NY Times' latest hire: These tweets weren't racist, they were 'counter-trolling' (Update: The Verge)

There are two things going on here (at least). First, the NY Times has hired someone with a history of objectionable tweets. Second, people on the right are upset that the rules never seem to apply to the left the way they do to the right. Let’s start with the tweets first.

The NY Times just hired a journalist named Sarah Jeong to be a part of their editorial board. I read a couple of Jeong’s pieces at her former site, the Verge, and they were well-written and somewhat interesting. She seems plenty capable so I don’t think that’s an issue. But soon after her hiring was announced, a bunch of old tweets were dredged up from a few years ago in which she says some fairly awful things about “white people.”


In response to this problem, the NY Times released a statement backing her:

So it sounds as if the Times knew about these tweets before hiring her. Jeong herself posted a couple of legitimately disgusting and racist tweets she had received and said she was “counter-trolling” people like this “as satire.”

The NY Times’ explanation that she was “imitating the rhetoric of her harassers” sounds like 200 proof BS to me as does her claim this was satire. First, the tweets aren’t all replying to other people. Second, the tweets are spread over a span of several years. Third and most importantly, other people behaving like racist trolls is not an excuse for behaving like a racist troll. Someone who makes a living writing about social media probably ought to know that. You are responsible for what you say, regardless of what someone else said. Maybe, once or twice, you get carried away by anger but not for 3 years at random intervals.

Anyway, you’ll be shocked to learn that this has already turned into a pitched left vs. right battle with people on the left claiming you can’t be racist toward white people and the right noting that conservatives have been fired for less. Honestly, issues like this are so easy to navigate for many people on the left:


The right is actually showing a lot of diversity of opinion in reaction to this, everything from calls for her firing to calls to outright ignore the calls for her firing. Here’s Kevin Williamson’s take:

I assume that the editors of the Times knew exactly who and what Jeong was when they hired her. If not, then it isn’t Jeong who needs to be fired — it’s the negligent people who hired her.

If, on the other hand, the Times is more or less satisfied with Jeong, then it should resist the social-media mob campaign to have her dismissed. It is up to institutions to hold the line against mass hysteria and the mob mentality of social media. I don’t know much of anything about James Gunn, the director fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise for making a bunch of ghastly jokes, but I do know that Marvel Studios can and should say: “We’ll hire who we want.” Marvel and the New York Times have the resources and the standing to stand up to this kind of social-media scalp collecting: All they need is the guts. I hope the Times has enough. Berkeley didn’t. ABC didn’t. Google didn’t. A few book publishers I can think of haven’t.

My own take is somewhere closer to the middle. I was against firing James Gunn and also against firing James Damore. So I’m not saying what I say next to fit in with any mob or to defy them either. This is my own view.

The NY Times can, of course, hire who they like, but Sarah Jeong is responsible for her own tweets. She can claim they were satire but I don’t think they are that distant from her real views. Tom Maguire highlighted this passage from a 2014 conversation about race:

Sarah: I find it really hard to phrase my next point (which might indicate that it’s just not a good point). But mainstream media has an allergy to talking about (current, existing, everywhere-in-society-not-just-in-the-South-or-Neo-Nazi-circles) white supremacy. That idea that white supremacy and anti-blackness are at the foundation of American society is a very familiar notion to people who spend time reading about race. But for everyone else, “post-racial” rhetoric is the dominant mode of thinking.

Yes, talking about racism and discrimination against Asian Americans is extremely weird without broaching how the model minority myth has been used as a weapon against both black and brown people (and, let’s not forget, non-East Asian AAPIs). But it would also be weird, in such a mainstream outlet, to not only broach the unfamiliar (to its audience) topic of Asian American discrimination, but also simultaneously throw this bomb about how all races and ethnicities in America are defined relative to anti-blackness.

Can a 101 piece about Asian Americans, aimed at a mainstream white audience, actually successfully encompass the issue of anti-blackness? …I want to say yes, but the thought of actually trying to write that piece makes me want to run away screaming.

That’s certainly a much more nuanced take but it’s not completely distinct from the sentiments in her “counter-trolling” tweets about white people. One is thoughtful and verbose and one is crude and terse, but it’s actually hard for an outsider to know which is more revealing of the truth.

I don’t ever want to be part of a mob pushing for someone to be fired because mobs make people dumb. But I do understand why people on the right find the double-standard and reflexive defensiveness of the left extremely frustrating. There is almost nothing, it seems, that someone on the left can say that won’t result in the left a) blaming the right and b) giving it a pass on the person’s word alone that they didn’t really mean it. When someone on the right goes trolling or says something that might hint obliquely at animus toward some group, the left has no room for nuance and can be vicious in prosecuting the case that their target must be punished for sins real and imagined. Sarah Jeong shouldn’t become another victim of the mob but she also shouldn’t be given a pass on really disgusting online behavior that bespeaks poor judgment.

Update: The Verge, the site Jeong was hired away from has weighed in and it’s awful:

Since announcing her new job with The New York Times, a widespread campaign of harassment has targeted Verge reporter Sarah Jeong for a number of tweets she wrote years ago. Many of those now reacting to these tweets have intentionally taken them out of context, and she has since received an unrelenting stream of abuse from strangers on the internet…

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste their time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

There’s not one word in this screed about the content of Jeong’s tweets, other than to say they were taken out of context. The only context offered is a link to Jeong’s tweet above.

What’s missing is any acknowledgment that trolls and harassers looking to get people fired are not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. Not even close. And yet this whole statement basically boils down to: Don’t waste time taking these awful mobs on the right seriously as if there is no other kind to worry about.

They seem to have missed that Jeong’s whole excuse is that she was “counter-trolling,” i.e. acting like a left-wing troll online. A little hint of self-awareness that there is a broader problem here would go a long way. Left-wing mobs have done quite frequently in the past and will surely do it again in the future. I sincerely wonder if anyone at the Verge is aware of how utterly blinkered they sound.

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