NYT publisher warns: Right-wingers are combing through our staff's social media posts for embarrassing material

Go figure that the media should enjoy a special exemption from having its public comments scrutinized, according to the media.

It’s for the rest of the world, I guess, to navigate our modern social-media hellscape in which every intemperate and loutish comment lives forever and is grounds for a public-shaming campaign that might result in one being fired or threatened with death.

If righty activists were blazing a trail in digging through old Twitter archives of political enemies as a form of information warfare, I’d be more sympathetic to the complaint. American politics is already more cutthroat than it should be; no need to introduce some groundbreaking new method of personal destruction. If the activists were doing more than looking for public comments by reporters, like trying to doxx them, I’d be very sympathetic to their targets. But the only thing the people involved are guilty of so far, as the NYT acknowledges in a news story about this, is replicating the cancel-culture M.O. that outfits like Media Matters have been using for years. When Fox News personalities complain about Media Matters dumpster-diving on the Internet for “problematic” comments they made years ago, the response is always the same: You said/wrote these words, knowing they’d be public. They didn’t stick a microphone through your bedroom window to eavesdrop. It’s fine if you want to repent now, but we’re all accountable for our public utterances.

Except, again, the staff at the New York Times.

[Conservative o]peratives 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…

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,” [Sam Nunberg] 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.

Do reporters at the New York Times believe they’re not “people in positions of power”?

The press has legitimized social-media spelunking to embarrass people whose social and political views are far less culturally influential than editorial staff at the New York Times. Age is no defense either: Kyler Murray got dinged for tweets he sent when he was 14. Yet Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger can barely contain his indignation in this note to Times staff:

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.

Calling out reporters for their social-media posts isn’t an attack on the free press, it’s the same sort of “accountability” lefties practice against Fox News routinely. If right-wing operatives uncover a bunch of racist/sexist/prejudiced public statements by staff at a newspaper that purports to be a watchdog for those same sins in other powerful people, then it’s not the operatives who’ll be guilty of undermining public faith in journalism. It’s the Times’s own employees. Even if the NYT is right in insinuating that Trump or his cronies are behind this, hoping to lash out at the Fake News Media, public statements remain fair game. And in other circumstances the Times agrees: It had no reservations about demoting Jonathan Weisman, one of its top D.C. editors, recently when a pair of tweets he sent about progressive women politicians rubbed lefties the wrong way. Management wasn’t willing to trust Weisman to be a fair broker on politics to the same extent after he sent those tweets than they were before. Why should other public statements be different?

The potential problem with a tactic like this isn’t that it’s bad to deep-dive on a reporter’s social-media posts, it’s that some enthusiasts might take their zeal to the next level by crossing the line into doxxing and harassment. Remember, a perennial cancel-culture target like Tucker Carlson has had left-wing fanatics turn up outside his home and terrorize his wife. The point of cancel culture is that certain “mainstream” commentators are actually unfit to participate in the public square; once you digest that belief, it must be tempting to try to push them out of the square through increasingly aggressive methods. If nothing else good comes of this, maybe the media’s newfound discomfort with the tactic will lead ultimately to less use of it on both sides.

Exit question: Does anyone at the Times ever actually get fired for their outre utterances or behavior? Glenn Thrush, Sarah Jeong, and Weisman are all still on staff, aren’t they? Once again, the rules of accountability are different for members of the media clergy than they are for others.

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