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.
UPDATE, Jan. 2, 2018
There is a new publisher for the New York Times: Arthur Greg Sulzberger. In his inaugural note to readers he declares his allegiance to usual gods:
The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.
What he does not do in this short note is say anything like, “objectivity is our highest virtue,” or “we must prove to everyone how neutral we can be,” or “we must be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover…” The whole question of how Times people appear to those in power does not come up— and for good reason. Because it is not fundamental. Independence, accuracy, fairness, courage: these are basic. “If our journalists are perceived as biased…” (that’s a problem) is not basic.
A remarkable but true fact. Current policy of the New York Times considers it a problem if people in the White House perceive bias in the social media postings of Times journalists who, say, review books or cover science, but it is not a problem if the social media staff trolls the core readership of the Times on Twitter.