from the get-off-my-lawn dept
On any given day you can find a stellar array of phenomenal reporting in the pages of the New York Times. On any other day you can also find a rotating crop of terrible gibberish, from COVID coverage that large swaths of the medical community say borders on journalistic malpractice, to numerous examples of “view from nowhere” reporting that often normalizes and amplifies authoritarian rhetoric and its harms.
You can also routinely find smug, tone-deaf editors and columnists who have no idea how the Internet works and utterly despise public interaction — something made abundantly evident by the paper’s long-criticized 2017 decision to get rid of its public editor.
Last week, NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet sent an internal memo to staffers that issues new guidance on how reporters should or shouldn’t use Twitter. The missive is crafted to appear largely harmless, making it clear that using Twitter is now “purely optional for Times journalists,” while urging reporters to “meaningfully reduce how much time you’re spending on the platform.”
But then Baquet makes it clear that the Times will also be dramatically boosting the amount of time company editors spend policing Times reporters’ opinions on the platform, especially when it comes to criticizing the work of the thousands of other Times reporters, many of whom (especially on the opinion side) traffic in absolute gibberish in dire need of informed criticism:
I want to emphasize that your work on social media needs to reflect the values of The Times and be consistent with our editorial standards, social media guidelines and behavioral norms. In particular, tweets or subtweets that attack, criticize or undermine the work of your colleagues are not allowed. Doing so undercuts the reputation of The Times as well as our efforts to foster a culture of inclusion and trust.
Masthead editors, department heads and our Standards department will pay close attention to how all Times journalists use social media to ensure it is in line with our social media guidelines.
This is fairly in line with the way that both the Times and the Washington Post editorial leadership generally treat Twitter. As in, mostly an enemy and a problem. Both papers have made it repeatedly clear that they see reporters sharing honest opinions on Twitter as a threat to the integrity of their reporting. As if reporters are utterly incapable of separating hyperbole and opinion from fact.
Yet a lot of the same reporters who share this viewpoint made careers building up brands by blogging in the early days of the Internet, and now literally believe journalists on Twitter should be muzzled. This level of disdain goes a lot deeper than just being mad because reporters speak their minds on Twitter.
As journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis notes, major league newspaper editors often misunderstand (or simply despise) Twitter’s function as a democratic feedback mechanism for the actual public. And in demonizing it and encouraging reporters to engage with it less, NYT editors are showcasing how they don’t understand how Twitter, journalism, or the Internet actually works in 2022:
As in, Twitter isn’t some monolith that threatens the Times authority. It’s a public forum in an era when news isn’t just Walter Cronkite talking at you via an asymmetrical bullhorn. Journalists now build brands and engage with a wide diaspora of human beings online, many of which lack much of a voice in the everyday realities that Manhattanites like Baquet and other NYT editors operate.
So, unsurprisingly, when social media restrictions are imposed by papers like the New York Times or Washington Post, there’s ample evidence that they aren’t really applied consistently (pdf, embedded below).
This fear and dismissal of Twitter is fairly in line with the Times’ historic problems in other arenas of Internet-related policy, like the paper’s failure to have its reporters’ backs when Gamergate-style, bad faith attacks percolate online. Taylor Lorenz, a former NYT reporter, had this to say in a since deleted Tweet (possibly because her new editors at the Washington Post also don’t much like honest opinions either):
“The issue w/ NYT is that they consistently buy into bad faith attacks online and punish their journalists when they’re subject to gamergate style smear campaigns. The masthead editors are more obsessed w/ twitter than the majority of the newsroom, stalking down employees every reply. Saying they’re going to police that even *more* is counterproductive, damaging to journalists, especially those who need to use the internet for reporting.”
This is a massive, storied institution purportedly dedicated to the truth whose editors frequently make it clear they don’t understand how things like brigading, trolling, or other tricks of the surging authoritarian right actually function online. That’s a big problem for the challenges of the coming decade.
Old school, generally affluent, white, and male editors with any measure of power simply adore the asymmetrical old timey times, where public input and opinion was carefully culled via a curated process of letters to the editor (it’s why the same sect is extremely keen on killing off the long, unfairly demonized news comment section).
But if you’re a journalist trying to survive an absolutely brutal market dominated by incompetence and greed, Twitter is absolutely essential in building a personal brand (again a concept also not coincidentally routinely and ignorantly mocked by wealthy, establishment journalists).
Countless journalists aren’t paid a functional living wage or benefits by the flailing U.S. media sector. Enter the Twitter engagement to newsletter subscription model, which is simply how things work now. That’s both a good thing (greater exposure and opportunities for reporters free of large company control), and a sometimes a bad thing (lots of trolling contrarians hunting engagement bucks at any price).
A lot of the anger a certain subset of older successful journalists have toward Twitter isn’t actually about Twitter. It’s about losing status in a more democratized information environment. It’s about losing control over employees who now have more opportunities and greater ownership of their own work.
But a lot of this anger is also simply driven by the fact a lot of these folks don’t like interacting with the actual public. If you’re an insular and insufferable opinion columnist with hugely unpopular opinions, of course you’re not going to appreciate a new information ecosystem where the public has more power.
As major outlets killed off comment sections, most outsourced any remaining engagement with the outlet to social media. Many now want to dismiss the importance of social media. Perhaps, combined with the New York Times‘ decision to kill off its public editor — its most meaningful interface with the actual public — you might be noticing a bit of a trend that has nothing to do with Twitter.