Pricing access to the Trump White House: the strange case of the Times social media policy

"Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs."

12 Nov 2017 9:56 am 23 Comments

Follow these events with me. Then I will share my view of what is going on here.

On Sep. 17, Glenn Thrush, White House reporter for the New York Times, posted this on Twitter:

Here is what the leader of the free world was then re-tweeting: a crudely doctored video clip showing Donald Trump hitting a golf shot and the shot knocking over Hillary Clinton. Hashtag #CrookedHillary:

Thrush had an aggressive style on Twitter. He said what he thought. He was abrasive and entertaining. He fought with critics when he felt they were wrong. (Including me.) He liked to tell people he had come up through the world of the New York tabloids and retained that brawling spirit, in contrast to the more genteel style of his current employer, the New York Times.

The day after the acidity of his “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” comment, Thrush announced he was quitting Twitter:

He later decided not to delete his account, but he did sign off. His last post was Sep. 18.

Twenty-four days later, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, was asked about Thrush quitting Twitter. He didn’t mourn the loss of voice. “I’ve spent full days policing our social media,” he complained.

Baquet said he wants it to be clear to the public that the paper’s motivation is “journalistically sound” and not part of “a vendetta” against the president. “I can’t do that if I have 100 people working for the New York Times sending inappropriate tweets,” he said. Baquet said the Times is “going to come up with a tougher policy.”

The next day the new policy appeared, a published document. It called on Times journalists to “take extra care to avoid expressing partisan opinions or editorializing on issues that The Times is covering.” It said that social media “plays a vital role” in Times journalism, but also presents risks. “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.”

Under “key points” these warnings were found:

• In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.

• Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.

• These guidelines apply to everyone in every department of the newsroom, including those not involved in coverage of government and politics.

Here the Guidelines swerved to include the voice of Peter Baker, senior White House correspondent for the Times who is not known for his dexterity on social platforms. (Thrush has three times as many followers on Twitter, Maggie Haberman 6X.) Baker spoke not about social media but his concern for what the White House thinks:

It’s important to remember that tweets about President Trump by our reporters and editors are taken as a statement from The New York Times as an institution, even if posted by those who do not cover him. The White House doesn’t make a distinction. In this charged environment, we all need to be in this together.

You not only had to watch what you say but what you linked to. To stay on the right side of the policy, you had to be aware of where your links were headed, and distribute the destinations around.

• If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually appropriate. But consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.

“Ask yourself these questions,” the Times told its journalists.

1. Would you express similar views in an article on The Times’s platforms?

2. Would someone who reads your post have grounds for believing that you are biased on a particular issue?

3. If readers see your post and notice that you’re a Times journalist, would that affect their view of The Times’s news coverage as fair and impartial?

4. Could your post hamper your colleagues’ ability to effectively do their jobs?

5. If someone were to look at your entire social media feed, including links and retweets, would they have doubts about your ability to cover news events in a fair and impartial way?

The typical reaction of Times reporters to the new policy was supportive— and minimizing. No big deal. The guidelines were said to be “common sense” and a mere codification of what smart journalists already do. (Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo: “It’s mostly fine. It could have been worse?”)

Among journalists who do not work at the Times other points escaped. David Uberti, formerly of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in Splinter:

Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs. The new policy reads less like a covenant with readers who view the paper as a trustworthy news source than a response to bad-faith critics who never will—providing a playbook for trolls to attack journalists at the Times and elsewhere. The policy, which was created by a team of reporters and editors in the newsroom, puts a high premium on the appearance of objectivity.

Here’s Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, who, unlike Peter Baker, is a force on Twitter:

Nick Baumann, an editor at the Huffington Post, said: “NYT’s new social media rules, like many of its policies, start from the idea that it’s important to hide reporters’ true views from readers. As a loyal subscriber, I’d like to know more, not less, about the views + biases of the reporters I’m reading.”

Jump cut to last week. Dean Baquet is speaking at Temple University in Philadelphia. Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute is there and tweeting out nuggets from his talk, including this:

Mustn’t make things hard for Maggie. If the White House staff is complaining, ‘you don’t like us,’ then we’ve got a problem, folks!

Now let us pull our chairs closer to the fire so we can see what we’re saying. And let me add: these events can support different interpretations. I am pretty sure people at the Times will disagree with mine. (UPDATE: they do.) A week ago I posted this on Twitter:

I think all these things are connected. The Times is slipping behind its longtime rival, the Washington Post, because it is reacting more from fear of criticism than strength of insight. Responsibility has to return to Dean Baquet, the top editor, who is leading the charge, so to speak, toward caution and phony consensus.

I say “phony” because while almost everyone can agree that an entirely gratuitous opinion (snark) deserves to be edited out of the social feeds of Times reporters, there is no agreement at all on whether Glenn Thrush’s acerbic “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” is 1.) fair comment by a White House reporter objectively aware that no previous president would have endorsed such vulgar imagery, or 2.) a clear example of anti-Trump animus, likely to be seized on by the President’s supporters to show there’s a vendetta by Times reporters against their guy.

“Classy retweet by the leader of the free world” really means “no previous president would have done this, because it’s sophomoric and tarnishes the office.” This is a fact, a true statement, the very thing the Times is officially committed to upholding. But it’s a fact that reflects poorly on the current occupant of the White House, which means the White House is likely to push back on it. The newsroom of the New York Times is supposed to be constructed to resist such pressures.

But when it comes to social media, Dean Baquet has inexplicably chosen a different path. His view: The newsroom should be disciplined and guided, not by what’s true or verifiable as fact, not by what Times journalists believe in their bones, but by the things hostile critics might say upon discovery of a voicey tweet. This decision is a disaster, not because the right to commit snark is vital to preserve (it isn’t…) but because the Times, to be great, has to be great on all platforms, and there is no way that will happen if social media policy is grounded in impression management and conflict avoidance, rather than truthtelling, leveling with readers, and the flicker of magic in the human voice.

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence— in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Meanwhile, the Times seems more concerned that Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman will lose access to… well, that’s the problem. Access to what? If it’s this kind of journalism — and stenography would be a fair and accurate term for this text — then something is very wrong in the hierarchy of the New York Times. And that again returns to Baquet, who is being outplayed by his rival, Marty Baron at the Post.

I keep coming back to these words: If our journalists are perceived as biased… that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom. Dean Baquet — who approved these words and made them law — doesn’t seem to realize that if the perception of critics can edit the actions of his staff then he has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so. This is part of a larger problem in mainstream journalism, which is unable to think politically because it is constantly accused of acting politically by hyper-partisan critics peddling fixed ideas.

Phrases like “be especially mindful of appearing to take sides” (emphasis on appearing) are paralyzing and stupid in an asymmetrically polarized climate where journalists are treated as a hate objects by the president of the United States and honest reporting is dismissed as fabrication by Trump and his supporters.

Finally, if how to kindle trust in the mainstream press is today a hard case, I have to question any theory of the case that seeks to center the reputation of the New York Times on the viewlessness of its reporters and the neutrality of their takes. I think it far more likely that trust will in the years ahead be earned through some creative combination of “here’s where we’re coming from,” very high standards of verification, “show your work,” and “what did we miss?”

Trust production along these lines would treat social media not as a threat to the appearance of neutrality, which is how Dean Baquet sees it, but as a vital skill that top journalists have to master in order to support the mother ship. Instead of lecturing the rest of the staff on how hard they are making it for Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman to gain access to a hostile White House, Baquet and his deputies should be figuring how to get Glenn Thrush back on Twitter so he can level with us about the Trump regime.

23 Comments

Hear, hear.

Like you, I’m a New Yorker who has made the switch from the Times to reading the WaPo first and foremost, at least for political news. I still have a Times subscription at least for now, but I also subscribed to WaPo for the first time.

That Thrush tweet seems fine to me: Sure it’s in a forceful, telegraphic style (as befits Twitter), but the embedded assumptions in it — and everything has embedded assumptions to some degree — are pretty innocuous compared to your average “straight news” political piece in the Times. It reads to my ear like something which many conservative commentators (e.g. Allahpundit) could have tweeted.

In general, I’d say the coverage of Trump at the Times is simultaneously the harshest and the most generous of any president in decades. Arguably, their coverage of Clinton 20 years ago — when they were all but pushing for his impeachment (despite the public’s opposition) over his affair with Lewinsky and lying about it — was harsher, but that was ungenerous to say the least.

Baquet, Baker et al want to argue they’re giving it to us straight up. But the reality is they have their thumbs heavily on the scale, trying to make an unbalanced situation look balanced, apparently for access though I wonder if that’s the whole story. For whatever reason, they were heavily unbalanced before the 2016 election too: For example, they heavily touted Clinton Foundation stories that vaguely insinuated wrongdoing (sourced from Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute), while burying stories about much more evidently and deeply problematic behavior with Trump’s foundation. I guess maybe that imbalance too can be viewed as a compromise for access.

Good article but misses a few points. Dean’s dictums are signs of every marginally competent, corporate politics savvy manager out there. React with wrong solution to the wrong problem designed only to show being in control to defend against criticism or react to pressure from the top.

NYT’s management problems/failures strategically are:
1. It is trying to differentiate itself from CNN rather than WP like WSJ is trying to from Fox News than from NYT.
2. Its stated position of fairness and balance is illusory, not in the extreme way its critics portray but in what they choose to (or not to) cover and the tone in which they cover it if they do. This has been true for decades. This is lost on its partisan audience and extrapolated to logical extremes by its critics, so it is fighting a losing battle of appearances.
3. Its social media policy for its own official feed headlines, designed more as clickbait than of information, either misleads or appears tone deaf. It bolsters the critics and discourages supporters who only read the Twitter feed of headlines only in most cases to express opinions on the paper itself.
4. Like the above article, it misses the difference between style and substance of its journalists’ tweets. The example of Glenn’s tweet illustrates this. A tweet that was direct in stating the interpretation as done here should be allowed but the original tweet had a sarcastic tone that gets its critics riled enough to push back (whether it was intended or not). This is unnecessary from a corporate image perspective. This is the problem Dean needed to solve, NOT banning tweets that may be interpreted as partisan. But incompetent managers seldom understand such nuances in issues. So they come down with a big hammer to show they are the boss doing decisive things.

I could go on but US journalism can take many lessons from UK journalism, in particular from The Economist, who are very opinionated and have strong ideological bent but can seldom be accused of intellectual dishonesty by supporters or critics when they opine across ideological divides. Can’t say the same about NYT. Paul Krugman’s knee-jerk articles and headlines undermine the very appearance NYT is trying hard to maintain. Labeling news and opinion is lost in the battle for appearances.

WP is doing a much better job by focusing on what these institutions do best, dig up informations that tabloid journalism like CNN or Fox cannot and have less emphasis on cultivating journalist personalities online which the Economist does to an extreme. So they don’t have the same problems as NYT.

Edwin Mix says:

Are NYT reporters allowed to vigorously oppose adults having sex with 1r year old girls or is this now also considered to be an appearance of bias?

Jack Kelly says:

NYT has (finally) the right idea. After all, why have an Opinion page if the entire paper is made up of opinion?

Agreed. Times should start printing facts and not opinions:

https://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/uploader/image/2016/10/30/nytsat.png

It isn’t a reporters job to “oppose” anything and this expectation by their audience is precisely where their problem is. Newspapers have implicitly, for commercial reasons, led their customers to believe that they are “fighting” for them, so the audience can be on the sidelines cheering. This has led the newspapers to be mixed up in partisan battles.

One can also see this as a failures of journalism schools in the same way, the financial meltdown earlier can be seen as a failure of Economics schools.

The reporters investigate and dig up information, analyze (for factual correctness, correlation with other data, etc), and report on things which allows an informed audience to form an opinion and act on it, to support or oppose. This doesn’t necessarily mean non-partisan which is fine as long as the journalism is intellectually honest in not putting out lies or committing errors of omission. Two newspapers on opposing sides but doing the same intellectually honest reporting for their side is actually a good thing than this illusory appearance of being balanced and fair. This is the norm in many of the nations outside US.

This is a failure of journalism schools to advance thoughts in this direction and set standards and expectations of what is acceptable and unacceptable even when one is taking sides (in what they seek out for information not in spinning) politically or ideologically.

You can’t say simultaneously that it isn’t the job of a reporter to “oppose” anything while at the same time insisting that the job of journalism is to analyze facts for correctness. If the latter is true, than reporters *must* take a strong stand against the propagation of falsehoods, which means actively contradicting and opposing public figures who say false and misleading things.

Only the other hand, if what you mean by reporters “dig[ging] up information”, you mean they should repeat, verbatim, whatever public figures say and let the audience “decide” what to think about it, that is not journalism; that is stenography.

My comment was in response to Edwin above as to whether they aren’t allowed to “oppose” adults having sex with kids.

My point is that they should dig up and expose adults who have been having sex with children by reporting on it. This is what WP did. That is fine.

“Opposing” is a loaded word and for simplistic people you are either opposing or in favor. Journalists need to stay above that. There is a critical distinction between opposing and reporting. The latter describes an action. The former provides a motivation for action.

In the simple case of sexual allegation that isn’t as controversial, one might conflate opposing and reporting without losing much in context because in theory the society is against the practice. But when you have political ideologies involved, the distinction becomes very important.

When NYT exposes a lie by digging up facts, it is fine. But it isn’t in the business of “opposing” liars. The allegiance is to truth and intellectual honesty and hence that digging up.

Unfortunately, the audience tries to outsource the crusades against liars and opposition to liars to journalists which should be their own responsibility to do so for the context based on the information that has been presented.

Not making that distinction as part of best practices in journalism is why media gets labeled as biased and partisan anytime one side gets unfavorable news about their side that is interpreted as the media being against/opposing them.

WSJ tried to make such a distinction in refusing to label Trump as a liar with what seemed like a tortuous explanation. The problem with WSJ isn’t that they tried to make that distinction, but they have not been intellectually honest about that distinction as a matter of principle rather than one of convenience for supporting “their guy”.

Edwin Mix says:

If a politician says 1+1=3, a reporter should not be obligated to say “opinions vary.”To do so is bias in favor of dishonesty.

Citizen Alan says:

It’s worse than that. As far as I can tell, if a republican says 1 + 1 = 3, the New York Times will say that “opinions differ.” If a Democrat says 1 + 1 = 3, the times will say ” the entire Democratic party is either innumerate, being bribed through campaign donations to lie about basic math, or both.” Both lies and statements of ignorance by Republicans are normalized, well the times will cease any opportunity to paint Democrats in the worst possible light.

Citizen Alan says:

Ahem, “seize.”

Arundo Donax says:

Like the NFL protests, this issue isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about a private employer limiting potentially damaging speech by employees, which employers are allowed to do. Times writers cannot pretend that their tweets on public issues, and the followers they attract, are unrelated to their jobs. Baquet’s policy is legal, reasonable and not unusual for the private sector.

Too many strawmen here. No one has claimed this is a free speech issue. And no one has claimed the tweets have nothing to do with their job.

In fact, it is the opposite. The tweets by individual journalists ARE part of their job and used as tools by media companies to grab mindshare. So, journalists haven’t been prevented from tweeting.

As you pointed out corporations indeed have the right to place any restrictions on such job related tweets. But that doesn’t imply all such restrictions are necessarily good for business or reasonable.

Journalists shouldn’t be compared to employees in other companies whose job does not require them to tweet and companies can indeed completely ban them on anything that reflects on the company. The journalists are more like the marketing and PR wing of the company whose job also entails participating in social media as part of corporate strategy.

So, the issue here is what guidance the company can provide on what and how they should treat.

As the article correctly points out Dean’s ban on anything that may be seen as partisan is ill-defined and so ill-advised. As I have suggested above, Dean could have focused on guidance on the style of tweeting (unnecessary sarcasm, cynicism, snark, direct attacks on people, combativeness, etc) which might make their fan base happy but risks the corporate image of being biased.

Instead the rules seem to indicate even the substance of such tweets is discouraged because it would be interpreted as partisan. This is bad corporate policy if it is indeed the case as has been pointed out in the article. It is like the corporate equivalent of political correctness because you might offend somebody with the content rather than style.

For a lot of matters, why read either one? Both have pretty much doubled down on the Putin Did It bullshit, for example. (And, no, I’m nowhere near a Trump backer; I’m an independent left-of-Dems leftist.)

Charles Wilson says:

A choice between the New York Times and the Washington Post is a choice between Iraq and Syria.

Charles Wilson says:

You people only listen to yourselves, and to your friends on the two coasts. You HATE the rest of this country, and guess what? The rest of this country is onto you. It really doesn’t much matter what you and your shrinking group say to each other. Your media are going out of business anyway, so you might as well fire off all your rockets and see where they land.

I say the foregoing not as a Trump supporter. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t say it as a high-school educated failure. I have a graduate degree from one of the top three business schools in the world. I don’t say it as someone who’s ignorant of the pressures faced by legitimate media. I was a reporter for more than a decade before going on to greener pastures.

I say it as an American who no longer trusts anything you diseased, bizarre group of people try to tell me. You adamantly refuse to even present a facade of giving a damn not just about us, but about yourselves, your enterprise and your country.

You have lost the trust and credibility without which you and your endeavor simply cannot survive. You are a disgrace to yourselves, your country, and to everything we hold dear. You nauseate and disgust me, and I am very far from alone. In short: Go to hell, and take your friends with you.

You will get one more opportunity to spread your hatred across my online home, and then I will start killing your posts when I find them in the back end. I think this is more than reasonable. Normally for posters like you, you will delight in the recognition the proprietor has just given you — like any troll — and “spend” your freebie right away in a savage comeback to this post. And that will be that.

Baquet’s corporate aspirations to a serious, sober tone and affect are merely attending to the window dressing. If the Times wishes to maintain real credibility, it needs to think about what is true, not about what is seemly. A few thoughts here https://medium.com/@crowdedfalafel/savage-fool-150672827101

Andre Aubin says:

I agree with what the Times has done. In fact, I think many organizations are going to retreat from using social media as much as they do now. Not completely. That’s impractical. I’ll admit my bias. I am not on social media. I refuse to watch any TV news. I have realized our times require focus, not mass consumption. I am zeroing in on outlets where I will learn something I don’t know already. The answer is simple. Consuming information through social media is the equivalent of eating at a chain restaurant. The menu will be universally the same at every joint. You find yourself eating the same food, having the same options, and there is no unique taste. What they produce is eyed more towards what the other guys are doing. I offer this clip I heard yesterday from On the Media. They review what they think a year after winter arrived and how they will operate moving forward. Bob Garfield remarks he has stopped reading many sources because he realized he knew what they were going to say before he even read them. He rightfully concluded he doesn’t want his listeners to turn him off because they know, in advance, what he is going to say. Over time, if NYT reporters are tweeting thoughts and opinions all the time, readers will conclude it’s a waste of time to bother with the paper at all. For the last year we have been infoxicated on too much sugary drink. The wise know when it’s time to put the glass down and dry out.

http://www.wnyc.org/story/12-months-later-brooke-and-bob-covering-trump

Paul Basken says:

No, no, no… There’s a lot of problems with news organizations and reporters selling their souls for access — that’s a huge huge problem — but this absolutely is not an example of that. The point here is that a reporter can have thoughts, but that people come to the NYT or any other responsible news outlet because it gives them thoughts plus reporting… If Glenn or any other reporter feels that a particular Trump tweet is worthy of explanation, then he should do what any good reporter does, which is to report the tweet in context with relevant and responsible analysis. There’s plenty of people on Twitter ready to bleat out their own personal opinion as fast as it takes to type it, and we will never lack for that. But a responsible news outlet that checks and verifies first is a priceless national treasure, not to be trivialized just because some other newspapers or some other reporters have found “eyeballs” and “followers” by competing to out-snark the next guy.

Comments on Pressthink used to be an advancing of the theme presented, but these lack the dignity of that sort of argument. They qualify as defensive and sophomoric ad hominem speech, and their only contribution to the matter is to validate the crisis that engulfs America.

In attempting to provide balance with today’s White House, the Times is instead giving legitimacy to fallacy, which pulls the rug out from under truth. We cannot survive under such circumstances, and I salute Professor Rosen for the passion and skill with which he pursues the subject.

Charles Wilson says:

The New York Times hasn’t provided balance or objectivity, and that degradation didn’t start with its casting itself as Trump’s political opposition. It’s outright laughable and truly delusional for anyone to suggest that the New York Times is somehow “balanced.” Those days are very long gone.

Thornton Hall says:

The through-line that connects what the New York Times does in general, and what certain NYT reporters do in particular, is a bizarre misunderstanding of human behavior.

The most obvious thing one can conclude about Dean Baquet is that he did not study psychology or anthropology.

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