that Johnson had a right to tweet anything as she saw fit, but that her tweet was innocuous. It seemed pretty clear that she was being punished because she was Black and because she had a mind of her own. The absurdity of what happened to her led to an uproar at the paper and in the community. Johnson eventually left, and today she’s in a high-profile position at Vice News.
So the message for Emily Wilder is no, you can’t tweet just anything. And though the Phoenix bureau was as far as you can get from the conflict in the Middle East, the AP is a worldwide news organization. Management is within its rights to insist that its reporters not express opinions about issues in the news. The problem was its absurd overreaction, which had all the appearances of a craven attempt to appease its critics on the right.
Which leads me to a more difficult issue — the question of whether someone’s social media activities as a student should be held against them when they enter the work world. My first instinct is to say no. How careful are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds supposed to be when commenting on the news? Even if they aspire to work for a news organization, that’s in the future. They should be judged by their performance on the job, not by the views they expressed before being hired.
But I’m not sure we live in that world anymore. Disproportionate though the Wilder firing may have been, the AP is one of the largest news organizations in the world, reportedly employing about 3,300 people. I don’t think I can tell my students that they should continue to tweet controversial opinions without any fear of the consequences. What if they have a chance to get a job with the AP some day? Or another news organization with a retrograde social-media policy but that is otherwise a place they would like to work?
Few observers seem to think the AP got this right. A group of AP employees is circulating a petition calling the agency to task. Among other things, they say:
We strongly disapprove of the way the AP has handled the firing of Emily Wilder and its dayslong silence internally. We demand more clarity from the company about why Wilder was fired. It remains unclear — to Wilder herself as well as staff at large — how she violated the social media policy while employed by the AP….
Wilder was a young journalist, unnecessarily harmed by the AP’s handling and announcement of its firing of her. We need to know that the AP would stand behind and provide resources to journalists who are the subject of smear campaigns and online harassment. As journalists who cover contentious subjects, we are often the target of people unhappy with scrutiny. What happens when they orchestrate a smear campaign targeting another one of us?
The AP’s own account of what happened says that Wilder was terminated “for violations of its social media policy that took place after she became an employee.” But Wilder herself told David Bauder, the AP reporter who wrote the story, that she believed her firing had more to do with the harassment campaign against her, which was mainly based on her more caustic tweets from when she was a student. And she told Jeremy Barr of The Washington Post: “This was a result of the campaign against me. To me, it feels like AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals.”
As it happens, the incoming executive editor of the Post, Sally Buzbee, is currently the executive editor of the AP. It’s unimaginable that she was involved in the firing of a low-level employee like Wilder. But she’s certainly seen what a mess this has devolved into, and it’s well within her power to do something about it. The AP committed a serious misstep, and failing to address it isn’t going to make it go away.
My message to my students remains the same. There are a number of activities that journalists simply can’t take part in, such as making campaign contributions, putting a candidate’s sign on their lawn, becoming an activist on a contentious social issue — or tweeting opinions that they would never be allowed to express in the regular course of doing their job.
And as much as I would like to think that they shouldn’t be held to account for what they said as students, we have all entered a new reality. Rehiring Emily Wilder would be a positive step toward reassuring journalism students everywhere that common sense still exists, and that a great news organization like the AP isn’t going to be intimidated into doing the wrong thing.
The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.
Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.
Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?