Three days ago I reported about the decade-old tweets of New York Times senior staff editor Tom Wright-Piersanti, who when younger issued a spate of anti-Semitic and anti-Indian tweets that were pretty vile. Although another Times writer had been fired for tweets just as bad, the paper also decided not to fire Sarah Jeong, a senior tech editor who also wrote a fair few bigoted tweets. (Her apology came with the excuse that she was just responding in a humorous way to the attacks she’d received as a “woman of color.”)
At any rate, I didn’t feel strongly about whether the NYT should fire Wright-Piersanti, but they certainly should let us know what they think about the issue. Now they have—twice. First, the paper’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, issued a statement, and the paper also has a long article on today’s site. Both pieces are in the screenshots below, and you can read them by clicking on the shots.
It’s sort of ironic that the response of the paper is to argue (correctly) that the attacks on Wright-Piersanti are part of a right-wing campaign by “Trump allies” to discredit the paper by finding a history of bad behavior of its writers. (This campaign is apparently orchestrated by Arthus Schwartz, a friend an “informal advisor” to Trump.) And of course it’s news to show that the Right is going after Times writers. But this isn’t Watergate: at least so far, there is no known involvement of Trump or anybody in government. In other words, the paper is beefing that it’s being victimized by the same sort of tactics used by the Authoritarian Left to discredit its enemies, even though the paper itself is slowly joining the authoritarian Left.
The reason for the attack from the Right is presumably because the paper has been a constant annoyance to Trump and his minions. And that’s almost certainly true, but if the discrediting of the writers is also true, then I lose some sympathy for the Times‘s beefing. But of course a campaign to discredit the paper, conducted by people on the Right close to the President, clearly is news. It would be even more newsworthy if what the Right dug up on the Times were lies. But they apparently aren’t.
Well, read the statement and the article:
Sulzberger couches this in somewhat apocalyptic terms given that no involvement of Trump or government employees has been found. He also emits a lot of self-praise for the paper.
We published an article today revealing a coordinated campaign by President Trump’s allies to attack hundreds of journalists in retaliation for coverage of the administration. This unprecedented campaign appears designed to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with independent news organizations that have asked tough questions and brought uncomfortable truths to light.
The New York Times, which has distinguished itself with fearless and fair coverage of the president, is one of the main targets of this assault. Unable to challenge the accuracy of our reporting, political operatives have been scouring social media and other sources to find any possibly embarrassing information on anyone associated with The Times, no matter their rank, role or actual influence on our journalism. Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.
This represents an escalation of an ongoing campaign against the free press. For years the president has used terms like “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to demonize journalists and journalism. Now, the political operatives behind this campaign will argue that they are “reporting” on news organizations in the same way that news organizations report on elected officials and other public figures. They are not. They are using insinuation and exaggeration to manipulate the facts for political gain.
The statement goes on, lauding the paper and its writers for “braving this type of pressure daily to bring essential information to the public.”
Is this worthy of a statement from the editor? Who knows? It’s worth noting that the statement contains no specifics about the attack (the news piece does), and fails to mention Tom Wright-Piersanti, though the article below notes that “The Times said it was reviewing the matter and considered the posts ‘a clear violation of our standards’.”
But Sulzberger does say this, without giving specifics:
But I also want to be clear: No organization is above scrutiny, including The Times. We have high standards, own our mistakes and always strive to do better. If anyone — even those acting in bad faith — brings legitimate problems to our attention, we’ll look into them and respond appropriately. It is imperative that all of us remain thoughtful about how our words and actions reflect on The Times, particularly during this period of sustained pressure and scrutiny. We all play a part in upholding our commitment to “give the news impartially, without fear or favor.”
Fair enough. Let’s see what they do with Wright-Piersanti.
The much longer article in today’s paper:
An excerpt from the article:
WASHINGTON — A loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists.
It is the latest step in a long-running effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to undercut the influence of legitimate news reporting. Four people familiar with the operation described how it works, asserting that it has compiled dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.
The group has already released information about journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times — three outlets that have aggressively investigated Mr. Trump — in response to reporting or commentary that the White House’s allies consider unfair to Mr. Trump and his team or harmful to his re-election prospects.
Operatives have closely examined more than a decade’s worth of public posts and statements by journalists, the people familiar with the operation said. Only a fraction of what the network claims to have uncovered has been made public, the people said, with more to be disclosed as the 2020 election heats up. The research is said to extend to members of journalists’ families who are active in politics, as well as liberal activists and other political opponents of the president.
It is not possible to independently assess the claims about the quantity or potential significance of the material the pro-Trump network has assembled. Some involved in the operation have histories of bluster and exaggeration. And those willing to describe its techniques and goals may be trying to intimidate journalists or their employers.
But the material publicized so far, while in some cases stripped of context or presented in misleading ways, has proved authentic, and much of it has been professionally harmful to its targets.
And apparently the campaign has hit home, for what’s below sounds like ideology (or rancor) bleeding into the news:
The campaign is consistent with Mr. Trump’s long-running effort to delegitimize critical reporting and brand the news media as an “enemy of the people.” The president has relentlessly sought to diminish the credibility of news organizations and cast them as politically motivated opponents.
Journalism, he said in a tweet last week, is “nothing more than an evil propaganda machine for the Democrat Party.”
Well, consistent with Trump’s behavior, perhaps, but the White House denied that Trump or anyone in the White House knew about this campaign. If that’s true (and who knows?), then the two paragraphs above are not journalism, but part of a rancorous media war between the NYT and the President. And this, too, seems more like editorializing than news—and remember this is a news piece:
The operation has compiled social media posts from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and stored images of the posts that can be publicized even if the user deletes them, said the people familiar with the effort. One claimed that the operation had unearthed potentially “fireable” information on “several hundred” people.
. . . “Two can play at this game,” he [Sam Nunberg, a former aide to Trump and friend of Schwartz] said. “The media has long targeted Republicans with deep dives into their social media, looking to caricature all conservatives and Trump voters as racists.”
But using journalistic techniques to target journalists and news organizations as retribution for — or as a warning not to pursue — coverage critical of the president is fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power.
“If it’s clearly retaliatory, it’s clearly an attack, it’s clearly not journalism,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who was the executive editor of The Post from 1991 to 2008. Tension between a president and the news media that covers him is nothing new, Mr. Downie added. But an organized, wide-scale political effort to intentionally humiliate journalists and others who work for media outlets is.
But who pretends that this campaign is “journalism”? What has happened is that the Right, stung by the paper’s coverage of Trump, has used the playbook of the Left to discredit reporters. Who cares if it’s journalism of the Times stripe? And, anyway, doesn’t the Times want to know about the history of its writers? After all, they’ve never said that such histories are irrelevant to the credibility of the writers; and they even apologized for what Sarah Jeong tweeted.
To be fair, if Trump or anyone in government is conducting a campaign against the press, I’d deem that clearly wrong, and an attempt to intimidate the free press that’s necessary in a democracy. In fact, Trump has been trying to discredit the liberal media from day one, and that’s wrong, too. But this may be an independent action of Trumpies, in which case I find it harder to criticize, especially if real information about the writers—information that’s useful to know—comes out.
I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, but I do find it ironic that the main journalistic organ of the Left is beefing about being a victim of tactics perfected by the Left: demonizing people by digging through their social-media history.