Jennifer Rubin gets burned with her not-off-the-record email to Politico

Jennifer Rubin

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin ignored one of the most basic rules of going off the record this week — and got burned as a result.

Politico’s West Wing Playbook on Thursday ran a longish item on Rubin’s favorable coverage of the Biden White House, including her adopting some of the same complaints about media coverage used by administration officials.

“One Post employee said some people in the newsroom are increasingly frustrated that Rubin is parroting the administration’s critiques of the media, which they believe emboldens the administration to push back on journalists even further,” write Politico’s Alex Thompson and Nick Niedzwiadek. “Two others say they just try to ignore her or don’t read her columns.”

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Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they contacted Rubin for comment, and she responded with an email whose subject line was “OFF THE RECORD.” They proceeded to publish her response in full:

How utterly predictable that Politico would run the zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman, especially one candid in her critiques of Politico’s hysterical, clickbait style of coverage. The notion that I am polarizing in a newsroom (as opposed to any of the dozens of other opinion writers) is a “take” only Politico could come up with — by of course running around to ask the question in the first place. I trust the Post’s superb news side folks spend zero time thinking about me (as is entirely appropriate). My only surprise is that Sam [Stein, POLITICO’s White House editor], a very good journalist, would become enmeshed in such an obviously misogynistic publication. Surely there are finer publications that would have him.

And btw, what a low class move to do this on Yom Kippur at the last moment.

So what’s going on here? Both parties have to agree in order for something to be off the record. Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they had no such agreement with Rubin — she simply sent her email assuming they would respect her wishes. They didn’t, nor should they. Journalists sometimes going along with such requests, especially if they come from a source with whom they have a longstanding relationship. But it should never be taken for granted. Rubin knows that, of course, and I wonder if she wrote her response half-expecting that Politico would use it.

In case you’re not familiar with her, Rubin has morphed over the years from a staunch conservative to a Never Trump conservative and now into a moderate liberal.

Finally, the Politico item is very Politico, snarky and assuming without evidence that Rubin is somehow acting in bad faith by writing favorably about President Biden and agreeing with the White House’s often-valid gripes about the media. Without her not-off-the-record quote, it wouldn’t be worth a read.

Facebook’s tortured relationship with journalism gets a few more tweaks

Facebook has long had a tortured relationship with journalism. When I was reporting for “The Return of the Moguls” in 2015 and ’16, news publishers were embracing Instant Articles, news stories that would load quickly but that would also live on Facebook’s platform rather than the publisher’s.

The Washington Post was so committed to the project that it published every single piece of content as an Instant Article. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief technologist, would talk about the “Facebook barbell,” a strategy that aimed to convert users at the Facebook end of the barbell into paying subscribers at the Post end.

Instant Articles never really went away, but enthusiasm waned — especially when, in 2018, Facebook began downgrading news in its algorithm in favor of posts from family and friends.

Nor was that the first time Facebook pulled a bait-and-switch. Earlier it had something called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to develop apps that would live within that space. Then, in 2012, it made changes that resulted in a collapse in traffic. Former Post digital editor David Beard told me that’s when he began turning his attention to newsletters, which the Post could control directly rather than having to depend on Mark Zuckerberg’s whims.

Now they’re doing it again. Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review reports that Facebook is experimenting with its news feed to see what the effect would be of showing users less political news as well as the way it measures how users interact with the site. The change, needless to say, comes after years of controversy over Facebook’s role in promoting misinformation and disinformation about politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure Zuckerberg would be very happy if Facebook could serve solely as a platform for people to share uplifting personal news and cat photos. It would make his life a lot easier. But I’m also sure that he would be unwilling to see Facebook’s revenues drop even a little in order to make that happen. Remember that story about Facebook tweaking its algorithm to favor reliable news just before the 2020 election — and then changing it back afterwards because they found that users spent less time on the platform? So he keeps trying this and that, hoping to alight up on the magic formula that will make him and his company less hated, and less likely to be hauled before congressional committees, without hurting his bottom line.

One of the latest efforts is his foray into local news. If Facebook can be a solution to the local news crisis, well, what’s not to like? Earlier this year Facebook and Substack announced initiatives to bring local news projects to their platforms for some very, very short money.

Earlier today, Sarah Scire of the Nieman Journalism Lab profiled some of the 25 local journalists who are setting up shop on Bulletin, Facebook’s new newsletter platform. They seem like an idealistic lot, with about half the newsletters being produced by journalists of color. But there are warning signs. Scire writes:

Facebook says it’s providing “licensing fees” to the local journalists as part of a “multi-year commitment” but spokesperson Erin Miller would not specify how much the company is paying the writers or for how long. The company has said it won’t take a cut of subscription revenue “for the length of these partnerships.” But, again, it’s not saying how long those partnerships will last.

How long will Facebook’s commitment to local news last before it goes the way of the Social Reader and Instant Articles? I don’t like playing the cynic, especially about a program that could help community journalists and the audiences they serve. But cynicism about Facebook is the only stance that seems realistic after years of bad behavior and broken promises.

The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

A lawsuit against The Washington Post reignites the debate over objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905

The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.

Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Darcy and New York Times reporter Katie Robertson report that Baron has declined to comment on the case.

I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.

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What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.

Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”

Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”

What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.

There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.

In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.

Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.

Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

Major news outlets are running a tobacco company’s ads on their websites

More than two decades after cigarette ads began disappearing from newspapers, major news organizations are running ads on their websites from tobacco giant Philip Morris touting the company’s research into smoke-free tobacco products.

I began reporting this piece after an alert reader called my attention to an ad in The Boston Globe titled “Science leading to a smoke-free future,” which appeared over the weekend and was in rotation as recently as Monday. But in Googling around, it didn’t take long to find that similar Philip Morris ads have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. No doubt they’ve appeared in many other outlets, too.

These are not ads that were automatically served up to news websites by Google. Rather, they are sponsored content, produced in collaboration with the news organization that publishes them. Such content, also known as “native advertising,” use type and layout that differ from the typical presentation. It’s also accompanied by disclosures that it was paid for by the advertisers and that the news and editorial departments had no involvement in its production.

Regular readers know that I’m a defender of native ads as long as there is sufficient disclosure, and I have no problem with the way these news organizations handle them. But partnering with a major tobacco company on an ad promoting research into tobacco products? Really?

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These ads appear under the byline of Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris. Some excerpts from the Globe version:

We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarette sales with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which — while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke….

The fundamental principle that drives our scientific work is the widely accepted fact that nicotine — while addictive and not risk-free — is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It’s the burning of tobacco that creates the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke — which is why from the outset we design our smoke-free products to eliminate burning, thus eliminating smoke while providing an alternative that smokers find acceptable and will actually use.

According to Michael Moore of Australia’s George Institute for Public Health in Australia, and a past president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the Philip Morris ads are the latest in a series of tactics by Big Tobacco to win acceptance for e-cigarettes. In an article he wrote last year for the European Journal of Public Health, he identified other tactics employed by the tobacco companies as “use of the term ‘harm reduction,’” social-media attacks on critics, hiring lobbyists, and touting e-cigarettes as a method for quitting smoking. According to a summary of his article:

Tobacco companies face an ever-increasing rate of marginalisation. They use eCigarettes as an opportunity to improve their credibility. In the past it was “just filter it” and “light cigarettes”. More recently, Philip Morris established a “Foundation for a Smoke-free World” pumping millions of dollars into distorting arguments about harm reduction.

And, yes, Moore gives Gilchrist a shoutout: “To enhance arguments, Big Tobacco has deployed public health figures like Dr Derek Yach and Dr Moira Gilchrist.”

When I asked Megan Arendt, a spokeswoman for the anti-tobacco organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), about the Philip Morris ads, she told me by email: “In a perfect world, vapes would only be marketed to (and sold to) adult people who smoke. But given their clear history of targeting children, an ad ban should include all tobacco products.”

The Philip Morris ad doesn’t promote smoking or even vaping, which has its own health risks. (On Monday, Juul reached a $40 million settlement with North Carolina over a lawsuit charging that the vaping company marketed to kids. Massachusetts is suing as well.) But the ad does talk about “ensuring our smoke-free products deliver a consistent aerosol” — so the intended user of the products being developed would still be inhaling.

Cigarette advertising is legal in U.S. newspapers. The papers couldn’t be banned from accepting such ads because of First Amendment protections, but the tobacco companies themselves could be prohibited from advertising. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (yes, everything really does go back to Nixon) signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, but those are regulated media.

The New York Times banned cigarette ads in April 1999, but said the policy didn’t apply to other papers it owned, which at that time included the Globe. That July, the Globe’s then-ombudsman, Jack Thomas, took his bosses to task and called for the Globe to follow the example set by the Times and other papers. He wrote that “publishers are still in conflict, still seduced by the revenue from tobacco ads but also uneasy in the role of a siren luring readers into a deathtrap.”

My research trail went cold after I found the Thomas piece, but at some point the Globe stopped accepting cigarette ads, as did virtually all other newspapers. As ASH’s Arendt says, the Globe — and every media outlet — should take the next step and refuse to accept ads for tobacco products. Claims that the products are only intended for adults who want a safer alternative to smoking are nice, but you know what? They’ll find those products without the complicity of news organizations.

It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.

We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.

Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:

• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.

• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.

“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”

Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”

In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.

Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.

But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.

President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.

But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.

We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.

No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.

Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.

In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.

The AP throws Emily Wilder under the bus — 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.

Good Lord.

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 AP overreacted in firing a young journalist. It’s not too late to undo the damage.

Emily Wilder. Photo via LinkedIn.

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.

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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.

Yes, Trump officials spied on reporters. But every president abuses the press.

Photo (cc) 2018 by Adam Fagen

Previously published at GBH News.

The revelation last week that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records barely caused a stir. But as much as I’d like to think that such behavior would shock the conscience, I can understand why the story failed to resonate. It was, after all, the sort of thing that all administrations do. To invoke a pandemic cliché, it was a sign that nature is healing.

Not to sound cynical and world-weary. We should be outraged. We should be shouting from the rooftops. When the government uses its awesome legal powers to stymie journalists who are trying to do their jobs, we lose our ability to hold the powerful to account. The incident would stand as yet another example of former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies — except that, at least in this instance, his actions were right in line with those of his predecessors.

As Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, “it’s not ‘bothsidesism’ to call out loathsome things that both sides are actually doing.”

So what happened? Devlin Barrett of the Post reported last Friday night that the Justice Department informed current Post journalists Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and former Post journalist Adam Entous that their phone records had been obtained, and their email logs had been unsuccessfully sought, for mid-April through July of 2017. The phone records showed whom the reporters were in contact with but did not reveal the contents of the calls.

There are a few details that make this particular exercise of executive power especially disturbing. The three reporters were delving into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the period in question. The records were sought in 2020, when the attorney general was Trump enabler William Barr. Thus the incident could be seen as part of Trump’s long-standing obsession with covering up his ties to Russian interests.

In other respects, though, it was business as usual.

I wrote a commentary in 2012 for HuffPost headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” It’s a matter of public record that Barack Obama, during his eight-year presidency, showed a shocking lack of regard for the role of the press in a free society. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, were obsessed with identifying government officials who had leaked sensitive or embarrassing information to the press. One reporter, James Risen of The New York Times, was threatened with jail for several years.

The Obama years were extreme but not exceptional. Previously, then-Times reporter Judith Miller actually did a stint behind bars for refusing to cooperate with an independent counsel’s investigation into possible wrongdoing by officials in George W. Bush’s administration: Someone had publicly identified a CIA operative in apparent retaliation for an op-ed (oops, guest essay) her husband had written for the Times that accused officials of ignoring evidence contradicting their claim that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.

At least in that case, Bush had nothing to do with the investigation that landed Miller in jail. But Bush hardly had clean hands. After the Times reported that Bush’s National Security Agency was illegally spying on Americans, Bush denounced the paper’s work as “a shameful act,” and people around him urged that the Times be prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its revelations.

Of course, Richard Nixon’s attempts to retaliate against the press were legendary, ranging from including hostile reporters on his “enemies list” to threatening to strip The Washington Post of its television stations.

A central dilemma in all of these cases is that though the First Amendment offers robust protections for anything that the media might publish or broadcast, it is relatively silent on protections for reporting. In Branzburg v. Hayes, the 1972 decision that reporters do not have a constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources, Justice Byron White wrote that “news gathering is not without its First Amendment protections.” As a general rule, though, reporters have no more protections in going about their jobs than do ordinary members of the public.

Will the situation improve under President Biden? Not likely. As the CJR’s Allsop pointed out, the Biden Justice Department didn’t just inform the three Post journalists that they had been spied upon — it went out of its way to endorse the practice. Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the current Justice Department, was quoted in the Post’s account as saying that the department “follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

Raimondi added — shades of Obama and Holder — that “the targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

With public approval for the media near record lows, and with the courts unlikely to carve out any new protections for journalism, it’s not realistic to think that things are going to change for the better any time soon.

At the very least, though, the president could issue guidance to his Justice Department, backed up with a strong public statement, that the government will not spy on, subpoena or prosecute journalists except under the most dire life-and-death circumstances.

Biden appears to be intent on breaking with his predecessors in many ways, especially regarding the size and scope of government. Respecting the role of the press would be one way that he could ensure greater scrutiny of that government on behalf of all of us.